On Edge: Border Anxiety

 

Katherine Shonfield

ON EDGE: BORDER ANXIETY IN POSTWAR BRITAIN

 

We always were English, and we will always be English, and it's just because we're English we're sticking out for our right to be Burgundians.

The words of Betty Warren, a fictional grocer's wife in the 1948 film comedy Passport to Pimlico [1] encapsulate the complexities embedded in notions of border in Britain's immediate postwar years. If a border determines who it is you want to keep out, a clue to the British state of cultural ambiguity is found in Russia's changing status. Within the space of just ten years, Russia went from foe, to ally, to foe, to ally, to foe again. Churchill's speech in the same year that Passport to Pimlico was released, notoriously resolves this ambiguity by proposing the most immovable of all borders between us and them in the architectural figure of an 'iron curtain'. Despite this, in the light of Russia's in-and-out running, it was surely difficult to define Britishness simply as a state of not being Russian. In architecture the influential editor of the Architectural Review, JM Richards, was preoccupied with definitions of Britishness, which explicitly reject such a fix. The magazine itself came to be associated with the forging of a new and peculiarly British hybrid version of Picturesque Modernism, most famously realised at the Festival of Britain in 1951 – which in itself required the merging of previously unassailable aesthetic borders, between the rigours of Modernism and the vagaries of the Picturesque.

Prewar, Richards was an enthusiastic promoter of the pure Modernism of the great European masters. In 1945, at the end of the war, he wrote a book that was 'a blank betrayal of everything that the Modern Architecture was supposed to stand for'.[2] This was The Castles on the Ground, which praised the English suburb. As for many others, it is clear that the war experience for the public-school educated Richards had for the first time broken down that most British of borders: the one between social classes. The Castles on the Ground is a persuasive argument for an architecture of 'the animating spirit of popular sanction'. For Richards, the new revised architecture of the postwar era needed to stand against both 'private connoisseurship and technological narcissism'.[3] On the avant-garde, Richards writes that 'we can only progress democratically at a speed which does not outpace the slow growth of the public's understanding, in particular its assimilation of social and technical change'.[4] The suburb, for Richards, is the formal expression of a democratic (i.e. popularly led) assimilation of such change. His support for the suburban form rests precisely on the fact that it is a hybrid, and does not fit into one or the other accepted planning category: 'It is a mistake to think of the suburb as either the town spaced out or the country packed close … the suburb is not primarily a mechanism, nor is it in any sense a modification of something previously existing; it is a world peculiar to itself and - as with a theatre's drop scene - before and behind it there is nothing.'[5]

Richards makes explicit a fascinating, and, at first, puzzling connection between the anti-Modernist Socialist Realism, then being promoted by Russian and British Communist Parties, and conventional suburban form: 'What the mass of the Russian public – like the mass of English suburban residents – require of their architecture is a sense that it represents what they themselves are striving after and it must do so in a language they already understand ...  In fact, for all their distance apart, geographically and spiritually, Moscow and Metroland have this in common, that architecture is to them not an art form to be accepted or rejected according to the rules of aesthetic taste. It is a symbol of what is real and tangible in an uncertain world.'[6] Consciously or not, Richards is operating in the never-never land of the fellow traveller: a place where national borders pale into insignificance in the face of an assumed common, popular meaning.

The critic Reyner Banham, himself writing at the height of the Cold War in 1966, connects the widespread adoption of the Architectural Review's picturesque version of Modernism directly with the Communist caucus which was, according to him, operating within the London County Council's architects' department just after the war. The department's style, which he describes as 'based on a sentimental regard for nineteenth century vernacular usages, with pitched roofs, brick or rendered walls, window boxes, balconies, pretty paintwork, a tendency to elaborate woodwork detailing and freely picturesque grouping' constituted a direct threat to the established architectural borders of prewar Modernism.[7] This can be understood quite literally: where the flat roof and the building line presented a clear border defining the edge between pure architecture and the outside, the pitched roof, the windowboxes, and the balconies all transgressed that border. As in a compromised national border, where once an edge was straight and unequivocal, incursions have occurred that challenge the certainty of the line dividing the acceptable from the unacceptable. The analogy between the Communist incursion through the architects' department borders and the resultant design assault on Modernism's own borders by its perpetrators is inescapable.

As Banham says, 'The younger generation, viewing these works, had the depressing sense that the drive was going out of Modern Architecture, its pure dogma being diluted by politicians and compromisers who had lost their intellectual nerve.'[8] The functionalist principles of Modernist design, derived from the European masters, were, by the end of the 1930s, the established rules of architectural practice. It was these rules which constituted the borders of acceptable architectural aesthetics as ‘a system’. The problem is not identified by Banham as the confrontation of one style with another. Rather, his concern is with the debasement of the identifying characteristics of Modernism – as defined by its borders – by the new style, which in the public mind was still associated with ‘modern architecture’. The idea of honesty, as originally defined by Ruskin, is crucial here. Ruskinian honesty depends on an unequivocal certainty about where your borders are, both moral and architectural.

Banham presents Brutalism’s ruthless pursuit of ‘honesty’ in architecture in the tradition of the great Modernist rule-makers, and as a direct response to the obfuscations of the Neo-Picturesque of the immediate postwar years: ‘The morality that approved the raw concrete of the Unite (of Le Corbusier) could equally well approve the use that Mies van der Rohe had made of steel, glass and brick in the campus buildings at Illinois.’[9] Reflecting its 19th-century Ruskinian antecedents, architectural ‘honesty’ is characterized as not covering things up. True architecture is created out of a series of bold, and bald, statements of what material abuts what, what structure supports what: i.e. the categorical definition of the border between things. This is inevitably an aesthetic preoccupied with construction, as it is above all at the junction between two elements that the architect has the choice between an aesthetic of hiding the border between the parts that make up a building, and one of defining these parts through emphasizing borders which separate them.

Once the honesty is identified with clearly defined borders, the defining characteristics of Brutalist architecture itself slip into place. They include the use of elemental rather than hybrid materials (as in concrete not plastic); the emphatic revelation of the identifiable origins of materials (as in concrete uncoloured, not just unrendered); and the emphasis on the uncompromised border to a building component (as in recessed joins to brickwork). These essentially arbitrary formal qualities come not just to signify honesty, but to be understood as honest in and of themselves, the essence of honesty. The best intentions of the movement’s promoters are revealed in Peter Smithson’s well-known statement of 1957: ‘Any discussion of Brutalism will miss the point if it does not take into account Brutalism’s attempt to be objective about “reality” – the cultural objectives of society, its urges, its techniques and so on. Brutalism tries to face up to a mass producing society and drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces which are at work’.[10] Despite Smithson’s words, the aesthetic signifiers of Brutalist architecture move beyond referent to subject. Constructional morality becomes proof to the profession of the internal consistency of its own architectural language, the firmness, in fact, of its own borders. Through this sleight of hand, where formal characteristics become inherently honest, it becomes possible to prove a morality in the way architecture defines its borders completely independently of its social impact on the external world - that is, separate from its social programme. It is as if architecture were acting like a sovereign state. Architecture /the state asserts where its borders are. Architecture /the state then defends these borders by adopting the moral high ground. Architecture /the state makes it clear that what is going on inside these borders, their content, is irrelevant to anyone outside. Architecture /the state's morality is consequently assumed to reside in the sovereignty of its borders, rather than what it actually does.

CIAM, the International Congresses for Modern Architecture, and the established voice of the European Modernist ascendancy, met in 1949. Their proceedings reflect the same three parallel anxieties over the formal, the professional and the political context of the beginning of the Cold War, which are apparent in Brutalist architecture's concern for the establishment of borders. Siegfried Gideon chaired a meeting of the committee on aesthetics - an issue first raised at the previous meeting at Bridgwater.[11] There, Richards and the MARS group had posed the question: 'What can architects do to take into account those qualities in building that have, at the present moment, a symbolic or emotional significance for ordinary people so that architecture shall remain an art in whose adventures they can share?'[12] The 1949 response was an uncompromising appeal to the honest and authentic coupled with the principles of the avant-garde: 'CIAM cannot accept class distinctions nor a lowering of artistic standards for sentimental or political reasons. On the contrary we believe that anyone not perverted by false education is capable of appreciating true values in art.'[13]

The Syrkuses, representatives from Eastern Europe, who were involved in the reconstruction plan for Warsaw, confirmed the convergence of the contemporary political and formal challenge to the border. Their argument developed the implications of JM Richards' book by questioning the notion of revealed honesty in construction: 'Art belongs to the people and is understandable by the people ... Construction is but a skeleton. It has great interest for the anatomist, but for the rest it only becomes beautiful when it is covered with fine muscle and lovely skin. We had nothing else to offer at the time when CIAM began, and so we made a fetish of the skeleton.'[14] This was the Communist Party line the architectural version of Socialist Realism in the arts, and a reversal of earlier Party support for the Modernist avant-garde. It is in the spirit of this pursuit of a symbolic significance for ordinary people that the film Passport to Pimlico along with the great Ealing comedies of the end of the 1940s, Whisky Galore and Kind Hearts and Coronets, explores the hybrid and elusive qualities of Britishness in a postwar world. It is characteristic of these films that they combine outrageously imaginative future possibilities with a quaint respect for a quirky, irregular way of life, which signifies a kind of unchanging familiarity – those very qualities in Richards' words 'of what is real and tangible in an uncertain world '. Border problems are the declared subject of Passport to Pimlico. The people of Pimlico, a district of inner London, are fed up to the back teeth with all the state restrictions remaining from the war economy, such as trade curbs, rationing, curfews. Some treasure and ancient documents are unearthed on a bomb site which show Pimlico to be part of the independent French duchy of Burgundy. There is a mass declaration of independence from Britain, and the ‘passport’ of the title becomes a requirement to enter the newly separate state. Pimlico becomes a de-facto part of Continental Europe. An event, which naturally enough, heralds a heat wave.

In the aftermath of Pimlico’s transformation into Burgundy, a series of established social borders are transgressed. The change to Continental, sultry weather turns the squalid back yards into a site for romance. A female citizen of Pimlico and the young Burgundian duke kiss: a challenge both to the fixed character of British rectitude, and the body’s own borders. The assailant is European – someone who had been quite literally out-of-bounds for the duration of the war. On becoming Burgundians, after-hours drinking, free dancing and singing are instigated in Pimlico: all social activities, then as now, previously contained by licence, and all associated not with Britain but with the Continent. Rationing and trade restrictions are dispensed with.

The British State’s response to these transgressions provides the comedy’s most disturbing, and surprising image: the cordoning off of Pimlico by a barbed-wire fence, an imposition of a physical, national border complete with passport controls. The source of control and restriction of daily life is consistently shown as a bureaucratic, impersonal state. Exactly who has propriety over definitions of nationality is questioned. Nationality defined through delineation, the imposition of borders defining who is inside and who is the enemy, is particularly called into doubt. Images of Londoners throwing food over the Pimlico barbed wire are a pointed reminder of the Berlin Airlift of the same year the film was released, when the non-communist zones of Berlin were impelled to receive their supplies by air.

As a consequence of its cat and mouse game with barrier and transgression, Pimlico blossoms into a new series of architecturally hybrid (for Britain) adaptations of the street: markets unrestricted by licence, and pavement cafés. The bomb site is flooded to form an open air lido, surrounded by the mid-Victorian façades which previously fronted the street. The image of the dilapidated but unconquered fabric of London expresses as a picturesque backdrop the unchangeable familiarity that Richards, the MARS group and the Syrkuses were all arguing for.

The new citizens of Pimlico redefine Britishness in their own terms. The state of Britishness paradoxically occurs only when the district becomes ersatz France by becoming Burgundy - a mythic place in between the two, neither France nor Britain. Britishness exists only when national borders are smeared.

As Brutalism, for Banham, reasserts border and edge in the face of the transgressions of Picturesque Modernism, so do the aesthetics of British New Wave Cinema of the late 1950s and early 1960s emerge in contrast to the filmic concerns epitomised by Ealing. It Happened Here (1956-63) is a remarkable film. [15] Like Passport to Pimlico its scenario involves the borders of Britain in the immediate postwar period.

Instead of winning, Britain is invaded by Germany. A Nazi administration is established. The story is of a woman caught the crossfire between Nazis and Allied Resistance. Following the shooting of her neighbours, she is forcibly evacuated from her West Country village. In London she joins 'Immediate Action’, a quasi-military Fascist nursing corps. She is punished for helping a wounded partisan, and ends up at a tranquil country hospital unknowingly giving lethal injections to those no longer desired by the State. She escapes - the film ends with her capture by partisans.

The continuing preoccupation with the delineation of nationality is introduced in It Happened Here's opening sequence. It uses an image familiar from 'Dad's Army' (a cosily nostalgic television comedy featuring the Home Front): the Nazi onslaught through Europe is depicted as a series of invading arrows.[16] In 'Dad's Army' however, plucky little arrows fend off the big European bully, and the sharp, white cliff border to Britain remains intact. This defined island image is found again in the Ernö Goldfinger version of the Abercrombie plan for London for the general public, drawn up during the war.[17] It introduced idea of the Green Belt, a cordon of open land containing London beyond which new satellite towns could contain growth. The Goldfinger version depicts the growth of London as an uncontainable red peril spreading over the Southeast. It has a plethora of images concerned with the need to contain, delineate and categorise (zone) urban activity. The plan, in contrast to its exact contemporary, The Castles on the Ground, is explicitly anti-suburban, and categorically reasserts the unassailable border between town and country which Richards questions. The front cover actually shows London as an island like Britain, its edge defined by white cliffs.

Unlike ‘Dad’s Army’ and Goldfinger’s London plan, the opening sequence of It Happened Here shows the most symbolic of borders to have disappeared. Britain is depicted joined seamlessly with Continental Europe. The arrows of Nazi progress overrun everywhere. The film’s ceaselessly chilling effect starts with an attack on the most familiar way the British contain and delineate their nationhood: as an island.

It Happened Here describes a ‘what if …’ London through icons of the capital’s familiar normality as does Passport to Pimlico. Where Passport makes a point of featuring the no. 24 bus which continues to go to Pimlico, in It Happened Here the 159 red double-decker also carries on going to Streatham Common. It still advertises the Picture Post, but now it carries SS officers. Virtually every major physical symbol of stability is shown in occupation by Nazis; and each image delivers its own well-aimed punch in the groin of national self-knowledge. Nazis march outside the most famous survivor of the Blitz, St Paul’s Cathedral. Nazified newspaper ads for familiar papers are displayed against the backdrop of the Mother of Parliaments.

Nazis pay homage at the Albert Memorial, provoking its insidious re-reading as a Teutonic Valhalla. The film’s directors, Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo build up a palette of harsh contrasts: in each frame the two symbols of categorical difference are clashed brutally together. What is depicted within the film is not, unlike the fantasy 1948 Pimlico, a set of transgressions, rule breaking and indeterminate hybrids: here, two monoliths are sown in unassailable integrity, and the story is of an isolated individual caught between the two. Brownlow and Mollo single out the unexceptional banality of the suburban terrace, the location of JM Richards ' sense of nationhood, to site their most inescapably shocking episodes. It is the point where architectural and environmental iconography are apparently at their most cosy that the viewer searches in vain for respite from the film's remorseless violence. It is from a suburban terrace that the 'heroine' takes her measured decision to join the Fascist medical corps. It is in a Home Counties country house that she administers her lethal injections. What is under attack, however, by the film as a whole is that same postwar 'fuzzy' position that Reyner Banham finds reprehensible in JM Richards. That is, the assumption that the established built fabric of Britain is somehow inherently benign and that security rests within the unchangingness of its monuments and icons, rather than in the establishment and defence of clear borders.

In this description, the worlds of film, town planning and architecture are like a dreamscape in which the trauma and the possibilities of border absence and border imposition are more, or less, consciously played out. It Happened Here demonstrates with devastating effect the absence of transparency, clarity and moral rigour in the immediate postwar years which it was important for the next period of immovable borders to challenge. Yet that moment of flux and uncertainty, where the Cold War did not yet overwhelm decisions from the most politically strategic to the most personal, has a kinship with our own time. Real architectural and social possibilities – suggested by the fantasies of both Passport to Pimlico and the temporary structures of the Festival of Britain – could, and can, be mooted. Looking back, what is uncanny is the way, in the postwar decade, the ghosts of political borders inevitably came to haunt the more intimate territories of everyday life. 

 

Courtesy of the estate of Katherine Shonfield
Originally published in Architecture of the Borderlands. Architectural Design magazine (AD) vol 69. 7-8/1999.

 

 

NOTES

1.    Passport to Pimlico, directed by Henry Cornelius, 1948
2.    Reyner Banham, The New Brutalism, The Architectural Press (London), 1966, p13. 
3.    JM Richards, The Castles on the Ground, The Architectural Press (London), 1945, p14. 
4.    Ibid, p15. 
5.    Ibid, p18.
6.    Ibid, pp55-56.
7.    Banham, The New Brutalism, p12. 
8.    Ibid, p13.
9.    Ibid, p17.
10.  Alison and Peter Smithson’s response to the debate on Brutalism, Architectural Design magazine, April 1957, p11. 

 

11.    Joan Ockman (ed), Architecture Culture 1943 – 1968, Columbia Books of Architecture/Rizzoli (New York), 1993, p100. 
12.    Acronym for Modern Architectural Research Group, British wing of CIAM founded in 1932 
13.    Ockman, Architecture Culture, p121. 
14.    Ibid, p121. 
15.    It Happened Here, directed by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, 1956-63. 
16.    It Happened Here predates ‘Dad’s Army’ by a number of years
17.    The County of London Plan explained by EJ Carter and Ernö Goldfinger, Penguin Books (London), 1945.

 

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