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Wednesday23 July 2014

Let the good times roll: 1970s

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My last leader as editor of BD was written in May 1979. “I took over shortly after the three-day week,” I wrote, “and followed the profession into the abyss of the worst slump since the 1930s.”

My time in office reflected, to the month, the life of the Labour administration. Looking back through copies of BD of the period, and watching the Callaghan government grind to a halt, I was struck by the number of issues that resonate with the present day.

In 1972 the UN Stockholm Conference was held — the first major international conference on environmental issues — and the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth, which set out a blueprint for a sustainable society.

The mayor of Munich told BD that the Olympicshad allowed him to push through in six years improvements to the city that would have normally taken 20 years. Who said legacy was something new?

And the economy was in an awful mess. By 1975 one in three practices had less than five months’ work in the pipeline and it was estimated that 40% of architecture students would have to find work outside the profession.

Profession under attack

The RIBA was in rather worse state than it is now. At the beginning of 1975 it was heading for bankruptcy — a report listed “disregard of the cost of new ventures and a welter of irrelevant inquiries” as the root cause.

On top of that the profession was under attack from government. In November 1975 the RIBA started preparing its evidence for the Monopolies Commission which was investigating architects’ fees. The institute wanted to keep its mandatory fee scale. Andrew Derbyshire, chair of the Monopolies Steering Group, told BD: “We must have defence against economic exploitation.” But in April 1978 the RIBA agreed with the Office of Fair Trading to move to a scale of recommended fees.

Building failures of all sorts frequently hit the headlines. In 1973 the Summerland Leisure Centre fire killed 50 people and another 80 were seriously injured. There were a series of fires in schools built with the Clasp system, and then in December 1974, 18 residents died in a fire at a Nottinghamshire old people’s home which used the same system.

Local authorities provided the bulk of “affordable housing” in those days and they had been using a lot of badly designed prefabricated building systems. In March 1976, BD carried out a study of post-war building failures, reporting on 43 local authorities with major problems in housing schemes less than 20 years old.

Return to vernacular

The failures of the industry led to the creation of the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974. BD’s legal correspondent wrote: “For the first time a designer is made liable in criminal law if his professional efforts cause actual or potential danger to the health and safety of others.”

Then as now, housing standards were a hot topic. Cracks were beginning to show in the government’s support of Parker Morris standards. In April 1974 the government allowed local authorities to purchase sub-Parker Morris homes that developers had been unable to sell; then in March 1976 it permitted a sub- Parker Morris housing scheme to go ahead in Sefton because it could not be built within the department’s Housing Cost Yardstick.

Building refurbishment — until that time largely the work of surveyors — became an accepted part of architects’ workload. The structure of the profession however was very different — almost half the architects in England were employed by the public sector. Most large cities had their own architects’ department and a city architect, every county council had a county architect, and Scala — the Society of Chief Architects in Local Authorities — was a force in the land.

The 1970s saw the coming of age of the conservation movement. Brian Anson, an architect at the Greater London Council, blew the whistle on plans for the destruction of the Covent Garden market. The area was saved when, in 1973, Tory environment secretary Geoffrey Rippon listed 250 properties, thus making the GLC’s proposals impossible.

Within this context the profession in general faced a massive loss of confidence. The public attacks on post-war housing and town planning strengthened the influence of the conservation movement and the supporters of a return to a vernacular architecture of which RMJM’s 1976 Hillingdon Centre was the most prominent example — Andy MacMillan described it as “fascist” at that year’s RIBA conference.

Signs of change

Post-modernism was yet to hit our shores, although in 1979 Philip Johnson was in town for an Architecture Club dinner to talk about his AT&T tower. He was complimentary about British architecture, having seen Foster’s Sainsbury Centre and the designs for Rogers’ Lloyd’s building. In the discussion following the Architecture Club dinner in Hardwick’s gilded Goldsmith’s Hall, Derek Walker, chief architect of Milton Keynes, accused Johnson of “designing shit”.

Competitions were a disaster and the experience of the competition for 50 retirement homes for the Architects Benevolent Society in Wallingford in 1972 was to colour official views of the system for years after. The winner was the young Nick Lacey. It was a brilliant design, but Lacey had major problems running the job and after a decade, to the embarrassment of the RIBA, the scheme was dropped.

In March 1979 BD announced that workload soared by 60%. It sounds a lot, and looking back I wonder if the figures were right, but it was a herald of change. Two months later we wrote that the newly elected Margaret Thatcher had appointed Michael Heseltine as environment secretary.

The 1970s were a grim decade with little architecture of note, but there were signs of change: as well as Rogers starting to design the Lloyd’s Building, Foster won the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank competition in 1979 and James Stirling, after a very lean decade, was working on the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart.

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