"Rediscovering" the bracing visions of mid-century architects and planners.

In the 1960s we were promised jet-packs. The chief planner of Leicester suggested the city should have an underground, a monorail, a helipad, eight floors of car parking and a system of electric rickshaws to replace taxis. And, according to “Traffic in Towns”, the 1963 government report that sought to plan for a future in which everyone used cars, we should also have hovercraft, helicopters and conveyor belts, all “as possible substitutes for the motor car”. Elon Musk can do one.


Otto Saumarez Smith’s detailed and engrossing book about the mid-20th-century boom in urban redevelopment is as much a history of what might have been as one of what actually happened.1[ The built environment bequeathed by the 1960s, he writes, has been “denigrated in books such as Crap Towns and Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards”: they document a “gimcrack modernism of tacky pedestrian precincts, grim underpasses, budget mega-structures, and gargantuan car parks”. What we ended up with was a long way from the bracing visions of architect-planners, working against constraints that were mainly social, historical and political, but increasingly financial as the decade wore on.


Boom Cities: Architect Planners and the Politics of Radical Urban Renewal in 1960s Britain
Otto Saumarez Smith
Oxford University Press, 208pp, £65 

  • 1. There was also, in Saumarez Smith’s words, “an astonishing lack of imaginative foresight” in plans that depicted, for instance, “people happily promenading” under a giant flyover rather than scurrying under it as fast as possible. Graeme Shankland was known as “the butcher of Liverpool” for his plan to sort out the city’s traffic problem by building a six-lane motorway through the middle of it.