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Houses of the future: British post-war architecture from modernism to futurism

Published: 3 September 2021

Architectural design after the Second World War, especially in the 1960s, was characterised by experimentation and innovation. These photographs show how art movements and social change influenced housing in Britain.

The Daily Herald Archive contains a wealth of photographs recording both major events and daily life in decades past. This selection provides a fascinating overview of the changing architectural styles of domestic housing in 20th-century Britain.

What is the Daily Herald Archive?

The Daily Herald was a British national newspaper published between 1912 and 1964. At one point, it was the top-selling newspaper in the world, with a monthly circulation of more than 2 million.

Every photograph and negative taken for the newspaper was stored in a picture library, categorised and filed for easy access should they ever be needed again. This amazing collection—comprising 3.5 million photographs, contact sheets and glass negatives—is the Daily Herald Archive, which we now care for at the National Science and Media Museum here in Bradford.

The images in this selection were all taken from the archive.

The post-war housing crisis

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the devastation of bombing raids combined with a shortage of skilled labour and suitable materials led to a housing crisis in the UK. This was initially addressed by building prefab houses. However, when brick and timber became widely available again in the 1950s and 1960s, there was pressure to build more permanent housing quickly and cheaply—and an opportunity to do things differently.

There was a clear rebellion at this time against the applied decoration of pre-war housing, particularly the ‘Mock Tudor’ style with its oak beams, leaded windows and pebbledash rendering. There was also a concerted effort to move away from older Victorian and Edwardian styles of housing which were considered dark and dingy.

By contrast, architects of the 1960s experimented with bold shapes, daring layouts and open plan interiors. Designers of private housing usually pushed this much further than council estates, with the latter characterised by boxy straight lines.

Post-war housing crisis gallery

Group of people walking through the modernist Parkleys Estate on Ham Common, London Science Museum Group © Mirrorpix/SMG Images
Parkleys Estate, Ham Common, London, 1962

Parkleys Estate on Ham Common, London, was built in the 1950s by the residential development company Span. The photograph above was taken for the Daily Herald in 1962. A quote from the designer on the back of the photograph reads: ‘My Span houses tend to be built round spaces, rather than in streets. The space is symbolic in itself... it is communal.’

House of the future: Modernism

Modernist architecture was a big influence on housing design in the 1950s and especially the 1960s. It emerged as a movement in the early 20th century, but came to dominate architecture after the Second World War, right up until the 1980s.

This movement was all about embracing the new and looking to the future. Modernist architects rejected ornamentation, embraced minimalism, and introduced structural innovation into housing design. Above all, modernist architecture was about function and how spaces could be used practically.

Row of modernist terraced houses Science Museum Group © Mirrorpix/SMG Images
Prize-winning house design for 51 terraced houses in Twickenham, London, 1961

Under the influence of modernism, domestic houses of the 1960s were large, modern and often had flat roofs. They had wide windows and were flooded with light. Houses often came with garages, a large driveway and both rear and front gardens. Architects in the 60s also experimented with the concept of open plan living, and a combined lounge/diner became very popular.

House of the future: Modernism gallery

The sky’s the limit: Cities in the sky

Architecture in this period was also getting taller. Huge cranes were used to build very tall blocks of flats and skyscrapers.

Helicopter lifting tower crane from top of tall block of flats Science Museum Group © TopFoto/SMG Images
Helicopter lifting tower crane from the top of the highest block of flats in the country, Millbrook, Southampton, 1964
Tall crane pictured among office buildings in London © Science Museum Group Collection
London’s biggest crane, 132ft (40m) above ground level, used to build a huge new office block in Holborn, 1954

As well as building tall skyscrapers, city planners and architects also considered designing cities on different vertical levels—a ‘city in the sky’. The idea was to reduce the risk of cars colliding with pedestrians and move people away from vehicle pollution.

In Bristol, a planning document from 1966 describes a network of high pedestrian walkways over central Bristol, which would allow people to walk around in safety while traffic drove through at greater speed below. It also imagines a vast ‘piazza’ right above the city centre. Unfortunately, the plan was abandoned due to high cost.

A similar vision was considered in Newcastle in the 1960s and early 1970s and can be seen in the implementation of walkways above John Dobson Street, Princess Square and Bewick Court. However, many of the other developments in this vision were never actually built, sparing the 19th-century buildings in Newcastle city centre from potential demolition.

A time to experiment: Futurism

While some architects in the 1960s were experimenting with designing modern, practical or tall homes, others were getting even more creative. This was a time for experimentation, to be innovative and test out new methods and materials.

A man and woman sitting in a minimalist room with sunken central area and glass walls Science Museum Group © Mirrorpix/SMG Images
A ‘Living Cell’, designed to be completely self-contained, on display at the Architectural Design Exhibition, Southampton, 1968

In this period, architects were keen to let go of the past, and futurism was very influential. Futurism was all about capturing the dynamism and energy of the modern world in every field: art, design, theatre, film, literature, music and architecture. Housing design embraced the metallic and monochromatic look with long dynamic lines that suggested speed, motion and urgency.

The movement started in the early 20th century, but lost favour after the horrors of the First World War affected the optimism of the national mood. However, it was reborn in the 1950s and 1960s, drawing inspiration from popular culture at the time including science fiction movies which promoted themes like time travel, space travel, the digital age and parallel universes.

A time to experiment: Futurism gallery

Space age living: The Futuro House

Futuristic architecture in this period was much more uninhibited than the early days of the movement and, although constantly reinterpreted by new architects over the decades, it was characterised by interesting shapes, dynamic lines, sharp contrasts, and the use of new and exciting materials.

The influence of futurism in domestic architecture of the 1960s is nowhere more evident than in the Futuro House or Futuro Pod, originally designed by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen.

Two women standing in front of a 'Futuro House', a circular spaceship-esque pod with oval windows Science Museum Group © Mirrorpix/SMG Images
The Futuro House, 1968, contemporaneously described as a ‘spacious and luxurious circular caravan’

Finland, like many other western countries, was caught up in the boundless optimism which characterised the 1960s. The Futuro was a product of this faith in technology, a strong economy, the increase in leisure time and an obsession with the ‘space race’.

The Futuro, notable for its iconic ‘flying saucer’ appearance, was initially designed to be used as a ski cabin because it would be quick to heat and could be constructed in almost any type of terrain.

Three women inside a Futuro House Science Museum Group © Mirrorpix/SMG Images
The ‘Log Cabin of the Future’—inside a Futuro House with three women from Helsinki, 1968

One of the ‘pods’ docked onboard the Finnish ship Finnpartner for a week in London to be viewed by prospective buyers. The Futuro House was then introduced to the UK market at the Brighter Homes Exhibition in Manchester in March 1969 and manufactured by Waterside Plastics of Todmorden in Lancashire. The press briefing described the Futuro as not a ‘here today, gone tomorrow gimmick’ but as a ‘serious breakthrough for the growing leisure needs of the latter twentieth century’.

Unfortunately, its unusual appearance was met with public hostility from the beginning, and less than 100 Futuro Houses were ever built. By the mid-1970s it had been taken off the market.

Life on the ocean: Sea City

While some architects were thinking about a future life in spaceships and ‘living cells’, others—namely architect Hall Moggridge and engineers John Martin and Ken Anthony—were considering life at sea.

Group of men standing around a model of 'Sea City' stilted city Science Museum Group © Mirrorpix/SMG Images
Model of ‘Sea City’, 1968

Sea City was a concept introduced in 1968, proposing to house 30,000 people in a self-sufficient community 15 miles off the Norfolk coast.

The city would have been built on stilts, surrounded by a floating calm breakwater and a curved outer wall to provide protection again the elements. This outer wall would be made up of concrete cells joined together and would rest on a base 30 feet above sea level, integral to the whole structure. Each of these ‘cells’ would have made up either a flat or part of a large flat; houses would be built on floating islands in the middle.

A sluice gate would allow the tidal flow to clean out accumulated debris from the lagoon and maintain a warm layer of water within.

A central power complex would provide power, heating and refrigeration for all residents, and this power complex would be topped by a football field. Residents would also have been able to enjoy a cricket pitch, marine zoo, cinemas, art galleries and a shopping centre. There would have been two schools, a fire station, police station and a hospital. Some of these facilities would have been built on floating islands and some directly into the outer wall.

Once inside the city, helibuses would be used to transport passengers around the various parts of the city.

Sea City was due to be completed by 2018—our fingers are still crossed!

Model of ‘Sea City’, overhead view of whole resort Science Museum Group © Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Model of ‘Sea City’, 1968
Model of ‘Sea City’ showing playing fields Science Museum Group © Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Model of ‘Sea City’ showing football pitch, 1968

Postmodernism and beyond

The heady optimism of the 1950s and 1960s started to falter in the 1970s, at a time when there were lowered expectations of the future. This was reflected in architecture, which rejected the bright colours and futurism of previous decades, opting for dark, earthy tones and a ‘back to nature’ approach. Chrome and aluminium were replaced by wood décor and panelling; form for the sake of form was advocated again alongside pre-modern styles.

1970s architecture was highly influenced by postmodernist ideas which developed as a reaction against modernism. By the 1970s, modernism had begun to seem elitist and exclusive, and the failure of building methods and materials used in this period became a focus of many critics and architects in the 1970s.

Today, many examples of modernist and futurist architecture from the post-war period are highly regarded. Parkleys Estate and other similar developments are listed buildings, while the Futuro House is seen as a cult classic, with the remaining pods becoming popular tourist attractions. Other ideas from this era, such as Sea City and the ‘city in the sky’, remain unrealised—but the forward-thinking ambition and optimism of their designs continues to inspire architects.

Further reading

Books

  • Mark Crinson and Claire Zimmerman (ed.), Neo-avant-garde and Postmodern: Postwar Architecture in Britain and Beyond, 2011
  • Elain Harwood and James O. Davies, England’s Post-War Listed Buildings, 2015
  • Owen Hopkins, Lost Futures: The Disappearing Architecture of Post-War Britain, 2017
  • Simon Phipps, Brutal North: Post-War Modernist Architecture in the North of England, 2020

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