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To Drag Out a Rough Poetry:
Colin MacInnes and the New Brutalism in Postwar Britain

This essay considers the intersection between trends in British fiction and architecture during the socially and culturally transformative years of the late 1950s. Reading Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners (1959) alongside Alison and Peter Smithson’s New Brutalism-inspired House of the Future (1956), the essay argues that the architectural and literary innovations of this period turned away from the recent past to create a new set of narrative and material codes that valued poetic renderings of reality, transparency, fluidity, and the freedom to move and to consume at will.

Colin MacInnes’s career as a journalist and a writer of fiction was marked consistently by what he called a “sociological hunger,” a desire to know and represent the real England (“Englishness” 125). In a 1960 essay on the prolific architectural critic and historian Nikolaus Pevsner, MacInnes praises Pevsner’s architectural writings as an antidote to this hunger, especially given the proliferation of other media with which architecture was competing in 1960. For MacInnes, the built environment communicated English reality—its history and its visions for the future—in a way that these other media might not always have been able to achieve:

A paradox, among so many, in our society, seems to me to be the extreme difficulty, among the welter of informational media, of finding exactly what is going on: what England really is, and the lives of those therein. Films and TV tell nothing, radio very little, newspapers rare snippets, and plays and novels and social studies much, much less than they could. For any who may be likewise wracked by the pangs of a sociological hunger, Dr. Pevsner offers a very rich fare indeed.

(125) [End Page 53]

MacInnes appreciates architecture and architectural criticism as a sociological record—a fact that is not surprising given his reputation as a sociological realist. What becomes clear on reading his fiction alongside the architecture of his time, however, is that architecture also informs his aesthetic representation of reality in a way that clearly makes him distinct from the other, more culturally dominant sociological realists of the time—the Angry Young Men and the writers associated with the Movement.

In his trilogy of London novels from the late 1950s and early 1960s, especially Absolute Beginners, the second installment in 1959, MacInnes narratively and stylistically reinvents the modernist preoccupation with mobility that dominated the work of metropolitan interwar writers such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Like those writers, MacInnes uses urban architecture and geography as more than setting or theme. The physical city itself becomes an aesthetic model that allows him to represent, as the modernists did, the tension between a past and present increasingly at odds. In the case of the late 1950s, the tension was palpable between the generation that had lived through World War II and a postwar youth that often rejected authority and traditional ideas about national identity and historical value. This tension was visibly evident in the built environment as the drive for architectural preservation came up against the assertion of a decidedly antihistorical and modernist British architecture known as the New Brutalism.

In this essay, I consider the intersection between British fiction and architecture during this time of significant cultural transformation. Immediately after World War II, architects, planners, and policymakers tried to reinstate stability and security in a built environment scarred by bombing damage and a thorough disruption of domestic life. After a decade of reconstruction, these efforts gave way to the experimental ethos of the New Brutalism, and fiction by writers like MacInnes embraced a disruptive, future-oriented aesthetic derived from youth culture, transnational consumerism and popular culture, postcolonial migration, and the legacy of interwar modernism. Reading Absolute Beginners alongside Alison and Peter Smithson’s House of the Future, a futuristic model home based on the philosophy of the New Brutalism, I argue that in various thematic and aesthetic ways these cultural phenomena eschew ornamentation and historical reference and instead aim, in Peter Smithson’s words, “to be objective about ‘reality,’” to “drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces which are at work” (113). These examples demonstrate how the architectural and literary innovations of the late 1950s and 1960s turned away from the recent past to create a new set of narrative and material codes that valued transparency, fluidity, and the freedom to move and consume at will.1 [End Page 54]

The House of the Future

In 1956, Alison and Peter Smithson created the House of the Future for the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition. The Smithsons were two of the most influential British architects of the postwar period and two of the pioneers of the New Brutalism; this exhibition was their first major exposure to the public. Their true-to-scale model of a futuristic house for 1980 was built using the most up-to-date technologies in prefabrication, mass production, and engineering, and, as it was never intended for actual construction and real use, it has all the makings of a work of popular fiction. It is especially appropriate to introduce the New Brutalism through the example of this model home, rather than a real world building, because the movement itself began in language and philosophy rather than architecture. As the prolific British architectural critic Reyner Banham explained in The New Brutalism,

the term [“the New Brutalism”] was coined, in essence, before there existed any architectural movement for it to describe. . . . When Peter Smithson finally committed the phrase to print in December 1953 . . . the situation had already developed so far that no word but “Brutalism” could have served to express what the Smithsons and many others of their generation urgently felt they must express, even if they had, as yet, no architecture to express it.


The New Brutalism is thus invested, perhaps more than other architectural movements, in the role of the imagination in architecture, in foregrounding questions about how people should live rather than questions about what their living spaces should look like. Such an approach to building could be summed up by the Smithsons’ own utopian description of the New Brutalism as “an ethic, not an aesthetic” (qtd. in Banham, New Brutalism 10). The architectural fiction of the House of the Future can therefore tell us just as much about the cultural significance of the New Brutalism as one of the Smithsons’ real world buildings—Hunstanton School (1954) or Robin Hood Gardens (late 1960s)—if not more.

Like the future-oriented fictional teenagers of MacInnes’s novels, the Smithsons were interested in creating, as architectural historian Nicholas Bullock puts it, “an architecture appropriate for this new world of post-war plenty, even if this meant breaking with the traditional definitions of the past” (112). The design inspiration for the House of the Future came not from Britain’s architectural heritage but from the advertising culture created and perpetuated by American popular magazines such as Life and Colliers, which were in broad [End Page 55] circulation at the time (Jackson). Indeed, the image of the perfect American home was especially compelling for British citizens of all ages who had until 1954 been living under rationing restrictions held over from the war.

With each room constructed in one prefabricated piece of molded plastic composites like an airplane, the House of the Future reflected a new aesthetic of efficiency and disposability that characterized the consumer culture of a newly affluent and modern Britain. Recognizing that technology was one of the most important signs of modern building and a modern culture, the Smithsons designed a house that did not merely contain traces of technology; rather, like the prefabs that were mass produced to address housing shortages as a result of the war, the House of the Future was itself a piece of technology. Into the walls, they built central heating, air conditioning, a color television, a dishwasher, compact cooking appliances, and a self-washing bathtub and shower with a warm-air-drying system. This technologically advanced dwelling was designed to showcase the current trends, as well as to facilitate their visually seamless disposal and replacement.3 Like earlier modernist precedents, the House of the Future made space a positive element that enabled circulation and transparency for its imagined inhabitants. Without freestanding walls and doors enclosing rooms, sightlines were opened up, and furniture innovations, such as a table that could be lowered into the floor, created new paths for movement within a house that was fairly small. The central interior garden could be seen from every part of the house, making the outdoor element fundamental to the interior space of the dwelling.

For the Smithsons, the physically mobile architecture of the House of the Future allowed for a domestic experience that was flexible and attuned to the technological present even as it imagined the future. These design values were tied to the ethical goals that underpinned the New Brutalism: a commitment to reality that would promote social responsibility. The House of the Future expressed an architectural vision based not on the stability or rigidity of British historical precedents but on the future-oriented mobility of mass-produced, expendable materials. Yet, while the House of the Future expressed values of disposability and free circulation, it made these values comprehensible and appealing through what they believed were universal forms. Its overall composition consciously referred to ancient precedents: its complex molded shapes echoed the carved caves of Provence and the interior garden was inspired by the atrium houses of Pompeii (“Alison and Peter”).

Philosophically, the New Brutalism aimed for an uninhibited experience of basic building materials and domestic spaces that was [End Page 56] available to everyone, regardless of class, gender, or nationality. Reacting against trends in the immediate postwar decade that favored a mix of historical references and a picturesque style, the New Brutalism found inspiration in peasant dwelling forms. “It has nothing to do with craft,” the Smithsons explained (qtd. in “New Brutalism” 1). “We see architecture as the direct expression of a way of life.” The House of the Future and the Smithsons’ other projects aimed to reflect the basic needs and desires of the average citizen. They were liberated from historical tradition and embraced the innovations of the machine age while remaining specific to their location and purpose through technology and form rather than ornament.4

Architecture for the Smithsons was always a social concern and they foregrounded this belief in their early pathbreaking contributions to international architectural circles. In 1953, they led a movement to reform the long-held goals of the Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne (CIAM). CIAM had been established in 1928 by leading figures of the modernist International Style, Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius. Its explicit values included planning according to strict zoning rules that would divide cities into specific areas for living, working, leisure, and transport. Against this vision, the Smithsons argued for a city that valued free circulation and mobility, in which boundaries between human activities were fluid or nonexistent and dwellings were conceived as “streets in the sky,” which would “encourage residents to feel a sense of ‘belonging’ and ‘neighbourliness’” (“Alison + Peter”). These social ideals that defined the New Brutalism may have preceded actual construction, but as 1960s large-scale housing projects such the Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens and Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith’s Park Hill Estate demonstrate, “streets in the sky” indeed became a concrete reality across the postwar British landscape.

Absolute Beginnings

Fluidity, disposability, belonging, neighborliness, and a confusing yet exhilarating sense of reality are the concepts that define the New Brutalist vision and the specific architectural fiction of the House of the Future. I turn now to Absolute Beginners, a novel built on these very same values. Through his neomodernist aesthetic, MacInnes offers a snapshot of England in its era of rising affluence that revels in youth culture, high-rise living, domestic mobility, disposability, speed, and consumerism. Against the ideals of stability and individual and family privacy that had been promoted through immediate postwar reconstruction projects, Absolute Beginners, much like the projects of the New Brutalist architects, imagines an England in which architectural [End Page 57] and literary aesthetic boundaries are fundamentally fluid. From this basic notion of domestic space and narrative form, other boundaries—sexual, racial, familial, and artistic—also become malleable. As a whole, the novel represents London in the late 1950s as a site of a newly vertically built environment that enables potentially revolutionary physical as well as cultural mobility for a multiethnic and sexually diverse urban population.5 The novel thus compels the reader to rethink the purpose of literary fiction in a time of multimedia culture and high-speed social and architectural change.

My analysis of MacInnes and the New Brutalism extends Peter J. Kalliney’s work on modern British literature and urban space and architecture in Cities of Affluence and Anger: A Literary Geography of Modern Englishness by shifting the framework from class to the more broadly cultural concept of building.6 This move allows me to consider social and political issues as well as aesthetic and philosophical ones, like the concern for expressing a real England shared by MacInnes and the Smithsons.7 MacInnes is an important case study not only because of his explicit fascination with architecture but because his work does not fit into the Angry Young Men tradition that has tended to dominate formulations of postwar British literature of the 1950s. Novels and plays by writers including Alan Sillitoe, John Osbourne, and Kingsley Amis primarily depict characters who identify as masculine, white, and working class, whereas MacInnes depicts a much greater range of gendered, classed, and racial identities in his fiction. Indeed, MacInnes’s narrator in Absolute Beginners explicitly distances himself from the “Angries,” calling their work “cottage journalism” (81). Within the existing scholarship on MacInnes, his novels are often discussed in relationship to the youth culture movement and New Left sociological studies of the late 1950s or in conjunction with postcolonial approaches to the postwar years.8 These studies helpfully situate MacInnes within major postwar cultural traditions, but they do not take full account of his unique contributions, which become evident with sustained attention to the aesthetic dimension of his work and its relationship to the built environment.

By using fast-paced city life and its architectural structures as an aesthetic model, Absolute Beginners revises interwar metropolitan writing and modernist tropes such as the flaneur to represent the promises of a newly mobile experience of London life. Structurally, as in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Absolute Beginners strings together a series of largely disconnected experiences that happen over the course of June, July, August, and September instead of pursuing more traditional novelistic techniques of plot and character development. Colloquial language and quick procession from scene to scene make the pace of the novel breathless. One moment the narrator is [End Page 58] discussing pop music in a club; the next, he is lost on the side of a road, his scooter out of gas. “Quite honestly,” he remarks, “I don’t know quite what happened then, because my next quite clear recollection was batting along a highway on my Vespa, which went on for miles and miles, I don’t know where, until the petrol ran out, it stopped, and I was nowhere” (125). The reader has no choice but to go along for the ride, as she is swept up by the narrator’s fast-moving, trendy diction. Instead of polished, careful syntax, we get the conversational repetition of colloquial words, such as “quite,” and punctuation by pop cultural slang, such as “dig” (54), “cats” (188), and “telly.” The journalistic quality of the novel also emphasizes the high-speed mobility of information within the text and between the text and its context; the narrator reports on the Notting Hill race riots within one year of their happening, making the novel a news source as much as anything.

Both the narrator and London itself are always moving, and architecture promotes circulation. Along the Embankment, the narrator observes new tower blocks as the transparent backdrop to a postindustrial urban landscape in which the boundaries between home, industry, travel, infrastructure, and entertainment are fluid: “I stood beside big new high blocks of glass-built flats, like an X-ray of a stack of buildings with their skins peeled off, and watched the traffic floating down the Thames below them, very slow and sure (chug, chug) and oily, underneath the electric railway bridge (rattle, rattle), and past the power-station like a super-cinema with funnels stuck on it” (39). In this highly technologized urban setting, the narrator takes pleasure in his mobility. As an unnamed character, he is unattached and mobile in a basic literary sense instead of tied to a family name, home, and lineage. His parents own a boardinghouse—a domestic structure defined against the permanent single-family home by temporary, mobile residence—inhabited mainly by immigrants from Cyprus. This house is just one of many spaces that the narrator moves among freely as he travels through West London neighborhoods on foot or by scooter. Movement accelerates in the final pages of the novel through the narrator’s arrival at Heathrow airport, where he reports that “everyone [is] equal in the sky dominion of fast air-travel” (42). There are very few narrative or stylistic still points in the text, and architecture, geography, and transportation technology reinforce its unceasing motion.

MacInnes’s narrator is essentially a tour guide—a flaneur for the postwar era. He invites readers to become acquainted with a real London neighborhood by providing specific geographic markers that define Notting Dale, a historically working-class area of West London that became home to a significant number of Spanish Civil [End Page 59] War refugees in the 1930s and Caribbean emigrants post-1948.9 As the narrator makes his way through Notting Dale, he is not deeply contemplating consciousness or the historical or mythical meanings of the city around him, as his modernist counterparts such as Clarissa Dalloway do. Instead, he is attuned to the geographical and technological surface of things, mapping out for the reader key local landmarks that define the neighborhood: the Harrow Road, Grand Union Canal, a mainline rail station, a hospital, gasworks, Kensal Green cemetery, Wormwood Scrubs park, a prison, a sports arena, and “the new telly barracks of the BBC” (44). The space is not beautiful, regal, or awe-inspiring; it is modern and thoroughly urban, with “escape routes” that “cut across one another at different points, making crazy little islands of slum habitation shut off from the world by concrete precipices, and linked by metal bridges.” Here, the houses escaped bombing damage during the war but have also been overlooked by postwar slum-clearance programs. They are “old Victorian lower-middle tumble-down, built I dare say for grocers and bank clerks and horse-omnibus inspectors who’ve died and gone and their descendants evacuated to the outer suburbs, but these houses live on like shells, and there’s only one thing to do with them, absolutely one, which is to pull them down till not a one’s left standing up.”

Despite this case for demolition and despite his calling the neighborhood the “residential doss-house of our city” (45), he remarks that “however horrible the area is, you’re free there!” (46). Freedom for the narrator is only possible in a part of the city and within buildings that lack a burdensome sense of historical continuity. In his affinity for such absolute beginnings, the narrator recalls the New Brutalist philosophical commitment to an architecture that expresses life directly as it is. In the multistory block of flats where the narrator lives, “The tenants come and go” and there are “regular squatters” (46). The narrator takes the reader through the building with descriptions of several squatters that demonstrate his dual vision of fluid social identities and architectural boundaries. On the floor below him, the Fabulous Hoplite, a fashionable homosexual, serves as an unofficial contact for gossip columnists. The black Mr. Cool inhabits the first floor. Finally, Big Jill, a “Les ponce” (lesbian pimp) lives in a basement room (47–48). In an undeniably utopian vein, this diverse cast of characters moves freely in and out of each other’s rooms and up and down the vertical structure of the block of flats with little attention in the narration given to socioeconomic struggle.

The narrator’s personal domestic space is also free of historical reference. His room has minimal furniture and decoration, only one chair and several cushions spread out on the floor. No curtains hang in the windows. In this space, as in the Smithsons’ House of the [End Page 60] Future, there is room to move and sightlines are open within the flat as well as out into the city. He reinforces the lack of permanence by regularly culling his pop culture belongings: “The only other objects are my record-player, my pocket transistor radio, and stacks of discs and books that I’ve collected, hundreds of them, which every New Year’s Day I have a pogrom of, and sling out everything except a very chosen few” (48–49). This new kind of object-world is defined not by attachment and preservation but by circulation and disposal.

The impermanent, fluid, and multiethnic mode of dwelling depicted in MacInnes’s novel is part and parcel of what could be called, generally, a culture of movement. In 1954, the literary editor for The Spectator, J. D. Scott, coined the term “The Movement” to describe a group of writers including Amis, Thom Gunn, Elizabeth Jennings, and John Wain (Scott 399–400). And on its 15 April 1966 cover, Time picked up on an adjective frequently used in popular culture, “swinging,” to describe London (“London”). In Absolute Beginners, to thrive in the culture of movement starts with a rejection of housing that harkens back to more stationary Victorian domestic values. The narrator delivers a scathing critique of the proliferation of “Houses”: “Victorian bourgeois palaces that have been made over into flatlets for the new spiv intellectual lot” and renamed with titles such as “Serpentine House,” “this ‘House’ thing being the new way of describing any dump the landlords want to make a fast fiver out of” (86). Against this “housed,” “spiv intellectual lot,” the narrator and his Napoli friends specialize in the mobile and temporary: the circulation of information, people, and trends. They are journalists, hustlers, prostitutes, pimps, gossips, bisexuals, and freelancers. They gather and dance at jazz clubs where the narrator demonstrates to readers his up-to-the-moment knowledge of fashion. He carefully outlines the differences between various trends—the mods, trads, Teds, spivs, and so on—down to the details of fabric, cut, and hair partings. In sporting the latest garb and spinning the latest records, the characters he describes find value not in references to particular historical periods but in what they believe to be the most authentic expression of the current moment.

Absolute Beginners is one fictional example of MacInnes’s general fascination with teenagers and popular culture that further aligns his career with the cultural values expressed by the New Brutalism. For him, teenagers have an explicit material connection to mobility and vertical social advancement because they had become the driving economic force in contemporary Britain. In several essays in the late 1950s, MacInnes issues warnings to adults to pay attention to teenagers. “[T]he ‘two nations’ of our society,” he writes in 1958 with a deliberate invocation of Benjamin Disraeli, [End Page 61]

may perhaps no longer be those of the “rich” and “poor” (or, to use old-fashioned terms, the “upper” and “working” classes), but those of the teenagers on the one hand and, on the other, all those who have assumed the burdens of adult responsibility. Indeed, the great social revolution of the past fifteen years may not be the one which re-divided wealth among the adults in the Welfare State, but the one that’s given teenagers economic power. This piece is about the pop disc industry—almost entirely their own creation; but what about the new clothing industry for making and selling teenage garments of both sexes? Or the motor scooter industry they patronize so generously? Or the radiogram and television industries? Or the eating and soft-drinking places that cater so largely for them?

In this typically ethnographic essay, MacInnes characterizes teenagers as a “new classless class” with an unconsciously international sensibility (47). Their wealth, combined with an indifferent attitude toward adults and issues that earlier generations in Britain invested with importance—such as class, history, and the threat of nuclear warfare—led MacInnes to argue that generational difference, rather than class difference, has the potential to generate historical change.

In Absolute Beginners, MacInnes defines the teenager subculture as being at odds with an older, tax-paying population. Teenagers were financially mobile in the sense that they had income through a new labor market open to young people and yet they were minors and so exempt from taxes. Despite MacInnes’s lukewarm attitude toward the Angry Young Men, he shared with those writers a desire to characterize teenagers who were profoundly antiauthoritarian and preoccupied with the quest for individual power. As in Sillitoe’s novella Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, MacInnes’s narrator runs from the law. He has no interest in “the bomb” (23) or war. But whereas work by writers such as Sillitoe and Osbourne feature teenagers who are underdog champions of the working class, MacInnes’s teenagers are ambivalent about questions of class. Their desire for individual power has more to do with sexual, racial, and pop cultural preference—identity—than it does with preserving the economic aims of the welfare state. As MacInnes wrote for The Twentieth Century in 1958, “In contrast with the earlier generation (say, now aged 23–35) that was emancipated by the Welfare State and who, in spite of economic gains, still seem almost ferociously obsessed by class, the kids don’t seem to care about it at all” (“Pop Songs” 56).

Accordingly, the narrator in Absolute Beginners is not a hero or even an antihero who works in a factory or a shop; rather, he is a [End Page 62] media source. Mainly concerned with the accurate portrayal of contemporary England, MacInnes’s freelance photojournalist narrator has a sense of social justice that requires the unrestricted domestic mobility of all people. This vision of justice is challenged when the Notting Hill race riots break out and threaten the freedom to move in and out of that neighbourhood. The narrator is quick to jump into the fight and to document the injustice in his journalistic role. Free from the constraints of fixed, adult domesticity, MacInnes’s young narrator is fit to document the pressing issues of contemporary British life. His point of view is a newly appropriate one for the novel as a form in a time when culture moves with increasing speed and justice depends on preserving the ability to move at will.

Alongside MacInnes’s essays, the journalistic neomodernism of Absolute Beginners and its persistent theme of domestic mobility communicate how MacInnes perceived England and his relationship to its political and artistic communities in the 1950s. Tellingly, he chose England, Half English as the title for his early collected essays to foreground the complex nature of this relationship. “Born in London,” he remarked in 1962, “but not reared there for so many vital years, my feeling for the city has perforce become that of an insider-outsider: everything in London is familiar; yet everything in it seems to me as strange” (qtd. in McLeod 40).10 Although MacInnes was not an immigrant in the way that Caribbean writers like George Lamming and Sam Selvon were, he grew up in Australia and returned to England as a young man, and as a result, he wrote from a position of geographical displacement (MacLeod 40). This outsider position was reinforced by the fact that he identified as bisexual and so did not align himself with the traditionally heterosexual identities that dominated work by the Angry Young Men. His role within contemporary literary schools and trends was, therefore, similarly “that of an insider-outsider.” According to Alan Sinfield, MacInnes “was affiliated neither to the movement nor to the traditional literary establishment. . . . He harked back to the radical social concerns of Wells, Shaw and Orwell, and anticipated the new journalism of the 1960s—fast-moving, welcoming the new, launching into superficially unpromising topics” (169).11

A mobile lifestyle thus appealed to MacInnes despite its lack of security and its dependence on commodities that, in hindsight, produced a culture defined more by predictable types than individual liberation. He was irreverently optimistic about the antibourgeois potential of domestic and cultural movement, as his ironic revision of one of Woolf’s celebratory lines from Mrs. Dalloway demonstrates. Woolf’s narrator muses, “in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she [Clarissa] [End Page 63] loved; life; London; this moment of June” (4). In MacInnes’s version, the narrator describes an “absolutely fabulous June day, such as only that old whore London can throw up, though very occasionally” (13). Woolf’s high modernist contemplation of mobilized city life is transformed in Absolute Beginners, as in the Smithsons’ House of the Future, into an energetic openness to the possibility of an England without racial, sexual, economic, artistic, or architectural barriers.

Recalling the New Brutalist goal of being objective about reality and dragging “a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces which are at work,” MacInnes aimed to demonstrate the value of the novel as a cultural form through a commitment to realism. As a response to the growing number of intellectuals in Britain who claimed to find no valid reason to devote time to reading novels, he developed a critique and defense of the novel in a long essay published in 1975, No Novel Reader. He argues therein that the nature and social function of the novel had changed since the nineteenth century. Although he is skeptical about the potential for the novel to create large-scale social transformation, he believes that the form is redeemable and important because it has a sociological function. “If the ‘great novel’ is not . . . characteristic of our fragmented, rapidly changing society,” he contends, “what novelists do offer is a far more informed and accurate picture of particular aspects of our lives” in comparison with other media (52). Moreover, he indicts those members of the educated middle class who believe the novel is escapist and has nothing meaningful to contribute to intellectual life: “In shutting themselves off from the novel, its denigrators are also turning against much unknown human experience, and the classes and races to which the novel increasingly belongs” (43–44). For MacInnes, the novel needs to be appreciated as one of a diverse set of “media for the diffusion of factual and imaginative prose,” including radio reading, TV cassettes, and microfilm (53). Running parallel to new ways of envisioning the built environment, his argument about the novel is one that values real social information and ultimately promotes inclusiveness. Just as the Smithsons and other architects of the New Brutalist movement aimed to construct streets in the sky, MacInnes wrote novels that aimed to create streets on the page.


The House of the Future and Absolute Beginners both refashioned interwar modernist aesthetics and introduced up-to-the-moment ideas and themes to project a utopian social optimism about England in the 1950s. It must be said, by way of conclusion, that this [End Page 64] optimism was limited. For MacInnes, despite the fact that he ends Absolute Beginners with an account of the violent Notting Hill race riots, his vision of a free world inhabited by a multiracial and sexually diverse group of squatters and hustlers was ultimately more wishful thinking than it was convincingly real and accurate. Indeed, one has only to read contemporaneous fiction by Caribbean immigrants, like Selvon’s 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners, to understand how the mobility in which MacInnes’s narrator takes pleasure was in reality not a source of freedom but a result of discrimination and a constant burden for many.12

Similarly, the legacy of postwar urban architecture from the 1950s and 1960s has all too often been one of neglect, decay, aggression, and downright ugliness. Even the architects who first practiced and wrote about the New Brutalism recognized its limitations as it moved from the imagined space of fiction and futuristic model homes to the everyday lives of real Britons. In a BBC interview in the 1990s, Peter Smithson was asked to comment on the failure of Robin Hood Gardens as a social housing initiative (a failure made all too real by demolition plans proposed in 2012). In response he pointed out sadly, “The week it opened, people would shit in the lifts, which is an act of social aggression” (“Rebuilding Britain”). The social optimism of the New Brutalist philosophy, it seems, could not always last once the realities of welfare state housing policy and management took over from the architectural imagination.13

What happened to the ethically committed yet whimsically stylized cultural innovations of the 1950s and 1960s? As early as 1975, Reyner Banham had traced the legacy of modernist and New Brutalist mass housing projects to an ensuing architectural phenomenon called the megastructure: “An over-scaled, colossal, multi-unit architectural mass” (196). Banham outlines the ultimate limitations of a building philosophy that sought to capture not only domestic space but also urban life in its entirety in a single architectural entity—a description that he associates with late-1960s projects in Britain like the Barbican, Park Hill Estate, and Thamesmead. He explains that by the late 1960s, modern architects had “been forced to recognize that the homogeneously designed ‘total architecture’ demanded by such as Walter Gropius would be as dead, as culturally thin, as any other perfect machine” (9). Influential urban planner Peter Hall similarly described megastructure architecture as “autodestructive” (qtd. in Banham 216). As a case in point, Banham highlights Thamesmead, a geographically isolated complete new town located “downwind of a sewage works” in an inaccessible part of southeast London; he describes Thamesmead as “the ultimate tombstone of the institutionalized and run-down concept of megastructure” and “the largest and [End Page 65] most terminal monster of them all” (190). Indeed, as Banham points out, Thamesmead was all too apt as a shooting location for Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962). In Kubrick’s film, fiction and architecture meet again in a spirit of destructive departure from tradition, but this time it is not in the utopian and clean-slate spirit of the Smithsons’ House of the Future or MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners. It is the “autodestructive” dystopia of a narrative and a building that generate isolation rather than community.

This legacy makes MacInnes’s neomodernist tour guide narrator and the New Brutalist “streets in the sky” building philosophy seem devastatingly naive. Indeed, contemporary appreciation for both MacInnes and the New Brutalism are driven more by historical interest than by evidence of an enduring aesthetic sensibility or, in the case of the New Brutalism, of social efficacy. Both are compelling precisely because they are so definitively of their time—a quality that MacInnes and the Smithsons would surely have valued, given their wholehearted participation in a truly innovative moment in postwar British culture that challenged the established meaning of home for so many.

Paula Derdiger

PAULA DERDIGER <pderdige@d.umn.edu> teaches in the Department of English at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where she works on modern and contemporary British literature and culture. She has authored articles on Elizabeth Bowen and Elizabeth Taylor, and her forthcoming monograph is entitled Reconstruction Fiction: Literature, Film, and Housing in Postwar Britain.


1. My interest in the connection between making fiction and making buildings dovetails with studies that have interpreted twentieth-century British culture in terms of space, geography, and architecture, such as Kalliney, Kuchta, and Hornsey, as well as efforts to reassess midcentury fiction, including British Fiction After Modernism, edited by Mackay and Stonebridge.

2. The Smithsons coined the term New Brutalism in 1953 with reference to the French béton brut, meaning raw concrete, which was used by Le Corbusier to describe the unfinished or roughly finished precast concrete slabs that were one of the staple components of interwar modernist and postwar architecture.

3. Disposability remained a key building value for the Smithsons, which they employed again in the Appliance House, proposed in a 1958 article for Architectural Design. In this house, appliances would “be hidden in cubicles so that they could be replaced with more up-to-date models ‘without disrupting the appearance of the interior’” (Owens 21).

4. In practice, the New Brutalism quickly became associated with construction that favored basic and undecorated building materials such as unfinished precast concrete and designs that laid bare the [End Page 66] engineering and technological innovations of house construction. In this sense, the New Brutalism was very much an inheritor of interwar architectural modernism.

5. Scholars such as Low and McLeod have discussed the role of space and geography in Absolute Beginners, but they do so mainly in order to make an argument about race in postcolonial London. Ferrebe has also discussed MacInnes in relation to gender in the 1950s.

6. Kalliney’s Cities of Affluence and Anger is an especially important precursor to my work, as he devotes a chapter to the relationship between domestic architecture, namely the two-up, two-down house and the working-class milieu of the Angry Young Men in the 1950s.

7. This is not to say that class is not an important framework for thinking about postwar British culture, particularly in relationship to questions about reality and the real. Indeed, class is one of the most fundamental issues of the welfare state and its implications are evident throughout MacInnes’s work and the architectural projects of the New Brutalism, many of which have become synonymous in historical memory with welfare state social housing initiatives. Since Sinfield’s Marxist study of postwar British culture, Literature, Politics and Culture in Postwar Britain, class-based analysis of the period has been extensive in literary studies, with Kalliney’s book as one of the more recent and exemplary contributions.

8. For studies that focus on MacInnes and youth culture, see Sinfield, Bentley’s “The Young Ones,” and Fowler. For postcolonial analysis of MacInnes, see Low and McLeod.

9. The voice of the tour guide had become an increasingly familiar postwar sound through radio and television travel programs. Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald’s “There and Back” and “Let’s Go,” for example, became popular BBC Third Programme installments by the late 1940s. In the 1950s, cultural critics like Pevsner, John Summerson, and John Betjeman frequently took audiences to country houses in their writings and broadcasts, and Pevsner published a widely read 46-volume county-by-county work of architectural history, The Buildings of England, which MacInnes admired in his 1960 essay, “The Englishness of Dr. Pevsner.” Absolute Beginners is a kind of urban rejoinder to the preservationist tour guide voices that focused on the English countryside.

10. Gould found “insider-outsider” to be such a resonant phrase for MacInnes that he chose it as the title of the only biography of MacInnes to date.

11. In 1959, MacInnes remarked that he objected to critics referring to City of Spades or Absolute Beginners as documentary novels. Echoing the manifesto produced by filmmakers of Britain’s Free Cinema movement in 1957, he categorized his work as poetic realism: “I would thus describe City of Spades or Absolute Beginners—no doubt—flatteringly—as poetic evocations of a human situation, with undertones of social criticism of it” (“Sharp Schmutter” 147). [End Page 67]

12. Unlike MacInnes’s narrator in Absolute Beginners, who chooses to live a highly mobile lifestyle in a slum rather than with his parents, many immigrants had to move house repeatedly because of discrimination and lack of funds. Fiction by immigrant writers represented this other, less utopian experience of residential mobility. For extended considerations of writing by Caribbean and African writers in the postwar period, see, for example, Ball, Kalliney, and Proctor.

13. Film scholar Andrew Burke explains that the utopian promise of mass housing projects in Britain, which was infused with the philosophy of the New Brutalism, was fraught with contradictions: “The formal regularity of their modernist design facilitated construction on a mass scale, yet the demands for housing far outstripped production. As a result, the image of the modernist housing scheme, whether in the form of tower blocks or low-rise slabs, is at least initially invested with the allure of a modernity that for many remained out of reach” (180). Indeed, Burke picks up on Patrick Wright’s contention that the cinematic image of the tower block represents the “tombstone not just of council housing but of the entire Welfare State” (qtd. in Burke 187).

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