Engagement and exhibitionism in the era of high modernism: the example of 1940's Bilston

Marco Amati

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference proceeding contributionpeer-review


    The UK’s Attlee government from 1946-51 oversaw the introduction of the Town and Country Planning Act in 1947, which created the UK’s post-war planning and land rights system. The era’s zeitgeist is typified by an experimental, utopian and enthusiastic embrace of modernism, evinced by a range of events. These included the Festival of Britain (1951) designed to revive a war weary public and commemorate the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Festival of Britain included a purpose-built estate, Lansbury, in London’s East End to show in planning what the future could look like. This era’s style of modernism has been too easily characterized as expert-driven, ‘top-down’ and instrumentalist, seeking to plan in isolation from the political process and at its most extreme from the public who were affected by the plans. This view of modernist planning is often contrasted with a ‘bottom-up’, insurgent and radical forms of planning which are said to have arisen more recently. This paper revisits these broad-brush assumptions about modernist planning by tapping into the zeitgeist of exhibitions during the UK’s post-War reconstruction. The case of Bilston, a small un-bombed town in the Midlands is examined and specifically the exhibition that was used to propose its slum redevelopment. Bilston has already attracted scholarly attention as a case study in the role of early post-war consultants such as Professor Sir Charles Reilly. The present work focuses on the legacy of one of these consultants, the Austrian logical positivist Dr Otto Neurath. Neurath, sociologist, political economist, founder of the Unity of Science movement and housing activist had had some important interactions with the town planning movement internationally during the inter-war period. Most notable was his position as the only non-architect to be part of CIAM. In 1945 he was invited by the Town Clerk, A. V. Williams, to visit Bilston and to help with the redevelopment of the town. This paper focuses on the exhibitionary techniques and practices used by Neurath in his work on Bilston before his untimely death in December 1945. It argues that the engagement sought by Neurath in Bilston could easily be couched in more contemporary terms of ‘empowerment’ or ‘citizen control’, the top-most rung on the Arnstein ladder of participation. Highlighting cases such as these show that under the Atlee government between 1946-51 a different form of modernism briefly saw the light of day that speaks to contemporary examples of more radical planning practice.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationProceedings of the 15th Planning History Society Conference
    Place of PublicationSao Paulo
    PublisherInternational Planning History Society
    Number of pages12
    ISBN (Print)9788580890204
    Publication statusPublished - 2012
    EventInternational Planning History Society Conference (15th : 2012) - Sao Paulo
    Duration: 15 Jul 201218 Jul 2012


    ConferenceInternational Planning History Society Conference (15th : 2012)
    CitySao Paulo


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