Otto Saumarez-Smith – Lincoln College, Oxford

“The architecture of the post-war period was a mixture of the humane, the beautiful, the banal, and the catastrophic.”

The latest post in my series about urban historians at work today, sees me talking to Otto Saumarez-Smith a post-war architectural historian based at the University of Oxford.

What is your background?

I studied Philosophy and Literature at Warwick as an undergraduate. Looking at architecture was a hobby, and I increasingly spent my time reading Pevsner when I should have been reading Eliot or Kant. When I left university I thought I wanted to be an architectural journalist, and I did quite a lot of freelance writing work, but couldn’t make the money stack up. So I applied for a Masters in Architectural History at Cambridge. During my four years at Cambridge I was taught by people from the History of Art, Architecture, Sociology, and History departments. I am now in the History faculty in Oxford. Throughout this somewhat circuitous disciplinary route, I’ve been very fortunate to have been looked after by many wonderful and generous scholars. Perhaps it’s a cliché to say so, but academic writing is always much more of a collaborative process than the finished product suggests.

“…I increasingly spent my time reading Pevsner when I should have been reading Eliot or Kant.”

What led you to choose your subject matter?

I work on British cities in the post-war period. The interest came from my hobby of looking at places and buildings. Ian Nairn was an inspiration, and I like this quote of his: ‘whereas people normally go to town centres to shop or to have a meal, I go there to read them like a detective novel, to try and unravel what has gone wrong, what has gone right, how the shape is’. That remains my ambition really – although I do it as much through archives as through urban exploration these days.

Also, I was bought up in the East End of London, and after the wonderful Hawksmoor churches, the most prominent landmarks are from the post-war period. That these were from the recent past, but nonetheless seemed almost to be from a totally foreign culture was significant – as was the sentiment that they seemed to represent a noble social commitment at odds with the present.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

I’d like to be able one day to write an essay as good as Raphael Samuel’s The Return to Brick.

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

Depends partly on the intended audience. The ambition, always, is to write with imagination and authority in a way that sympathetically attempts to reconstruct complexity of motives, and the ironies of unintended consequences. I think arguments are important too; for structure, and to help a reader, perhaps from a different discipline, see what is significant about what I’ve found in the archives.

I also admire history that is fun to read. I am tremendously happy doing what I do, so it would be a failure if I weren’t able to convey some of this sense of enjoyment and engagement.

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

I don’t find it is getting any easier, after having had a little experience. Every new project seems as daunting as the last on starting. I have my fair share of days of feeling like an imposter – and projects that grind to a halt, sometimes terminally. I tend to start each chapter or article as a fresh endeavour, trying to understand something I didn’t understand before. It would be boring if my ideas weren’t in flux. I also want to keep experimenting with different modes of history writing.

“It would be boring if my ideas weren’t in flux.”

Did modernist architecture and town planning ever have a broad popular following?

I think it is one of the major weaknesses of our understanding of this period, that we know what modernism meant to architects and planners, we know a little about what it meant to other decision makers such as politicians and developers, but we don’t know nearly enough about what it meant to the people we might define as the ‘users’. Of course this is not a homogeneous group and various buildings and places were experienced differently, but I think it would be fair to say that there was initially significant popular enthusiasm for many schemes (they were after-all often developed to be vote-winning), but that the reaction against it was significant and perhaps near pervasive. I’m on the look out for sources to understand this better. The narrative that this was all foisted upon an implacably hostile public by a sinister coterie of architects and planners is certainly inadequate.

Has your research thrown up any striking differences in the ways that the approach to the design and construction of private buildings (e.g. Oxbridge colleges) differed from the construction of public buildings (e.g. social housing or shopping precincts) in the post-war era?

Looking at different typologies has been instructive. Money and maintenance are important. People don’t like gimcrack buildings whatever the style. Damp is horrible. The architecture of the post-war period was a mixture of the humane, the beautiful, the banal, and the catastrophic.

“People don’t like gimcrack buildings whatever the style.”

Why do you think that post-war architecture and design is currently in vogue?

It is largely just a part of the natural generational swing in the pendulum of taste. The same sort of thing happened to Victorian buildings. But I think my slightly politically stimulated interest in it is not an unusual initial motive. This nostalgic political understanding doesn’t necessarily make for the best history though, and obscures as well as illuminates things about the period.

How do you think that historians can best engage with this growing area of public interest?

I think architectural historians have a particularly rich tradition of speaking to broader publics – going back at least to Ruskin. If anything it is a rather a crowded field at the moment, with a lot of hugely talented people. I’ve tended to look at spaces where the more contested aspects of modernism occurred. My PhD was on city centre redevelopment, and my new project looks at the growth of the inner city problem. I am a semi-detached supporter of the vital heritage efforts to save the architectural heritage of the period – and want to keep doing what I can for institutions like the Twentieth Century Society. But I hope my work will be read by those who are interested in the nuances it attempts to introduce into our understanding of the physical and social changes in the post-war period, and not just by concrete fanciers.

You can read more about Otto’s work on his University of Oxford Department of History profile. His academia.edu page can be found here.

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