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Architecture, the Built Environment and the Aftermath of the First World War

June 9, 2018
The Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain

Institute of Historical Research
United Kingdom

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The SAHGB Annual Symposium is open to scholars at all career stages and of all periods, places, and disciplines. The Society is grateful for the support of the 20s30s Network, a transdisciplinary network of scholars rethinking British interwar history, and the Twentieth Century Society, which exists to safeguard the heritage of architecture and design in Britain from 1914 onwards.
Registration is priced at £65 for two days, and £50 for Saturday only. A limited number of student tickets are available at £50 for two days. Click here to book now.  Registration includes refreshments across both days, and lunch on Saturday. Registration also includes an optional, free, expert-led tour of interwar buildings run by the Twentieth Century Society on Friday morning starting at the RIBA headquarters, 66 Portland Place, and ending at Senate House. There is limited capacity for these tours; places will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis. Please email to register interest after booking for the Symposium.

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2018 marks the centenary of two events central to the early twentieth century: the cessation of hostilities in the Great War, and the passing of the Representation of the People Act which expanded the franchise significantly, ushering in a new age of democratic participation. Both of these events coloured the following 20 years as ones of ‘Reconstruction’ and ‘Democratization’; what impact did these impulses have on the built environment?

This two-day Symposium will highlight new directions in scholarship for specialists in interwar and twentieth century history and architectural history, and provide methodological models for those making tentative steps into the study of the built environment of this period from within and outside the discipline. The impact of the war and the expanded franchise should also provide for general interest through a wide-ranging survey of subjects and themes.
The study of the built environment in interwar history is growing and developing, asserting its place in longer trajectories of nineteenth and twentieth century design, construction, practice and professionalism. And yet, despite it being a period chronologically (and in some senses, artificially) defined by two major international conflicts, a systematic and holistic examination of the impact of the first of these – the Great War – on the built environment has not yet emerged. This is in stark contrast to the latter half of the twentieth century, in which ‘reconstruction’ and the emergence of the social democratic consensus around the Welfare State in the wake of the Second World War have been more rigorously explored in relation to architecture and planning. The double centenary in 2018 is a fitting moment for the Society to convene a Symposium redressing this imbalance. 
Elizabeth Darling’s examination of interwar Modernism, Re-forming Britain (2007), took as its subtitle ‘Narratives of Modernity Before Reconstruction.’ It might, however, just as easily have been called ‘Narratives of Modernity After Reconstruction.’ A new Ministry of Reconstruction, initiated by Lloyd George in 1917, looked closely not only at physical renovation (e.g. housing), but also social reform (e.g. industrial and social relations). Though in formal policy terms reconstruction had come to an end amid economic turbulence in early 1920s, the idea and its impulses had longer-term repercussions throughout the interwar years. Changes in commercial practice, in governance, in industrial technologies and in social relations were widely felt, and often demanded physical expression of various kinds in the built environment – indeed, the metaphor of ‘reconstruction’ invoked material transformation. Similarly, there were changes in the conception of clients, consumers, and users of the built environment at this time as part of a broader process of self-conscious democratisation, encapsulated by the expanded franchise.
This Symposium will aim to reframe the period after the Great War as something altogether more positive and vibrant than its typical characterisation as unimaginative and moribund in architectural terms. The First World War was neither necessarily a spectre nor a harbinger. It was a challenge and a stimulus; a creative and dynamic opportunity for many in the built environment more than a rapell a l’ordre. Presenting new research in this field will allow historians of the twentieth century to draw on more considered and holistic interpretations of the impact of the war on the built environment, instead of resorting to out-dated views of the period as one characterised by historicist design and an out of touch establishment pitted against a growing Modernist avant-garde. 
Friday afternoon will take us from the scale of the global, indeed the Imperial, to the local and the domestic. The latter session will focus not only on the delivery of housing but also the making (and running) of the home, marking the additional centenary of the publication of the Tudor Walters Report in November 1918. It is hoped these opening sessions will also bring to the fore feminist and post-colonial perspectives which can be further explored across the rest of the programme. To round off the first day, the Twentieth Century Society will convene a session on tangible and intangible heritage of the interwar period, encouraging delegates to think imaginatively about how their research can make significant impact on the heritage sector, and vice-versa.
On Saturday, five sessions have been arranged to give a broad but holistic overview of the impact of the Great War on the built environment. Papers have been ‘tagged’ to make explicit wider thematics and resonances to help structure discussion. Subjects covered span economic history, urban history, ecclesiastical history, and planning history. The final papers will return to the local and imperial scales with which the Symposium will have opened, in particular their intersections with the role of women and colonial or dominion nationhood.

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