Concretopia: a Journey around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain
Old Street (February 2012)
Was Britain’s postwar rebuilding the height of midcentury chic or the concrete embodiment of Crap Towns? John Grindrod decided to find out how blitzed, slum-ridden and crumbling austerity Britain became, within a few short years, a space-age world of concrete, steel and glass.
On his journey he visits the sleepy Norfolk birthplace of Brutalism, the once-Blitzed city centre of Plymouth, the futuristic New Town of Cumbernauld, Sheffield’s innovation streets in the sky, the foundations of the BT tower, and the brave 1950s experiments in the Gorbals. Along the way he meets New Town pioneers, tower block builders, Barbican architects and 1960s town planners: people who lived through a time of phenomenal change and excitement.
What he finds is a story of dazzling space-age optimism, ingenuity and helipads – so many helipads – tempered by protests, deadly collapses and scandals that shook the government. Concretopia is a funny, warm and revealing social history of an aspect of Britain often ignored, insulted and misunderstood.
It will change the way you look at Arndale Centres, tower blocks and concrete forever.
'Wonderful . . . If you’ve ever wondered who gave planning permission for the serried ranks of concrete blocks you pass on the way to work, read Concretopia and lay the foundations of a new way of looking at modern Britain.' INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY
'Charming . . . Concretopia could pleasingly be read by anyone in Britain who lives in a postwar Modernist structure and has a love-hate relationship with it. Part-travelogue, part-history, Grindrod’s account walks us through — in touchingly precise detail — the decisions that led to such buildings as the BT Tower, the Barbican, Coventry Cathedral and the blocks of New Ash . . . We don’t think of architectural beauty as key to well-being and yet, as this book shows us, it profoundly is.' ALAIN DE BOTTON, THE TIMES
'Timely and pertinent . . . Grindrod is inventive with words and frequently alights on delightful and perceptive images . . . Particularly fascinating are chapters on the rebuilding of Coventry; the development of the South Bank; the creation of the Barbican (using concrete expensively pitted by hand using pickaxes); the replacement of the Glasgow Gorbals with new estates; the hilltop city that is Park Hill, Sheffield, recently renovated; the sad demise of low-rise, family-friendly “Span” housing; the devastating 1968 collapse of the system-built tower block, Ronan Point; and the the tale of architect-developer John Poulson, who went to jail for corruption over building contracts.' SUNDAY TELEGRAPH
'A fascinating story, and Grindrod tells it well [in] easy, light prose, full of bonhomie and mercifully free of jargon' GUARDIAN
'A fascinating trawl through the highs and lows of comprehensive redevelopment . . . it's all here, from the Poulson scandal, to abandoned ring-roads and vanishing industry . . . This is a great insight into the way things turned out the way they did.' WALLPAPER MAGAZINE
'One man's journey to understand the world in which he grew up . . . Grindrod is neither nostalgic nor judgemental, but instead highlights the optimistic dreams and ambitions of the time, capturing a sense of what it was like to attempt the construction of a new world [and] describing architecture within a social and cultural context . . . This approach adds warmth and personality and makes the 450 pages inviting rather than intimidating . . . less a critical analysis than a comprehensive orientation to the people, the period and the events around which the buildings were conceived and constructed.'ICON MAGAZINE
'Gripping stuff . . . we should all (and when I say all, I really mean the people in charge) read this book to regenerate some of that earlier optimism and not make (at least some of) the same mistakes. Or you could, like me, just read these 440-odd pages for the enjoyment of recognition of your own growing up.' VIEWPORT
'An engaging and at times witty book rather than [a] dry academic tome . . . as much about social history as it is about architecture, using ordinary people’s stories to shed light on the history behind housing experiments in places like the Gorbalsand the famous “streets in the sky” of Park Hill in Sheffield' YORKSHIRE POST
'It will be clear that this is a book for the 20th Century Society and The Manchester Modernists, but let me persuade you of its far wider appeal . . . Kynaston’s latest volume, Modernity Britain, is perfectly complemented by Concretopia, a companion book equally entertaining and hugely informative.' MANCHESTER CONFIDENTIAL
'From the Norfolk birthplace of Brutalism and the once-Blitzed city centre of Plymouth, to the New Towns of Cumbernauld and Sheffield's streets in the sky, a most engaging, illustrated exploration of how crumbling austerity Britain was transformed into a space-age world of concrete, steel and glass.' BOOKSELLER
'Never has a trip from Croydon and back again been so fascinating. John Grindrod's witty and informative tour of Britain is a total treat, and will win new converts to stare in awe (or at least enlightened comprehension) at Crap towns and Boring Postcards…' CATHERINE CROFT, Director, Twentieth Century Society
'Fascinating throughout … does a magnificent job of making historical sense of things I had never really understood or appreciated . . . full of astutely-observed social detail . . . This is a brilliant book: a vital vade mecum for anyone (not just students of architecture and town planning) interested in Britain's 20th-century history' James Hamilton-Paterson, author of EMPIRE OF THE CLOUDS
'With a cast of often unsung heroes – and one or two villains – CONCRETOPIA is a lively, surprising account of how Britain came to look the way it does' Will Wiles, author of CARE OF WOODEN FLOORS
'A powerful and deeply personal history of postwar Britain. Grindrod shows how pre-fab housing, masterplans, and tower blocks are as much part of our national story as Tudorbethan suburbs and floral clocks. It's like eavesdropping into a conversation between John Betjeman, J.G. Ballard and Jonathan Meades.' LEO HOLLIS, author of CITIES ARE GOOD FOR YOU
"Brilliant. Fascinating throughout. Full of astutely-observed social detail, it’s a vital vade mecum for anyone interested in Britain's 20th century history."