If you can’t begin to imagine how pedestrian precincts, underpasses, multistorey car parks and other grim locations for TV crime dramas once embodied a born-again vision of modern Britain, Otto Saumarez Smith probably won’t change your mind.
But if you’re interested in the motives that inspired the wholesale reshaping of our town and city centres in the Sixties, he has a tale worth telling... Saumarez Smith is determined neither to blame nor mock. But his even-handedness - laudable in a thesis-writer, less so in a narrative historian – makes little effective distinction between the thoughtful interventions and the acts of architectural Blitzkrieg. We seldom glimpse the political landscape beyond the architect’s office or council chamber (Precinct People were apparently untouched by the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Vietnam War).
That the book ends with a sense of “tragedy” and “intense disillusionment” is less of a judgement on the characters involved and more on the inherent penny-pinching – or money-misdirecting, perhaps – of the British political class when presented with the chance to create a dignifying, elevating, equalising public realm. The strength of Boom Citieslies in its insistence that blaming individuals for the failures of a whole political and economic system is too easy. It makes us see the things that should have been different, and the ways in which they could still be.