Architecture under Harold Wilson and 1974’s hung parliament


The newly built World Trade Centre, 1973 (US National Archives, Flickr)

Our sister blog, External Works, has speculated on what the new ConLib government (or, as some on Twitter would have it, ConDemNation) could mean for the built environment. I thought it might be interesting to see what was going on in the world of architecture when Britain last saw a similar political situation.

The UK’s last hung parliament came about in 1974. Harold Wilson (or, as he was less well known, James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx) entered his second term in office after Ted Heath proved unable to form a coalition government. Like today, many countries in the West were experiencing recession and financial crises.

Britain's shiniest front door (DowningStreet on Flickr)

Wilson’s possibly best-remembered speech explored the massive implications of scientific and technological change for 60s and 70s Britain. He argued that “the Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated measures on either side of industry”.

Despite a troubled economic climate, the built environment of the time was shaped by technocracy, experimentation and the development of high-tech construction methods.

Buckminster Fuller, he of the geodesic domes, had already inaugurated the World Design Science Decade (1965–1975) at the meeting of the International Union of Architects in Paris. The decade was, in Fuller’s words, devoted to “applying the principles of science to solving the problems of humanity.”

Fuller's dome for the 1967 expo in Montreal (caribb on Flickr)

Wikipedia on 1970s architecture:

Architecture in the 1970s began as a continuation of styles created by such architects as Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Early in the decade, several architects competed to build the tallest building in the world. Of these buildings, the most notable are the John Hancock Center and Sears Tower in Chicago, both designed by Bruce Graham and Fazlur Khan and the World Trade Center towers in New York by American architect Minoru Yamasaki. The decade also brought experimentation in geometric design, pop-art, postmodernism and early deconstructivism.

London's BT Tower (by fishyfish_arcade on Flickr)

By the time of 1974’s hung parliament, one of London’s iconic (that word again) structures, the BT Tower, had been opened by Harold Wilson. The tower exemplified the decade’s desire to build new, build tall, and build high tech.

In 2003, the BT Tower became a listed building along with six other “historically and architecturally outstanding communications structures” located around the country. Revealing the listings, Baroness Blackstone, then Minister of State for the Arts said:

“Our built heritage should be about much more than old buildings. The best of our modern architecture also merits the recognition and protection that listing brings. Structures like the BT Tower and the ntl Broadcasting Tower are cultural and architectural icons of Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’. These buildings mark the early milestones of Britain’s transformation into one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world today.”

The next five years will show whether the global ‘sky’s-the-limit’ architectural optimism of the 1970s will, through sheer cost-cutting necessity, be replaced by something more local, modest and sustainable.


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One Response to “Architecture under Harold Wilson and 1974’s hung parliament”

  1. Architecture & movement « Building Says:

    […] all important view. A rotating restaurant, Top of the Tower, was located on the 34th floor of the BT Tower in London and was in use from 1966 until 1980. There was speculation that the rotating restaurant might […]

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