Building a new Britain


Detail of a prefab

The Second World War transformed Britain. Most of the adult population was involved in the war effort, and many were directly affected by its horrors. Soldiers and civilians had suffered together, both at home and in action. The bombed wastelands of many British cities bore testimony to this. With a collective call for change, at the end of the war a Labour government was swept to power. The hope was that a new Britain could be built.

Unsurprisingly, after 1945 British architecture was transformed. The advent of the Welfare State meant that the government instigated building projects across the land. Architects, planners and councils drew up plans for increasingly ambitious school, hospital and public housing schemes. The demand was obvious. There was a housing crisis in many cities following the destruction of the Blitz. Whole town centres needed to be rebuilt. Expectations of the new National Health Service were high. Prefabs, tower blocks and new towns were soon built, with varying levels of success.

However, there were other demands. A time for celebration and reflection was at hand. Britain’s new identity in the atomic age needed to be defined. Her position as a superpower had been challenged; the Empire was on the wane; her outlook was changing. One attempt to address this was the Festival of Britain (1951). A nationwide celebration, most memorable is the daring architecture of the pavilions and monuments of the South Bank in London. These opened a new chapter for British architecture, where architects and designers attempted to reject historical styles and models. Most were demolished immediately after the festival closed, but their impact endures.

About the online exhibition

'How We Built Britain' is a major collaboration with the BBC


Images in the exhibition are from RIBApix, a growing database dedicated to providing you with exceptional and unique images from the RIBA British Architectural Library's collections.

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