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John Grindrod: Concretopia (Old Street)

The seeds of this book were sown when John Grindrod was still at school in New Addington, just outside Croydon, and found to his dismay that his hometown was considered an architectural carbuncle.

Many years later, he set off across the country to learn more about British post-war town planning, the result being the accessible and rewarding Concretopia. Structured as much like a travelogue as a chronological history, it's largely a story of good intentions and competing ideologies which takes in the wartime prefabs, the reconstructions of Coventry and Plymouth, the rise of the garden city, New Brutalism and acres upon acres of concrete.

Grindrod, who admits that "the South Bank and the Festival Hall have long been my idea of the apex of civilisation", comes not to condemn, nor is he over-effusive in his praise. He simply wants to learn and understand. What he finds is that, for all that modern architecture is damned as dehumanising, there was an admirable optimism and idealism behind each innovation in town planning, which usually lasted until development corporations were wound up and estates sold off to private bidders, the "streets in the sky" only then turning into no-go areas. He's also impressed that cash-strapped post-war governments set aside their reservations to invest pots of money in the new towns, compared to the defeated, can't-do attitude of present-day austerity.

He spends as much time focusing on the people who lived in the new towns and the high-rises as those who devised them, and guess what? Vast numbers loved them. The Gorbals project may have been a mixed success at best, but former tenants of the better blocks will defend them as the best places they ever lived.

As with Nigel McCrery's book on forensic pathology, reviewed last week, an enthusiastic amateur can be a much more personable and witty guide to a subject than an expert professional. I doubt many architects could have sustained the reader's interest through 440 pages the way bookseller and publisher Grindrod does, or have kept up such an endless stream of amusing similes ("meerkats scanning the horizon", "an upended packet of bourbons") for concrete buildings.

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