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Postwar British Fictions of Inhabitation

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Schneider, Katherine 


The New Brutalist architect Alison Smithson is often quoted as saying that ‘a book is like a small building to us’. Indeed, her 1966 novel A Portrait of the Female Mind as a Young Girl, published by Chatto and Windus, underscores the fact that the putting-together of both books and buildings was an intensely charged project in the 1950s and 1960s. For Smithson, it was not that there is a mimetic relationship between the two forms. Rather, both house fictions. For Smithson, the writing of books and the planning of buildings was both a way of being in the world and a way of taking it apart and putting it back together. The question of where to dwell, and the search for an ideal location where the self could flourish, underpinned her project. Both of these questions, of course, were shot through with a reflexiveness on the historical moment and books and buildings were both products of her postwar ‘making’ as she sought to redefine the meaning of home in a deeply transitional world — and the structures that accommodated it.

The three chapters of this thesis bring literary and filmic texts into dialogue with architectural forms, considering how both are kinds of construction that are contingent on the materials to hand. My first chapter explores some of the tensions I have been outlining here by looking at the Smithsons’ House of the Future installation which was displayed at the 1956 Ideal Home Exhibition. This immersive structure functioned as a kind of speculative fiction following in a modernist tradition of radical experimentation but was built using new postwar technology and industrially produced materials. This chapter considers this aspirational modernity alongside the scuffed and scratched materials that can be found in the literature and films depicting lodging houses and bedsits in inner city London. I will be looking at the way that these domestic spaces contrast with the promises of the glossy visions of ideal homes on display at the Ideal Home Exhibition and in magazines and advertisements. This indexes the ways that the promise of affluence chafed against the lived experience of ‘making do’. This chapter also looks at the ways that this predominantly white making of femininity depended on the othering of Black skin for its articulation. Lynne Reid-Banks’s The L-Shaped Room and Roy Ward Baker’s Flame in the Streets and Nell Dunn’s Poor Cow demonstrate what a more conservative idea of the domestic aimed to preserve.

The second chapter explores the idea of play as a form of inhabitation. Having examined the textures and surfaces of uneven housing provision in inner-city London throughout the 1950s and 1960s, I move from notions of confinement to the possibilities of creative improvisation. I contribute to the discussion surrounding men’s ambivalence towards domestic life — understood as pivoting around the home as a case for a woman — by reading Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar against the grain. The second half of the chapter looks at positively coded transient forms. Here, I consider Alison Smithson’s essay on the caravan, her affinity with the sheltered space of children’s books and her weekend house ‘Solar Pavilion’ as examples of ‘mobile domesticities’.

Chapter 3 examines the self-proclaimed affinity between B.S. Johnson and Alison and Peter Smithson. This chapter thinks about the difficulties of planning and projecting futures, examining the fate of his architect-poet-supply teacher protagonist, Albert Angelo, to illuminate the difficult task of integrating the contingencies of the present with the long-term ‘permanent’. After an extended analysis of the ways that the novel engenders ‘future anxiety’ (both writers and architects have to build into the future, knowing that contingency will almost certainly disprove their predictions), it considers some of the strategies for dealing with this: in particular, the collage approach of the ‘as found’. The fictional architect Albert looks back to literature and the work of architects to try and cobble together inspiration for a postwar arts centre which remains perpetually unbuilt. Instead, the book itself insists on the materiality of its own existence as an object in time and space, calling attention to its architectural structure by framing an empty space in the form of a hole cut through several pages to reveal and disrupt the textual futurity of the narrative.

The conclusion discusses some of the legacies of Brutalism and how it has been turned into concrete relics, obscuring the liveness of this historical moment.





Bowman, Deborah


Postwar British writing, Architecture, Domesticity, Mid-century, Modernism, Ideal Home Exhibition, 1950s, 1960s, Brutalism, Alison and Peter Smithson, B.S. Johnson, Nell Dunn, Roy Ward Baker, Lynne Reid Banks, Rose Macaulay, Keith Waterhouse


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Gonville Research Studentship awarded by Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge