Woodham, Jonathan M.
Urban Visions: Designing for the Welfare State
In: Breward, C. and Woods, G., eds.
British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age.
V&A, London, pp. 68-92.
Text (Urban Visions)
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The postwar years witnessed the election of a Labour government in 1945 and, under its aegis, the establishment of the Welfare State, as it is widely understood today. Many architects and designers at the time widely believed that the reconstruction period offered an unprecedented opportunity to participate in the shaping of a social, democratic and aesthetically charged vision of a New Britain. This assumed a wide variety of forms, including the remodelling of bomb-damaged city centres and urban spaces with improved standards of signage and street furniture, a commitment to social housing and everyday domestic furnishings and fittings, the proliferation of New Towns, the building of new schools and universities in tandem with the forging of new educational policies, and the design of public transport systems on land, air and sea. It is an evaluation of many of these material embodiments of the Welfare State that this chapter seeks to address, drawing on a wide range of contemporary and archival sources.
Nonetheless, as is further discussed, the postwar decades revealed a gradual shift away from what was essentially a shared vision of a well-planned, democratic and material embodiment of the values of the Welfare State, the principles of which largely continued under the 1950s Conservative governments of Churchill, Eden and Macmillan and succeeding Labour and Conservative Governments in the 1960s and 1970s. However, Prime Minister Thatcher, three years after her Conservative Government had been elected in 1979, extolled the benefits of free enterprise and the primacy of the individual in her opening speech to an Information Technology Conference at the Barbican Centre, London. She declared that: “The first ingredient of our approach is a passionate belief in the virtues of free enterprise and individual endeavour. Innovation and initiative cannot flourish if they are smothered by a state that wants to control everything. We shall not blaze again the trail that Brunel, Morris and Marconi found, if we consign their successors to the consensus of committees and excessive and irksome regulation.” Such an approach clearly sounded the death-knell of the public facing moral didacticism of preceding decades.
Today, architects, designers and others in the creative and cultural sectors face very different challenges to those of their 1940s counterparts although they share the impact of economic crisis. However, in stark contrast to the reconstruction era that proffered many opportunities for state and public-funded commissions, the 2010s have seen the role of the state and centralized government challenged by the concept of ‘Big Society’. This, or so it is argued by Conservative politicians, gives individuals and communities more control over their destinies, a line of thought strongly reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s critique of the ‘nanny’ State in the 1980s and an anathema to the ‘visions’ postwar architects of the Welfare State.
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