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1974: 'Crisis in Architecture' and the Last Gasp of Municipal Modernism

Brook, Richard ORCID logoORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-4215-3091 (2021) 1974: 'Crisis in Architecture' and the Last Gasp of Municipal Modernism. In: The Urban History Group Annual Conference Cities, Crisis and Change, 1600 to the Present, 09 June 2021 - 11 June 2021, Online.

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Abstract

In 1974, as the Royal Institute of British Architects published Malcolm MacEwen's 'Crisis in Architecture', the makeup of local government in Britain was subject to massive upheaval as the Local Government Act came into force. MacEwen's 'Crisis' was predicated on the scarcity of resources, most vividly energy, in the ongoing oil crisis and ensuing Three-Day Week. He was also concerned with the inequity of wealth extraction by private developers and the gulf between architects and end users, especially in city centre commercial buildings. Amongst this maelstrom of shifting power, perceptions of administrative failure to control development, militant unionism, high inflation and environmental awakening, a flurry of last gasp architectural gestures were made. Between 1970 and 1974, certain urban boroughs, in the knowledge that they were to be subsumed by boundary realignments and cede their councils to those of larger metropolitan districts, commissioned new community buildings. In the north of Manchester, Radcliffe was to become part of Bury, but only after the conjunction of Bury and Rochdale (dubbed 'Botchdale' by local MP Michael Fidler) was dismissed. Radcliffe Town Council commissioned architectural firm Cruickshank & Seward to design a new civic centre which was opened in an expressly symbolic statement by Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, on 30 March 1974 - two days before the Act became law. In this paper I will explore these last gasps of municipal modernism and argue for them as beacons of localism and symbols of a diminishing welfare state. I will ask how we should now consider the significance of such commissions collectively and whether they should be conceived as material cursors - early warning signs - on a path to neo-liberalism and the raft of crises foreseen by MacEwen in his treatise.

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