• 17 May 2019
  • 1:00 – 2:00 pm
  • Light lunch provided.
    Free, booking essential.
  • Paul Mellon Centre

From Abram Games’ famous wartime government posters to the popular Ealing Comedy Passport to Pimlico, images of urban destruction in Britain both during and after the Second World War were the imaginative seeds of a future vision of reconstruction. This paper considers a series of images that represent the inverse proposition: a future which brings new ruins hurtling towards the present. Mounted annually at the Ideal Home Exhibition - one of the largest postwar spectacles - in the late 1950s and early ’60s, the LCC (London County Council) fire safety displays of 1958-63 can be seen as mirror images of the bombsites thrown up across London a decade earlier. Both are examples of what Walter Benjamin called the ‘dialectical image’. They flash by ‘in a moment of danger’, before sinking back into the stream of historical debris.

Two dissonant contexts frame the discussion: on the one hand, the Ideal Home Exhibition’s celebration of middle class consumption; and, on the other, the administrative background of the LCC’s ‘high fire risk’ inspection programme, which focused on areas of multiple occupancy housing during a period when house fires were growing at an alarming rate. Between these two contexts, we can read in the LCC displays a contradictory testimony to a neglected history of structural violence. That history was, it will be argued, inseparable from the Conservative government’s so-called ‘property owning democracy’. At the same time, the LCC displays reveal the frictions and resistances inherent in the same moment, with municipal government, tenant activism, and private interests all colliding within the frame of these condensed spatial constructions.

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London (COLLAGE: the London Picture Archive, ref SC/PHL/02/0946).

About the speaker

  • 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 Counterfire.org.