“The approaches I was taught early on in examining the built environment did not take into account much of the mundane – and hidden – machinations that I saw in the ‘real’ world.”
For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with Catherine Flinn. Catherine’s work focuses on the post-war redevelopment of Britain’s cities with a particular interest in the economics of the reconstruction period. She has just completed a spell as a lecturer at the University of Westminster.
What is your background?
Multi-disciplinary! I started as a history major at Berkeley but was swept off my feet by a course in the College of Environmental Design and I changed my major to Landscape Architecture. They had a “minor” in History of the Built Environment so I didn’t bail out on history entirely. After a year working for SOM (American architects in London) I started a diploma in garden history and conservation at the AA (Architectural Association). I then completed an MSc in History of Architecture at the Bartlett (UCL). But academia wasn’t right for me then, even though I originally aimed for a PhD. So I spent a long time in various roles in the design profession (landscape/architecture/planning) and learned a huge amount about how the built environment is shaped. But I couldn’t stay away from history, particularly political, and decided to have another go – this time combining all my expertise and interests. I did an MA at Oxford Brookes then went back for the PhD. My supervision was in history, with planning as the secondary.
“I spent a long time in various roles in the design profession… and learned a huge amount about how the built environment is shaped.”
What led you to choose your subject matter?
I read Maureen Waller’s London 1945: Life in the Debris of War and found it fascinating. She had included an epilogue about how research was needed around reconstruction and planning for the future city. That was my inspiration and it dovetailed perfectly with my previous research and work experience work too, happily!
Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?
I am so multi/inter-disciplinary that I rarely find historians I aim to emulate (but having said that there are of course many many many histories I’ve not yet read!). My supervisors are very inspirational (Glen O’Hara and Steve Ward), and probably Martin Daunton too, though my mind boggles at how he has accumulated all that knowledge and managed to write about it so clearly (Glen and Steve too in many respects!). I’m also inspired by any writing that approaches its topic from a huge variety of angles, because the real world is infinitely complex itself.
What do you hope that readers take away from your work?
“I’m always telling students ‘nothing happens in a vacuum!’…”
I think exactly what I’ve just said is inspirational to me. I find the toughest part of writing is to tell a coherent story that adequately explains complexities in history. So in my work I try to show that politics and economics are tremendously important while within that bigger picture the individual actors on many levels can have enormous impact. I’m always telling students “nothing happens in a vacuum!”, there is almost never a simple, black and white answer to an important question.
How has your work evolved over the course of your project?
I set out to trace a story about rebuilding after the war and was constantly surprised by what I found and by what hadn’t been written about – forcing me to dig around for answers myself! How did things happen and why, how were decisions taken, who impacted those decisions and in turn how did they impact the built environment? The more I learn the more I realise I still have to learn and discover. Research is a bottomless pit!
How has your past experience working in planning and conservation influenced your approach?
The approaches I was taught early on in examining the built environment did not take into account much of the mundane – and hidden – machinations that I saw in the “real” world. The complex relationships between local authorities and architects and engineers and transport planners and landowners and developers: so much of that felt like it was missing from histories I had read. And from a conservation standpoint I was taught early on that even buildings can’t be static, much less landscapes, so that “conservation” is a very contested term. Today people are much more aware of this as public history and heritage studies have grown enormously in recent years.
Was urban development in the UK post 1945 as radically different from urban development pre-1945 as is often popularly assumed?
“What’s different in the postwar period, for me, is the rise of new technologies and the increase in ‘experts’.”
I’m not sure it is “popularly assumed”! I suppose it depends who you read. Certainly in my work there is a great continuity from early 20th century garden cities and early planning that informed the growing profession through the 40s and 50s. What’s different in the postwar period, for me, is the rise of new technologies and the increase in “experts”. So, I’d probably say that while urban development may seem different, the war was both an interruption and a catalyst. Obviously a lot of the modernist plans that came out of the wartime period wouldn’t have been needed in the same way without the bomb damage, but the ideas weren’t necessarily brand new.
Did political and ideological decisions play any significant role in the reconstruction of post-war Britain?
From the work I have done – and there will be different answers from historians who’ve taken different approaches with different sources – I’d certainly say that political decisions were significant in reconstruction. The Attlee government struggled constantly to make decisions on how and what to prioritise, particularly economically. However – and this is where individual actions are so key – there were loads of civil servants and local authority officials all fighting for their own little corner. Ideologies seemed to get played down so appear less significant for me, because in the end it was economics that played a huge role. Just look at the rise of property development in the postwar as an example of this!
Are there any other areas of urban history that you feel could be enhanced through historians applying a more economics focused approach?
“…I can’t do history without some awareness around the economic issues of whatever I’m working on.”
I’m resisting the temptation to say that every area could be enhanced through a more economics focused approach! I know that for historians today it is not a “sexy” field. On the other hand, I can’t do history without some awareness around the economic issues of whatever I’m working on. When Richard Rogers talked about this in his keynote for the recent one-day Cities@SAS conference, I wanted to go up and hug him afterward. I often think about the fact that in my undergrad economics class at Berkeley I had a great teacher and ‘got’ the concepts, but I struggled to express myself – I was sure I had failed the final exam! It’s ironic how important a lot of what I learned as an undergraduate, and never thought I’d use again, has become a part of what I do every day. In the world we live in now, it’s hard to avoid touching on economics though I don’t think it necessarily needs to be the focus. (It occurs to me that this is a good spot to plug something I stumbled on recently and highly recommend: Ha-Joon Chang’s Economics: The User’s Guide It’s a very accessible and even fun read about how the world works.)Catherine Flinn is on Twitter and more of her work can be read on her academia.edu profile page. In 2015 she recorded a podcast for History&Policy. If you would like to read more urban historian profiles a full list is available here.