Past Events

Liquid Crystal Concrete:
Environmental Surrounds

Research Seminar – Alistair Cartwright, Matthew Wells, Elain Harwood

  • 22 June 2022
  • 6:00 – 7:30 pm
  • Paul Mellon Centre and Online

The third in a series of summer research seminars on The Arts of Postwar Britain 1945–1965 with Alistair Cartwright and Matthew Wells.

Matthew Wells – The Carpet, the Office, an Environment

Influenced by wider social and economic concerns in postwar Britain, the office was reconfigured around ideas of flexibility and communication, ideas derived from the German movement known as Bürolandschaft. Led by management consultants who advocated for open-plan spaces to emphasise group participation and teamwork, these reconfigurations to the office required new acoustic solutions to provide environments for optimal working conditions.

In order to address the new office environment, architects and designers turned to the mass use of carpets to absorb and counteract background noise. Weight, thickness and colour became important design criteria. Examination of the work of individual actors (e.g. Foster Associates) or the material agency of specific products (e.g. high-pile Perlon velour textiles), can show us the impact of carpeted floors on lighting, acoustics and comfort.

These new environments were connected to the inclusion of computers in the organisational infrastructure of bureaucratic tasks. Computers began to order electoral rolls, control the production of goods in factories and record land transfers. Initially delegated to isolated rooms, by the 1960s and led by companies like IBM, new communications systems, services and data conduits entered the open-place office. In turn the carpet shifted from a surface to a module; not just planar but a three-dimensional grid, enabling new types of economic activity and reconfiguring working life for those inside the office.

Alistair Cartwright – The World Turned Outside-In: Luxury Squats and Liberty Villas, 1946

Writing in 1962, Richard Wollheim compared the transformation of postwar London to Paris’s experience of “Haussmannisation”. But if the latter involved a “turning inside-out” of the habits of the private bourgeois citizen, postwar London’s great inversion tended to move in the opposite direction, and involved a very different section of society: from a “non-conformist chapel [...] turned into an all-night cafe” to “back-bedrooms in W11 or N4” metamorphosed into gambling dens, Wollheim proposed the image of the city turned outside-in as the spatial rubric of the period.

This talk sets out to trace that image back to a decisive but overlooked moment in postwar history. By investigating the visual representation of the 1946 squatting movement – a movement that re-christened disused army camps as “Liberty Villas” and took over luxury flats as communal housing blocks – the paper grounds Wollheim’s image in the politics of class and empire. While photography and newsreel multiplied the viral spread of the movement, illustrations and cartoons offered a more intimate view, recalling the experiences of returning ex-servicemen in far-flung theatres of war, and the role of women on the home front. Through the visual culture of a mass movement and its historical echoes/ripple-effects, the talk seeks out the deep roots of the postwar city’s great inversion, considering work by Bill Brandt, Bryan de Grineau, Muriel Box, Carl Giles, James Boswell and others.

About the speakers

  • Headshot of Alistair Cartwright, chin leaning on hand

    Alistair Cartwright is an independent researcher whose work explores the history of postwar London’s “rented rooms”. He was recently a postdoctoral fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre and has written on topics such as the aesthetics of the “un-ideal home”, subdivision and lodging houses, and the role of rent tribunals as spaces of resistance, for publications including the London Journal, Architectural Histories, Twentieth Century British History (forthcoming) and Jacobin. A recent historical materialist account of the building regulations in England and Wales will feature in the edited collection Building/Object: Shared and Contested Territories of Design and Architecture, published by Bloomsbury (May 2022). Alongside academic work, Alistair is a trust fundraiser for Open City, an organisation dedicated to making London’s built environment more open and equal and is a regular contributor to the socialist news site

  • Headshot of Matthew Wells

    Matthew Wells (b.1988, Birmingham) is Lecturer in Architectural History at University of Manchester and member of the Manchester Architecture Research Group (MARG). His research concentrates on representational techniques, technology and professional expertise in the built environments of Britain and Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. After architectural training and registration, he studied art history at The Courtauld Institute of Art and completed his doctorate in the History of Design Programme at the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Royal College of Art. Before his appointment at Manchester, he was junior faculty at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta), ETH Zurich. In 2019 he was awarded the Theodor Fischer Prize for outstanding early-career research in art and architectural history from the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte in Munich.

    Wells is the author of Survey: Architecture Iconographies (Park Books, 2021) and the forthcoming Modelling the Metropolis: The Architectural Model in Victorian London (gta Verlag, 2022). Recently his research has been published in Architectural History, the Burlington Magazine, JSAH and the Journal of Art Historiography, as well as contributing to the Paul Mellon Centre’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, 1769-2018.

  • Woman with dark hair and a red jumper in front of a grey background

    Elain Harwood is an architectural historian with Historic England, and author of Space, Hope and Brutalism. She is co-editor of the C20 Society journal, Twentieth Century Architecture and related series of biographies, Twentieth Century Architects. She is currently writing on new towns, brutalism and the architect Ralph Erksine.