The Twentieth Century Society

Review: An Architecture of Parts: Architects, Building Workers and Industrialisation in Britain 1940–1970

Christine Wall (Routledge, 240pp, £95)

Reviewed by Geraint Franklin

This engaging book examines the effect of industrialisation on the dynamic between architects, builders and others engaged in post-war building. The mid-twentieth century saw sweeping technical, managerial and organisational reform of the construction process, with corresponding changes in the composition, education, training and unionisation of the workforce. Using a wide range of sources, including oral history and private archives, Wall traces changing conceptions of craftsmanship and skill from Marx and Ruskin to an era where buildings are assembled rather than made.

The first part of the book tackles the social contexts of industrialisation and the British construction industry in the mid-twentieth century, tracing the history of prefabrication and the twin influences of Fordism and Taylorism. The 1940s, and the pairing of war with reconstruction, is rightly seen as a pivotal decade in the acceptance of industrialised techniques, operational research and centralised planning. The welfare state would have been unthinkable had not the scope of government direction been so enlarged by the exigencies of war. Surprisingly, proposals for the nationalisation of the building industry continued well into the 1960s.

Much space is devoted to an examination of the Modular Society, essentially a private standards organisation which promoted the dimensional co-ordination of building components. Although described as an ‘indispensable element’ of the contribution of architects to industrialisation, one comes away with the impression of a somewhat eccentric fringe group, happier with the abstractions of a modular grid than the empiricism of a building site, squabbling away with other organisations to no great effect on the wider construction industry. Still, valuable concepts are introduced along the way, such as open versus closed construction systems, and good use is made of the private papers of Bruce Martin, best known as the designer of the K8 phone box.

The final chapters pick up the central theme of relations between architects and construction workers in industrialised building. Of special interest are the detailed accounts of the Research into Site Management (RSM) project launched by Henry Swain at Nottinghamshire, and prefabrication at the War Office under Donald Gibson and Roger Walters. The RSM experiment aimed to join up the design and production of CLASP prefabricated buildings by reforming site communication, flattening the hierarchy of management and removing the ‘middlemen’ (the clerk of works and contract manager) between the architect and building workers. The chapters examining site conditions and the interactions between architects and building workers nicely dovetail with Wall’s previous project, Constructing Post-War Britain: Building Workers’ Stories 1950–70, in which oral history interviews formed the basis of five case studies: the Barbican, Stevenage New Town, the South Bank arts complex, the M1 motorway and Sizewell A power station.

While many accounts of industrialised building are based on teleological assumptions, An Architecture of Parts brings to bear a more sophisticated critical apparatus centred on the relations of production, although the theoretical standpoint is worn lightly. It is also good to see big social themes such as gender and class differences addressed. The prose is readable, engaging and free of jargon, a welcome thing indeed in an academic title; the voices of building workers, ill-served by primary documents, provide an additional source of detail and texture. Wall’s book enlarges our understanding of post-war construction history and labour relations. In bringing social processes and people to the foreground, it offers a different way of looking at buildings.