Virtual Special Issue - Replanning and rebuilding the blitzed city Planning Perspectives: An international journal of history, planning and the environment

Planning Perspectives

Peter J Larkham

Birmingham School of the Built Environment, Birmingham City University, Birmingham, UK

This virtual theme issue brings together a collection of papers covering a variety of aspects of replanning and rebuilding blitzed cities following the Second World War.  Spurred by academic networking in the late 1980s and the resulting book edited by Jeff Diefendorf (1990), interest has continued to grow in the near quarter-century since.  For the UK, basic bibliographic work has uncovered the extent and variety of this activity,  although this remains to be done elsewhere.  Many more individual case studies have been explored, many new themes have emerged, and many new writers have brought new perspectives.  This is a rich, but still fast-developing, field.

It is also a multi-disciplinary field, and seems to be becoming even more so.  Histories of planning and places are being informed by a ‘cultural turn’ which explores the individuals and personalities of plan-makers, including the diverse factors influencing their approaches; visual representation and imagery; and the cultural impact of destruction, reconstruction and remembrance.  The post-Second World War reconstruction has been compared with other catastrophes, and its impact in generating new ideas and practices in planning – for example in urban conservation – has been explored.  More sophisticated oral histories have given us recollections of those who lived through bombing and rebuilding.  Political and economic histories explore the factors underlying the action, and often inaction, of rebuilding.  Comparative studies are a useful means of increasing understanding beyond that provided by individual case studies, and both national and international comparisons are appearing.

Not only are the academic approaches becoming more sophisticated and nuanced, but the public engagement with the effects of wartime destruction and rebuilding is growing.  The popularity of ‘blockbuster’ histories and diaries in high-street bookshops is plain to see, and commemorations in terms of new memorials and public artworks still appear, spurred perhaps by anniversaries of key events.  Even guided walks of bombsites and rebuilt buildings are popular in those badly-bombed cities, while others still show surface car-parks and neglected sites.  In some countries, the changing culture of remembrance has led to the re-creation (actual or debated) or bombed buildings, such as Dresden or Berlin.

Further, given the ever-lengthening perspective of hindsight and experience, we are re-evaluating those buildings and urban areas that were rebuilt.  Some are now six decades old and, in the normal course of urban change, would be subject to alteration, demolition and redevelopment.  Some have been protected through official conservation designations, while others have generated such virulent negative reactions that they have already been redeveloped, after lifespans that seem very short for such large investments.  So our reviews of the processes of experiencing and rebuilding now have to encompass the product and its survival in today’s very different cultural and economic climate.

In terms of the papers collected in this virtual theme issue, we cover a range of European countries (Austria, France, Italy and the UK).  We explore individuals involved in authoring plans (Patrick Abercrombie and Thomas Sharp in the UK, and Giovanni Astegno and Giorgio Rigotti in Italy) but these can be contrasted with the influence of government (in London).  Independent and formally-commissioned plans are covered.  The genesis and fate of plans is reviewed (Hull, Turin) and the scale of activity covered ranges from national capitals to the smallest local towns.  We also look at specific themes including housing, a clear priority for the many whose homes were damaged and destroyed; although many of the plans themselves demonstrated other priorities including civic offices.  Hence this is a good snapshot of research during the past two decades.  It also emphasises the contribution of Planning Perspectives to this international debate.

It links well to a range of the most recent publications which are re-evaluating key planning documents such as the Bournville Village Trust’s housing and social survey work in When we build again; interdisciplinary explorations of the immediate and long-term impact of the blitz and of the cultural and professional context of reconstruction planning, and further unpacking of official attitudes towards cities, individual planners, and the reconstructions plans they produced (Hasegawa, 2013). Even so, an agenda for continuing inquiry is emerging: what has received much less attention includes the regional-scale plans of the period; the impact of infrastructure and new technology on the reconstructed cities; and the contemporary re-evaluation of the products of the reconstruction era.  Although some exist, more explicit comparisons, especially internationally, would also be welcome.

Planning Perspectives: An international journal of history, planning and the environment