Concretopia by John Grindrod

4 out of 5 stars

One of my low key interests is architecture and the built environment seeing how places have evolved either by planning or not can tell you a lot about the place. I can tell just when someone has really thought about a place and how people are going to use it. The best designs look good and most importantly work really well, the worst just don’t…

Following World War 2 the UK needed to put a lot of effort into rebuilding towns and cities that had been bombed by the Nazis. The men and sadly it was mostly men in those days, had to move quickly to ensure that people were rehomed, slums were cleared and infrastructure was rebuilt. They embraced the wonders of concrete to solve architectural dilemmas.

To see what happened across our country, John Grindrod goes on a journey to see these architectural marvels for himself. He begins though with the prefabs, temporary builds that came in a kit form that was supposed to be an interim measure to house people. They are some still standing and there are people who are still living in them and they are 70 years old in some cases. The nearest to him was a mere three miles away and so it was he walked to Catford, to see it for himself.

His journey will take him to the new towns that were built, Harlow, Milton Keynes and Welwyn Garden City and to the tower blocks that grew in the inner cities all over the country. Some of these buildings are still with us but others have served their time and have been remodelled or flattened and rebuilt. London features quite a lot, and there is a whole chapter of the Festival of Britain and the reconstruction of the Southbank and the Brutalist buildings that are the National Theatre and the Southbank Centre. They are not to everyone’s taste, but I quite like them.

There is a lot of concrete in here, hence the title. Even though it has been around since Roman times it is only in the last century that we have used it almost everywhere and whilst it can be versatile, it is quite grey and bleak, even in the height of summer. But there is much more to this book than just concrete and buildings. He considers the way that towns and cities have changed and evolved since the second world war and the way that central and local government had to ensure that there was adequate housing for those being rehoused following the war and how some schemes were imposed onto some cities and others managed to get a much better solution

I thought that this was pretty good overall. Reading this reminded me of growing up in Woking and the shopping centre there. It was this huge paved concrete mass with all of the regular shops that you’d expect.  Grindrod is an engaging writer who is very passionate about his favourite material, concrete. The social history aspect is very interesting too and he adds a personal dimension to their stories by going and seeing them in the modern-day.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    Prefabs! I’m the only person I know who has managed to live within a mile or so of THREE sets of prefabs in my lifetime (so far!). Not sure how I didn’t know about this one but it has gone firmly onto my wishlist!

    • Paul

      I have a vague recollection of some when growing up, but can’t for the life of me remember where they were at the moment. John writes some quirky books, I came across him with his book Outskirts which was on the Wainwright Prize. I have his new book, Iconicon on the way to my library at the moment

  2. Annabel (AnnaBookBel)

    I loved Outskirts – and I’ve had Concretopia in my TBR for far too long.

    • Paul

      It is well worth reading, Annabel

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