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  • Writer's pictureBen Thomas

Literature Review: Boom Cities by Otto Saumarez Smith

Boom Cities is by architectural and urban historian Professor Otto Saumarez Smith. An assistant professor at Warwick University, Saumarez Smith’s research has a focus on how analysing cities and buildings is a useful tool to understanding abstract historical processes and political ideologies. He also has spoken on viewing this in the opposite approach – exploring how social influences have affected the urban environment around the United Kingdom. Boom Cities is essentially the thesis of Saumarez Smith’s post-doctoral research at Cambridge University.

The book details the urban renewal of British town and city centres during the 1960’s - where it has often been said that urban planners did more damage to Britain’s cities than the Luftwaffe during the Blitz. It gives an in-depth look into the political and philosophical backgrounds of urban planning and the impact these had on the municipal landscape. Boom Cities also attempts to convey how these modernist beliefs crossed so-called political party divides. It is a rare glimpse into the cultural behind-the-scenes of modernist building proposals and the planners who conceived them. Acts of parliament, specific studies of towns – such as Coventry and Northampton, illustrations of plans and statistics are among many features that Saumarez Smith has included to create an impressive, mesmerising collection of research. Case studies of individual planners also appear – detailing their political and personal beliefs and how this influenced their prized architecture. Throughout, he successfully introduces a reader to distinct terminology such as tabula rasa, uchronia and vertical segregation – using these to embellish his analysis of the trends and proposals. Some of these terms I was familiar with before reading, but only at a basic level – without any doubt, I can say that Boom Cities greatly enhanced my understanding of them. Alongside helping me to comprehend these terms, the in-depth sources of information provided in the book meant that I was able to place them in realistic contexts. One example is Saumarez Smith’s section on the proposals of vertical segregation away from increasing motor traffic – where he examples The University of Essex – my former alma mater.

Boom Cities was released in 2019, after the completion of Saumarez Smith’s doctoral research. It is surprising that it has taken roughly sixty years for someone to write so thoroughly on the political backgrounds behind modernist approaches to architecture. Specifically, those that dominated British town centres, universities and civic centres from the late 1960’s onwards. Although it should be noted, the book is heavily influenced by the work of civil engineer and town planner Sir Colin Buchanan – Traffic in Towns specifically. Traffic in Towns was a prominent report on urban and transport planning policy published 25 November 1963 for the UK Ministry of Transport and cars have a colossal impact on the planning of towns from this era onwards. Because of this, Boom Cities is a very retrospective piece of writing. This for me is a positive. There are no political agendas - if written during the sixties this may have occurred - and the specific architecture created during this time has become so programmed into society that there are fewer sharp opinions on it. Modernist buildings are now so commonly seen that to the average eye they blend into the rest of the built environment. There is also the element that Saumarez Smith can now truly see the impact of the motor vehicle. Before reading the book, I had not considered the impact of social and political beliefs on architectural planning – now I cannot see past it. I found Boom Cities to be a book that changes your way of viewing buildings, whilst also giving modernist architecture - that has so often been classed as “ugly” – the recognition it deserves. Akin to my reading on Marxism helping to scaffold my psychogeography knowledge, Saumarez Smith’s work on architecture has had the same influence. These are key features for successfully understanding the political influences on the practice of psychogeography.

The book contains case studies of various towns and cities across the country, many of which were a part of the “new town” initiative by the government – a scheme that has roots in immediate post-war political culture. Northampton – one of the towns detailed in Saumarez Smith’s work was personally interesting to me. During the Covid-19 pandemic I have been situated in Banbury, Oxfordshire – roughly thirty miles South from Northampton, therefore it is a town I plan to immediately travel to and explore once the country is beyond these difficult circumstances. Other settlements looked at included Coventry, Stevenage and Milton Keynes. These are towns that have been hugely affected by not just the new town initiative, but by people moving out from London and spilling into the surrounding areas. My creative writing piece on the A12 concentrates heavily on those moving out from the capital – so I will witness some of the subsequent effects on architecture – ones Boom Cities speak on – along my walk.

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