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Tue, 26 January 2021

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'Making Dystopia': a coruscating denunciation of the cult of ugliness

'Making Dystopia': a coruscating denunciation of the cult of ugliness

Barbican Centre, London: an example of ‘brutal’ modernism | Photo: AdobeStock

3 min read

Stimulating and provocative, James Stevens Curl has produced a work of awe-inspiring scholarship

James Stevens Curl, our foremost architectural historian – whose Oxford Dictionary of Architecture is indispensable to anyone who loves buildings and wants to know more about them – has now produced a very substantial volume, running to some 550 pages, which is designed to make us aware of what devastating damage was done to the built environment in the years between the Wars and immediately after the Second World War.

It has all the punch and immediacy of the best of campaigning eighteenth century pamphlets and at the same time is an intellectually forceful work of scholarship. It is a lament for lost opportunities and a coruscating denunciation of what Stevens Curl considers a cult of ugliness which has defaced so many great towns and cities, not least in the United Kingdom, during the last century.

He proclaims that it is not a history of Modernism – which he defines as an architecture from which all ornament, historical allusion and the traditional has been expunged.

I commend this book unreservedly

The prime villains of the piece are Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Walter Gropius, though they have a multitude of disciples and third class imitators to some of whom we owe the disfigurement of historic towns and cities like Gloucester and Worcester and Lincoln. The wonderful New Town in Edinburgh, and the Georgian city of Bath, were only just saved by the creation of campaigning societies but not before the university, in Edinburgh’s case, had brutalised a wonderful part of the ‘Athens of the North’ and John Betjeman, who rode to the rescue of Bath, had penned his famous lines: 

“Goodbye to old Bath
We who love you are sorry
They carted you off by developer’s lorry.”

I commend this book unreservedly. Those who rejoice in the glory of our medieval cathedrals and parish churches and of our country houses – buildings of beauty which are a joy for ever – will be both angry and inspired. Angry at what has been done to so many of them and inspired by what remains, and what could still be done to glorify our environment. For instance, Stevens Curl writes that “much ink has been spilled over northern powerhouses” and similar slogans none of which carry great conviction and all are flavoured with short-termism…(travelling) from the River Mersey near Birkenhead to Manchester reveals not only massive dereliction, but a huge wasted resource providing a great opportunity for imaginative development.”

He argues that the great Manchester Ship Canal “cries out to be considered as the spine of a vast linear city, linking Birkenhead and Manchester: the expanded waterway would be properly embanked and connected to a comprehensive linear public transport system”.

Forget garden bridges, and even a bridge over the Irish Sea, and transform instead what has become a depressing and degenerating urban sprawl and create in its place something that can make those who live in 2120 rejoice at the vision of their ancestors.

Now there’s a real challenge to transform the Boris slogan of “build, build, build” into something of tangible and permanent worth.

Lord Cormack is a Conservative peer and Life President of The House magazine

Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism is published by Oxford University Press



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