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Friday, 21 May 2010

Books - Britain's Lost Cities:A Chronical of Architectural Destruction by Gavin Stamp

Star rating – 9/10

This beautiful and somewhat depressing book by Gavin Stamp, first published in 2007 but available now in paperback for the first time and will there fore hopefully reach a wider audience, is a love letter to the lost cities of Britain, and a salutary lesson for today planners and developers.

It contains hundreds of photographs of beautiful buildings that have been destroyed either by the German Luftwaffe, or by the misguided dreams of town planners. It is strange to think that successive generations have held a sort of self loathing of their heritage and past, and want to rush headlong into obliterating it with all things shiny and new.

The book takes us through this haunting and sad tale city by city, through streets which I am very familiar with, such as Manchester, Bradford and London; and through all the great cities of the country such as Glasgow, Birmingham and Liverpool. Each photo tells of destruction and a constant craving for modernity.

Of course much of the heritage was lost after the World War II bombings – as in Coventry, Plymouth and Exeter, although Stamp feels that some of the damaged buildings were needlessly pulled down rather than being rebuilt.

But Coventry‘s historic city centre was already doomed before the Luftwaffe dropped their bombs, the new creation a dream of the planners which the war conveniently speeded up. So this is also a tale of modern planners and their dreams of sparkling, new utopian city centres which brushed away the traces of the dingy past.

One of the most famous acts of wanton vandalism was the destruction of the Euston Arch, the great gateway to the railway heading north, which was pulled down in the 1960’s and replaced with the current monstrosity that is Euston station, and predictably undergoing plans for wholesale redevelopment.

Some of the building mourned here are not so great and you can see why they went. And there is no doubt that the slum dwellings which played such a part in the poor health and living conditions of the working people who helped to make our cities so prosperous were truly shocking and needed to go. But most of the demolition does seem to be nothing more than acts of vandalism such as in Bradford, where the 1960’s shopping centre and redeveloped business district that the Victorian splendor was destroyed to make way for, is currently being pulled down as a total disaster that did not work and ruined the heart of the city.

On a personal level I do know that sometimes disaster brings opportunity, such as the 1996 IRA bomb in Manchester which triggered a rejuvenation of this magnificent city which has in the main preserved its fantastic heritage rather than destroying it in the name of regeneration. (if only they had put the bomb a bit nearer to the heart of the dreadful Arndale centre we might have got rid of it altogether…). But maybe I am a bit biased.

This is a great book and a remarkable record of error and misguided judgment. So do we learn the lessons from the past and avoid repeating the mistakes of our ancestors? – sadly I think not in every case.

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