A Modernist Church in the Outer Hebrides

Scotland’s Outer Hebrides aren’t a well known destination for architectural connoisseurs.

So I was surprised the other day, driving along the narrow lane that comprises the main road in the southernmost quadrant of South Uist, to be confronted by a plain, white, building; that rather resembled a pre-multiplex-single screen-cinema.

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Our Lady of Sorrows Church, Garrynamonie (author’s photograph)

Rather than being an unlikely north westerly outlet of the Rank Organisation, the structure, sited just across the road from the crofting hamlet of Garrynamonie-upon closer inspection-turned out to be a Roman Catholic church: Our Lady of Sorrows.

South Uist (population 1,818); along with the smaller neighbouring islands of Benbecula, Eriskay and Barra, are described, with complete justification, as being “the part of Scotland that the reformation didn’t reach”. This small chain of incredibly isolated islands are an example-unique in Britain outside of Ireland-of a surviving pre-reformation Roman Catholic community.

And they are, at least in outward expression, intensely Catholic communities at that. In a manner akin to Ireland, Brittany or further south in Europe the islands are watched over by a litany of carefully tended, colourful, alabasta saints statues situated in whitewashed grottos.

The islands; like North Uist their Calvinist neighbour, despite a low (and still shrinking) population are home to a large number of small chapels and churches, with each hamlet of more than a dozen houses seemingly served by some kind of place of worship. Very few of them, a quick scan of their outside notice boards reveals, have mass said their especially frequently. Yet still, like the saints statues, the communities within which they are situated, continue to diligently attend to their upkeep. A few church structures stand roofless, long ruined, but unlike in Wales or the parts of the far south-west there are no or few signs of churches being converted into residential properties.

Our Lady of Sorrows is no exception in this regard. Large by South Uist standards it is as unusual in its modernity, on a island where most churches are small, modest traditional structures, as it is striking in appearance.

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Our Lady of Sorrows’ imposing front (author’s photograph)

Designed by Richard J. McCarron (then newly qualified, it was his first commission) the church was built between 1964-5 replacing an earlier, dilapidated, structure. Due to the church’s remote location most of the building work was conducted by the parishioners themselves: a striking act of faith in of itself.

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Our Lady of Sorrows rear of the building (author’s photo)

 

In terms of appearance Our Lady of Sorrows is stark, possibly even harsh, and angular. Despite the similarities between its form and a mid-20th Century cinema and its obvious architectural debts to the modernist movement, Our Lady of Sorrows harks back as well as forwards. It is whitewashed like so many of the other local churches and its alcoves, even its angularity, recall early Christian sites, like Celtic monasteries built in the 6-7th Centuries, as much as anything constructed during the space age. In this way it’s incredibly simple form, almost like a slab of rock growing out the landscape, connotes thousands of years of Christian tradition, whilst also serving to inject a note of modernity into a landscape and a community that can seem ancient and unchanging.

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Our Lady of Sorrows top corner (author’s photograph)

Except this is not really the case. For all of South Uist’s remoteness, and the sheer proximity to nature inherent in life there, the island’s landscape, almost entirely deforested, subjected to horticulture, quarrying, fish farming and (admittedly light) demands from the tourism industry is as much of a manmade environment as anything on the mainland.

Only incorporated into Scotland in 1266, islands have always been plugged into wider networks of cultural exchange and commercial dealing. In many ways our Lady of Sorrows reflects this. Its construction indicates ways in which mid-20th Century Catholicism attempted to negotiate the demands that modernity placed upon the faith of its communicants.

Read this way Our Lady of Sorrows is a physical expression of how one small community attempted engaged with the movement for reform within Roman Catholicism that gathered pace around the time of the Second Vatican Council. This is expressed in the simplicity and lightness of the church’s form, it is as open in design as it is large and imposing. This speaks to the democratising impulses that animated Roman Catholic theological and liturgical thought at the time. It is also an impulse which finds its way into the church’s interior which is also plain and incorporates local slate and local timber.

What decoration there is, is largely locally inspired, taking on a rugged, naturalistic, Celtic, yet modern expression.

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small altar, Our Lady of Sorrows (author’s photograph)

The Stations of the Cross are expressionistic in form, arrayed abstractly and were rendered on slate from South Uist by Canon Calum McNeil, who was the priest of a neighbouring parish.

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Stations of the Cross, Calum McNeil (1965), Our Lady of Sorrows (author’s photograph)

The ceramic mural of the Sacred Heart produced by the artist David Harding is similar. Harding’s rendition of Jesus is abstract and colourful, recalling the tumult of the sea and the drama of the landscape within which the church and it community are situated.     

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Sacred Heart David Harding (1965), Our Lady of Sorrows (author’s photograph)

In terms of layout the front of the church is also open, the pews arrayed relatively informally in short rows. The fittings are equally simple and shorn of ostentation, the worship space as a whole is bathed with sunlight by two, unobtrusive, floor-ceiling height plain glass windows.

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plain glass windows, Our Lady of Sorrows (author’s photograph)

In these regards Our Lady of Sorrows is rather like hundreds of other post-war Roman Catholic churches across Britain. Churches often built to serve new estates or in slum clearance areas, part of the wide spread modernising imperative that prevailed in the middle of the 20th Century. Here’s another example (there are many more) on the excellent Sacred Suburbs website.

This said, thanks to South Uists remote location, low population density and unusual cultural and confessional history Our Lady of Sorrows is striking as an expression of how one particular and distinctive community partook in debates about modernisation and the future of religious expression. Given the number of abandoned crofts that litter the island and the modernity of the houses that most islanders live in today, it is clear that South Uist was undergoing its own form of development and modernisation at the time the church was built. The arrival of a large military base in 1958, the opening of causeways to neighbouring islands in 1961 and the creation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1965 brought new contacts and new opportunities to the island.

Just as the islanders upgraded their own homes and living arrangements so they chose to update the house of their God. The years since have not been kind to Our Lady of Sorrows, like so many flat roofed buildings of its era its roof is leaking and the damp is not proving kind to its internal structure. The Islands to, have had mixed fortunes. Increased incomes, better services, rising incomes and improving transport connections, giving today’s islanders a standard of living comparable to that of mainland Scots, but conversely also making it far easier to leave and not return.

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View from the Our Lady of Sorrows church grounds (author’s photograph)

This said, the Outer Hebrides appear to be in the midst of a series of interesting experiments that raise questions for everyone interested in how people can live better, more sustainable lives, in the 21st Century. For the church’s part, Our Lady of Sorrows was listed in 2009 as part of a major exercise to recognise, record and preserve Scotland’s modernist heritage, perhaps restoration will be on the cards? The community of South Uist remains as much on the fringes of civilisation and at the centre of debate as ever.

Catherine (Ceci) Flinn

“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.

Sam Wetherell-University of California, Berkeley

“…the houses we live in, the routes we take to work, the buildings in which we buy our coffee and our shoes, were often built by planners and architects whose political assumptions and anthropological claims have long since been deemed to be defunct.”

For the latest in my series exploring urban historians at work today, I was lucky to be able to catch up Sam Wetherell (currently at UC Berkeley, soon to be at Columbia University). He explained how politics informs his approach to exploring and attempting to re-plot our understanding of urban Britain’s recent past and boldly grappled with one of most amorphous terms in contemporary social discourse: “neo-liberal”.

What is your background?

I spent my formative teenage years living in Milton Keynes. During this time I did most of my socialising in the town’s shopping mall (now branded “thecentre:mk”), attending a comprehensive school that was formally sponsored by Yahama keyboards and living in a high density apartment complex called (wait for it) “Enterprise Lane.” In other words I have lived every word of my dissertation on neo-liberal British cities!

I half-heartedly studied History at Oxford as an undergraduate, never really latching onto a topic that I loved. Afterwards I briefly worked for the Labour Party, before spending a year on a fellowship at Harvard. After another year spent in the wilderness, working at a second hand bookstore in Boston and then, later, for an unpleasant lobbying firm in the UK, I began my PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. I completed my dissertation this year and from next semester I’ll be working as a visiting lecturer in British history at Columbia University.

“…I have lived every word of my dissertation on neo-liberal British cities!”

What led you to choose your subject matter?

I decided that I wanted to be an academic long before I decided that I wanted to be an urban historian. I’d always loved ideas and loved writing but for a long time I couldn’t work out what I wanted to study. For me there were two stages to discovering what I wanted to write about. First, I took an American urban history graduate class at Harvard with Lizabeth Cohen, which exposed me, for the first time, to people such as Jane Jacobs, Margaret Crawford, Michel De Certeau, and Mike Davis – as well the fantastic historical literature on American postwar cities (including Thomas Sugrue’s work on Detroit and Robert Self’s works on Oakland). Living in London and in Boston I was exposed to large cities for the first time and (probably naively) associated them with freedom and adulthood.

“I’ve tried to maintain a political perspective in everything that I do…”

The second important stage for me was discovering left wing politics and activism in my early twenties. In 2011 I returned to the UK after a year and a half in America to find a Conservative government in power and a sense of generalized post-2008 crisis. I became involved in groups like UK Uncut and tried to teach myself as much about economics as possible. I’ve tried to maintain a political perspective in everything that I do and it was the wedding of this new interest in cities with a new investment in politics at this crucial juncture when I was applying for graduate schools that really determined my topic and informed my last five years of scholarship.

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

Like most graduate students/early career folks I’m left trying to carve out a theoretical niche on the back of a cannon of wonderful yet radically contradictory texts. In terms of urban history my go-to texts would be Carl Schorske’s essay on Vienna, William Cronin’s Nature’s Metropolis, Lizabeth Cohen’s work on New Deal Chicago, Doreen Massey’s For Space, Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s Disenchanted Night (the greatest history book ever written?), David Harvey’s work on Paris and of course the wonderful first few chapters of Engel’s Conditions of the Working Class in England. All of these say different things at different political and theoretical registers but all would be central to any class I would teach on urban history!

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

“I’m endlessly struck by the capacity of the built environment to freeze political moments in space and project them forward.”

There’s that lovely line by John Maynard Keynes that we are all the slaves to some defunct economist. What I’d like to show in my work is how our daily lives unfold in cities and among buildings that were designed and built during times that are radically different to our own. That the houses we live in, the routes we take to work, the buildings in which we buy our coffee and our shoes, were often built by planners and architects whose political assumptions and anthropological claims have long since been deemed to be defunct. This seems obvious but I’m endlessly struck by the capacity of the built environment to freeze political moments in space and project them forward. What I love about the built environment is that it works at this meso level – between structure and agency and between high politics and spontaneous grass roots movements or individual instances of self-fashioning. Academically I hope my work allows people to periodise British history differently (escaping the endlessly rehearsed stories of 1945-51 and 1979-90). Politically I hope it offers an alternative (or at least supplementary) road map for political change – one that is isn’t trapped by the endless question of whether the left should throw its lot into the doomed process of winning un-winnable elections in a given nation state or the equally impossible challenge of forging a new hegemony or governmentality!

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

“What I found while writing my dissertation… is that each of these case studies has a prehistory that stretches back well into the twentieth century, and sometimes beyond”

My dissertation is ostensibly about the transformation of the British built environment in the last third of the twentieth century, looking at five case studies (or “pilot zones” as I call them): the enterprise zone, the national garden festival, the housing estate, the shopping centre and the business park. What I found while writing my dissertation, however, is that each of these case studies has a prehistory that stretches back well into the twentieth century, and sometimes beyond, and in each chapter I found myself writing as much about the pre-history of these spaces as about their actual emergence.

I’m loathe to say exactly how I’m going to transform the dissertation into a book, just because I know it will change along the way, but at the moment I’m hoping to incorporate this prehistory and extend the thesis into a book about British cities from the late nineteenth century to the present. In the book I want to ask how we get from the individual home/house to the vast modernist housing estate to the private gated community. Next I want to ask how you get from the individual factory enterprise to the government managed trading estate to the private, suburban business park. Finally I want to trace the development of the unplanned sprawling high street to the state-planned shopping precinct to the private, out of town megamall.

On a very general note: how have you found the experience of studying British history through a university in the USA?

I have absolutely loved my time at Berkeley, to the point where people no longer let me talk to new admits who are considering coming (because I seem too optimistic and happy – and in America that’s saying something!). While the idea of flying across the world to study the place that you set out from seemed mad (and still seems a little mad) I think there is a lot to be said for studying Britain at a distance. Almost all of my friends or colleagues know almost nothing about Britain, so you have to think on a large, global scale to make your work relevant. Furthermore you are forced to study, teach and read hundreds of books, not just  just about all of British history since 1688, but also a second field (in my case US history since European contact) too.

“…there is a lot to be said for studying Britain at a distance…you have to think on a large, global scale…”

There are definitely downsides too of course. Being forced to think big means you lose a lot of detail and sometimes end up getting excited about claims that are frustratingly self-evident to those working in Britain. I always love going to conferences and meeting other British historians working on cities and being amazed by the detail of their knowledge and how their work is made immediate and relevant by being immersed in the world that they are historicizing. Also, while the three-year programs in Britain (compared with the six-year programs in the US) feel rushed, you come out of it younger and fresher and with the job market being what it is, doing a 3 year UK PhD is less of a risk!

What alternatives were there to the “neo-liberal” city in the 1970s and 1980s and why did these alternatives fail?

This question cuts to the heart of the ceaselessly awful issue of how one defines neoliberalism. Is neoliberalism a set of policies implemented by governments in the 1970s and 80s? Or is it a hegemony or a rationality or even an epoch (like the Late Medieval period)? I think the term can be used productively to mean all of these things as long as we are clear what we mean each time we use it. I think a lot of the best theorists of neoliberalism (Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall, Wendy Brown, Pierre Dardot) would take the latter of those two definitions, and would answer your question by arguing that neoliberalism left almost no ideological room for constructing alternatives. If neoliberalism is a rationality, or a set of claims about the world that have become commonsensical, then it’s a difficult thing to oppose, act outside of and construct alternatives to.

“I think many people who are (rightly) critical of British cities today look back on this moment as a time of decent, affordable public housing, subsidized municipal transport networks, unregulated public space etc… etc… and see it as a workable alternative to the present. I’m less sure.”

For this reason I might rephrase your question to ask what the alternatives were to the privatization and securitization of space and infrastructure, and the re-orientation of cities as engines for attracting global capital and rather than providing services. The clearest alternative to this was the built environment that emerged out of late nineteenth century liberal reform and twentieth century social democracy, in other words the built forms that were transformed and re-negotiated in the late twentieth century. I think many people who are (rightly) critical of British cities today look back on this moment as a time of decent, affordable public housing, subsidized municipal transport networks, unregulated public space etc… etc… and see it as a workable alternative to the present. I’m less sure. While our present cities are a disaster, we also know that the British social democratic experiment was deeply flawed. Economically it was predicated on US Cold War spending and the residues of an increasingly repressive imperial world system. It was paternalistic and at times inhumane, a terrible place to be a woman or a person of colour. Its survival depended on an international monetary system that no longer exists. While, in the 1980s, the alternative to the neo-liberal city may have been tower blocks, trading estates, and a nationalized train network, the left now needs a bolder, more globally orientated vision. This is something Stuart Hall was arguing 30 years ago in the Hard Road to Renewal.

“One of the things I learned writing this dissertation was the extent to which the urban forms developed in the heyday of state planning went on to structure or thwart the late twentieth century city.”

I would also challenge the idea that the mid century British city “failed” as an alternative model. One of the things I learned writing this dissertation was the extent to which the urban forms developed in the heyday of state planning went on to structure or thwart the late twentieth century city. Local authorities struggled (and often failed) to price and sell individual council flats on estates, for example, because they were plugged into comprehensive, holistically planned worlds. Meanwhile the first shopping centres in Britain were state-run affairs in towns like Coventry, built to try and re-centre British cities around ideals of public space and assembly. In this sense, rather than “failing”, the social democratic city was sublimated, reconstituted and repressed.

For more about Sam and his work check out his UC Berkeley Department of History profile page and his Academia.edu profile, he can also be contacted through Twitter. For more urban historian profiles see here.

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Coventry Cathedral Tower panormamic views, taken on 3rd August by Si (User:mintchociecream). This version released into the public domina via Wikicommons on 25 Aug 2011. West view-towards Broadgate

Pictures of York’s Stonebow House Taken One January Day

Long entangled in a bizarre ownership structure that split the structure’s ownership between a private company that held the building’s lease and City of York Council and North Yorkshire County Council that shared the freehold, the fate of York’s Stonebow House has finally been sealed.

For decades decried by many in the city as an eyesore, not in keeping with York’s “historic aesthetic” and self-image, Stonebow House’s brutalist structure is in the words of one critic “one of the few proofs [in the walled city at least] that the 20th Century happened in York”. For years from the York Press’ letters page and message boards to the conversations overheard in the pubs, there has been a clamour in the city for Stonebow House to be demolished.

Now it will not be. The building and the land upon which it sits have been bought by the Wetherby based Oakgate Group who propose to comprehensively refurbish the building. Their plans, which obliterate the building’s exposed raw concrete, whilst keeping its essential form intact are doubtless not entirely to everyone’s taste. However, in the main it in principle a sensitive, low key revamp that avoids the waste of demolition and retains a key York landmark from an important period in the city’s history.

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Opened in 1964, Stonebow House was intended as a key component of the York Corporation’s long running (and still arguably incomplete) plan to comprehensively redevelop the poor quality buildings and environment in the city’s Hungate and Walmgate areas. Always poor quality, marshy land (which as Christmas’ events prove remain at the mercy of the River Foss) the area’s awful slum housing had largely vanished in favour of industrial units by the time that Stonebow House was built.

Constructed alongside the newly created Stonebow road, built to open up the city’s Hungate and Aldwark areas for redevelopment, Stonebow House-it was hoped-would act as a beacon for a newly prosperous York.

As it happened the turn to conservation, a species of postmodernism which first emerged in the later 1960s, rendered the building’s brute scale and unabashed modernity passe, even crass, within a few years of it being finished and let. Out of favour, even as far more monumentally imposing structures like the Coppergate Centre, York Barbican and the North Street Office block now inhabited by AVIVA, all of which genuflect somewhat towards the vernacular idiom, were constructed, Stonebow House took on a less flashy role in York’s civic life. In recent year it has, quite fittingly, become something of a haven for the odds, ends and misfits of York.

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Providing a home to Fibbers (which moved out in the summer of 2014) and to the Duchess, for over 20 years Stonebow House was the residence of the two venues that showcased York’s more interesting homegrown musical talent and visiting bands that would have had nowhere else to play. Two generations of indie kids, punks, goths and ravers wouldn’t have had any other venues in their somewhat geographically isolated hometown. Likewise the existence of Fibbers and The Duchess meant students at York Uni and St. John’s got a bit of a taste of the more varied and exotic music scenes elsewhere.

In a less rarefied and all to concrete way (pun fully intended) the shops and services housed in Stonebow House (the Jobcentre, Heron Foods, and York’s local independent bus company) provide vital services to the city’s poorest and most marginalised residents. Services which would otherwise struggle to find a home in the centre of one of Britain’s most expensive (but not especially high wage) cities. York’s gentrified city centre, dependent as it is on pubs, coffee shops, restaurants and boutiques is not a welcoming place for a person without personal transport. As in Paris most of the city’s bourgeoisie shop in the retail parks, dotted around the outer ring-road, miles out from the city centre, but easily accessible to North Yorkshire’s gentry, from which the city’s poorer and more marginalised residents are spatially segregated.

Considered aesthetically: the building’s exposed concrete hasn’t weathered the wind swept and bitingly cold east Yorkshire climate all that well. Likewise, there is little pretty, twee, or overtly “historic” about Stonebow House’s hard, angular form. But the same can, and has been said, about the structure and form of John Vanbrugh’s Castle Howard, and York’s worthies named a college at their university after him.

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Arguably the worst place to view the building from is from the place that most people first glimpse it. The junction, at Whip-ma-Whop-ma-Gate where Pavement becomes Stonebow. Viewed from up close, or from the structure itself, the shear swirling intricacy of the building, its geometric virtues, are abundantly apparent. The concrete staircases, striking and unusual in the way that they slot together, very different from most other British brutalist structures, recalling French, Italian or Latin American buildings of the period are especially worth seeing.

Stonebow House is also worth viewing from afar. Glimpsed from the city’s walls over on the far bank of the Ouse, just down from Micklegate Bar, its tower-soon to be converted into “luxury apartments”; looks just like a slightly squatter version of all the other steeples spread out across the city. The tower in fact has a very sympathetic relationship to the church towers that it stands in relationship to. Taken in from the side, or from the deck like car park, atop the first floor, the viewer is left with the impression that the building complements the church towers around it, especially the mighty lantern of All Saints, Pavement.

At the very least a viewer of this felicitous and deeply complementary arrangement comes across feeling that the architects of the mid-20th Century had a far more sensitive relationship with the past than they are often credited with. At the most, a more superstitious visitor might be inclined to see in the form of Stonebow House the ghostly vestige of St. Crux Pavement, an unusual 17th Century church building demolished in 1887, because its baroque styling did not meet Victorian notions of piety and decency.

British (English) School; St Crux, York, Looking from the Shambles to Pavement
The pictures below were taken by me in January 2014, whilst I was working for a magazine in York, for an article about Stonebow House that wasn’t eventually published.

If you’d like to see inside the currently deserted office block then The Press has a good gallery.  

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“Municipal Dreams”

“Most councillors are barely household names in their own household so I’d really like to speak up for all the unsung councillors… Who have laboured long and hard doing the unglamorous but essential donkey work of local government.”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I’ve been lucky enough to grab a word with John, the stalwart social historian who writes and curates Municipal Dreams. Municipal Dreams is a blog that explores the multifaceted, but generally very positive, legacy of activist local government in Britain.

What is your background?

I was brought up in a small Norfolk seaside resort and enjoyed it but I was determined to experience something urban and grittier when the opportunity arose. So I did voluntary work on a Leeds council estate during my gap year and then headed to the University of Manchester where I studied History. I’d joined the Labour Party aged 16 in 1974 and I was lucky to be able to pursue my interest in labour history in some depth at Manchester. I followed this with a PhD in the Centre for the Study of Social History at the University of Warwick. After seven years straight HE – no fees, full grant (we were a lucky generation) – I was ready for something else so I worked in a couple of roles for Norwich City Council before taking a teaching qualification. I also served as a Labour councillor for four years.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

You probably already have the answer. Firstly, there are my politics. Secondly, there’s my education. My PhD was on working-class politics in interwar Birmingham and Sheffield (I spent a lot of time in the late, lamented Birmingham Central Library so it’s great to see that as the header image for this blog) and in both – Birmingham, Tory; Sheffield, Labour – you had councils determined to use the power of the local state to serve their communities.

Since then we’ve seen the work of local councillors so traduced and the role of local government so diminished that it seemed vital to defend their record; not blindly, of course, as not everything done was wise or wonderful, but with a proper historical understanding of what was achieved and why things sometimes went wrong.

The blog has a particular focus on housing and this has become incredibly timely. We could begin writing the epitaph of council housing from 1979 but recent and proposed legislation seems determined to kill it off once and for all or, at the least, so radically reduce it to housing of last resort that it seems to me really important to defend it and to present an alternative history – far removed from contemporary caricatures – which properly celebrates its positive and transformative role in the lives of so many of our fellow citizens.

“…we’ve seen the work of local councillors so traduced and the role of local government so diminished that it seemed vital to defend their record…”

I’m aware that all this makes my work far more obviously and directly ‘political’ than that of some of your other respondents. I’d only say that, while the blog does have a clear political perspective and (I hope) message, I’m not interested in writing propaganda or polemic. It is, to my mind, precisely the nuance and rootedness of an historical approach that allows a proper and more persuasive case to be made.

Are there any historians or other writers that particularly inspire your approach to your topic?

“…‘class’ now – in always mutating forms – seems as powerful a determinant of people’s life experiences and opportunities as ever.”

Karl Marx. That may sound like a provocation but, as I think back to my formative influences and reading, I realise just how much I’ve taken from a Marxist approach – not the great man’s revolutionary aspirations and predictions, nor ever the practice of ‘actually existing socialism’, but the basic and profound insight that society and its ruling ideas are shaped (I would say ‘determined’) by the economic system of the day. Maybe this is now so commonplace a notion that our debt to Marx doesn’t need to be stated but it is an approach, I believe, that should inform the work of any social historian. And ‘class’ now – in always mutating forms – seems as powerful a determinant of people’s life experiences and opportunities as ever.

As a teenager, I devoured EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class – a wonderfully rich and humane book which added a cultural dimension to class and ideology which Marx’s more schematic approach largely neglected.

I came of age in another era, a time when labour history was in vogue and ideas of class, rather than all the multifarious identities currently celebrated, were dominant. I’ve learnt a lot from the latter but I feel a sense of loss too. I worry that current preoccupations are too fragmentary and lead us to neglect the broader realities which still shape most lives.

What kind of sources do you use to inform your work?

Basically, as I range widely, I use whatever sources are to hand and the available sources tend to shape the approach taken to a particular case-study. Council records tend to be very dry, such is the nitty-gritty of local government work, but occasionally council publications will provide a more colourful and ‘political’ account of local reforms. The local press, particularly in its hey-day, often provided rich detail on local government controversies and achievements. The architectural press is often informative on particular schemes though overwhelmingly and narrowly design-focused. Sources recording the lived experience of ‘ordinary’ lives are still too rare but very valuable where they exist. In terms of secondary sources, I’m thankful for the work of the relatively few academics working in the field and very grateful to those doctoral students who have produced fine local studies.

“…the available sources tend to shape the approach taken to a particular case-study…”

I’m grateful to various people who have written guest posts for the blog and I’d love to extend this so that it becomes a resource centre for everyone – academics and non-academics, local historians, people researching their own stories – interested in the field or with a history to share.

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

At its most basic, a renewed belief in the positive and necessary role of the state in securing a fairer and more equal society and an appreciation of the enormously constructive role played by local government over many years. This, as the consistent failure of the free market to provide decent homes for all, makes clear is most apparent in the field of housing.

“…the blog is an extended argument in favour of practical reformist politics and the slow grind of persuading people, winning elections and getting things done…”

At the very least, because I try to write to people across the political spectrum, I hope that readers come away with a more rounded and contextualised understanding of council housing – to see the ideals and ambitions which shaped it and the social and economic forces (rather than, in most cases, any inherent flaws in conception and execution) which have sometimes undercut those founding aspirations.

More generally, the blog is an extended argument in favour of practical reformist politics and the slow grind of persuading people, winning elections and getting things done – ‘instrumental’ politics rather than the ‘expressive, virtue-signalling and identity politics that is consuming many on the left at present.

Over the course of your research have you come across any recurring difficulties or challenges that municipal reformers faced?

Two connected difficulties confront municipal reformers and do so even more powerfully in the present: parliamentary sovereignty – that local government can only ever do what has been specifically authorised by Westminster, and finance – that councils have very rarely enjoyed the resources needed to execute their plans optimally. As a state and society, we have been consistently unwilling to provide the social investment needed to enable all our people to thrive. Local councillors can only ever work within this reality.

Which of the municipal pioneers you’ve written about do you think we can learn most from today?

Most councillors are barely household names in their own household so I’d really like to speak up for all the unsung councillors – of all parties – who have laboured long and hard doing the unglamorous but essential donkey work of local government.

“Labour’s election-winning manifesto in Bermondsey in 1922 proclaimed that it would ‘strive to make it a worthy home for all of us.  This is our conception of the object and purpose of local government’.”

Of course I do have my heroes – Alfred and Ada Salter in Bermondsey, George Lansbury in Poplar and the rebel councillors of Clay Cross but each were representative of a time and place and it’s hard to see their actions replicated in the present. However, I’d give a special place to Ada. Bermondsey pioneered health and housing reform – vital functions of local government – but for the Salters politics had a profoundly spiritual dimension expressed in their practical Christian socialism. Those who had created Bermondsey, in Alfred’s words, ‘did not realise that they had cut off the people from the chiefest means of natural grace. They did not appreciate the curse and cruelty of ugliness’. As a councillor and mayor, Ada established a Beautification Committee. It planted 10,000 trees and created pocket parks across the borough. In Fenner Brockway’s words, ‘Bermondsey became a place of unexpected beauty spots’.

Labour’s election-winning manifesto in Bermondsey in 1922 proclaimed that it would ‘strive to make it a worthy home for all of us.  This is our conception of the object and purpose of local government’. That – and the civic pride it speaks to – seems something to aspire to and emulate.

Conversely which do you consider the most egregiously wrong-headed or damaging?

That’s an interesting question and the easy response is to point to those councillors who oversaw the system-built high-rise debacle of the 1960s. Sometimes personal aggrandisement further tainted their judgement. T Dan Smith in Newcastle is the obvious example. And yet even here one sees an ambition to house the people and get them out of the slums and the pressures to do that from central government using ‘modern’ methods were enormous. It’s easy to criticise some of the housing schemes of the sixties and lament the loss of the old working-class terraces (though we too readily forget just how bad the slum housing of the era was). In fact, the rehabilitation drive began in the mid-sixties and some of the best council housing ever was built in the seventies so, even here, lessons were learnt.

“I’m horrified by some forms of current ‘estate regeneration’. The demolition of good homes and strong communities…”

For all that I defend local government, I’m horrified by some forms of current ‘estate regeneration’. The demolition of good homes and strong communities, as we see, for example, in Lambeth in the present (the Cressingham Gardens estate being a case in point), seems entirely wrong whatever the pressures to ‘densify’ and however justified by proponents as a means to build and finance new social housing. There’s a fine line between working a loaded system for progressive ends and complicity in that system and this, to me, oversteps the mark.

Do you see any scope for comparable local action today?

The opportunities for councils to engage in bold reform are very limited now given central government cuts and restrictions. Some councils are working imaginatively to build new social housing within the current hostile framework but it’s all necessarily legalistic and unheroic. Too often, councils are forced into unholy alliance with commercial interests and lack the acumen and clout needed to secure even the limited gains such deals are supposed to generate. We need to change central government policy and liberate local government to serve its people. And local councils must work with, be seen to genuinely represent, and mobilise their communities.

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In addition to his main blog, John also posts shorter pieces and pictures on tumblr. He can be reached via Twitter here.

 

Lauren Piko-University of Melbourne

“…there was little about Milton Keynes that seemed unusual…”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I speak to the University of Melbourne’s Lauren Piko about her interest in Milton Keynes; and what the much maligned the new town can teach us today.

What is your background?

I studied British history at the University of Melbourne as an undergraduate, yet despite the History department’s fine urban history tradition, I was very much a subcultural studies enthusiast at that time. After finishing my honours thesis in 2008 I spent a few years working in education administration in London, Bath and Melbourne, before returning to the University of Melbourne to undertake my PhD with Professor Andrew May and Dr David Nichols.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

My thesis examines the depiction of Milton Keynes in national British media and popular culture from 1967 to 1992, particularly with reference to ideas of national decline. This was specifically motivated by my experience of negotiating English urban spaces as an Australian. I moved to Milton Keynes in 2009 directly from Melbourne, knowing nothing of it other than that it was a cheap place to live while working in London. To someone who had grown up in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs, there was little about Milton Keynes that seemed unusual, and so I was taken aback by the scorn and derision directed at Milton Keynes whenever I happened to mention where I lived. I was intrigued by these tacit value judgements of “good” urban landscapes, which were somehow lost in translation to my Melbournian ears. To someone with a background in subcultural studies this set off all the requisite alarm bells about Gramscian “common sense”, and so the stage was set for me to explore this in my PhD.

“To someone with a background in subcultural studies this set off all the requisite alarm bells about Gramscian “common sense”…”

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

E.P Thompson’s “Time and Work-discipline in Industrial Capitalism” is a perfect model of the “world in a grain of sand” approach to history I find the most exciting and politically powerful. The work of Sara Ahmed, along with Stuart Hall, are also constant touchstones, for their ability to use the tiniest iterations of culture as entry points.

My supervisor Professor Andrew May has suggested in the past that there may be a specifically “Melbourne way” of doing history; a sort of Greg-Dening-esque focus on language and meaning. I think it’s very likely that my ethnographic instincts and curiosity about hidden cultural boundaries have been shaped by being based at Melbourne’s history department.

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

I hope it makes them think twice about the political implications of beliefs and ideas that they consider to be “normal”, innate, or automatic.

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

I have been constantly delighted by the range of subject material I get to cover; the realisation that I needed to go back to Lockean ideas of nationhood was a shock, but so too was needing to spend so much time listening to Cliff Richard records. I really relish following the strange journeys of source material in cultural history.

What specific challenges do you face as a historian studying a subject that is located on the other side of the world from you?

“…negotiating distance has forced me to work very efficiently and more creatively than I would have otherwise.”

My work is borne out of being an Australian in Milton Keynes, so I think it’s very appropriate to be writing this thesis from Melbourne, back to exploring the tacit language of Englishness from the outside. A substantial amount of my research was undertaken from Australia, though I was lucky to obtain funding for two on-site research trips. This meant an exhausting and frenzied workload during those two-and-a-half months! Though I would have loved to have had the luxury of losing myself for months in the archives, negotiating distance has forced me to work very efficiently and more creatively than I would have otherwise.

Do you think there are connections between the denigration of Milton Keynes and other new towns in British popular culture and wider shifts in society since the 1960s?

Absolutely. It is very much part of a wider ideological rejection that has led tower blocks, council estates, and other new towns to be condemned and ridiculed. Much like how “the 1970s” are regularly invoked as the “bad old days” of British politics, condemning postwar urban planned spaces helps reinforce the idea that “there is no alternative” to the neo-liberal state. It’s an ongoing rejection that legitimates the status quo.

Does your research lead you to see the plans for Milton Keynes as fundamentally a radical or a conservative project?

To give a stereotypical historian’s response, it depends on the context. In terms of urban planning, The Plan for Milton Keynes was a radical re-imagining of the very idea of the discipline and what it should do. Politically, however, the very “flexibility” at the heart of Milton Keynes’ planning goals has allowed it to move with the times very easily, and through doing so it has become more conservative than the Plan itself ever envisioned.

“the… ‘flexibility’ at the heart of Milton Keynes’ planning goals has allowed it to move with the times very easily…”

Given contemporary ecological concerns, are car-centric development like Milton Keynes worrying anachronisms or can they be salvaged?

This is a great question. In reality I don’t think Milton Keynes is inherently as car-centric as its reputation suggests. It’s also incredibly pedestrian and cycle-friendly, and while it’s been let down by public transport provision in the past, this is getting better overall. Milton Keynes is also a beautifully verdant town with a fantastically diverse urban ecology. Provided that public transport provision continues to improve, it will be exciting to watch how Milton Keynes continues to challenge preconceptions about density and urban functioning into the future.

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You can read more about Lauren’s research into the genesis and cultural impact of Milton Keynes on her academia.edu page. She can be contacted through the University of Melbourne’s graduate school. 

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.