Utopians vs. Sentimentalists

In 1925, Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier, a pioneer of modern architecture, proposed that the historic centre of Paris be flattened and replaced with a set of identical tower blocks set in a grid.

All those old buildings, narrow winding roads and quaint features were, in his view, ‘rustic bric-a-brac’ and needed to be swept away so that order could be achieved. With order, he argued, would come true human happiness, if only people would look inside themselves and realise that’s what they really wanted. (Which sounds slightly scary to modern ears.)

His extreme philosophy, abstracted from practical concerns, sits on one side of an ideological battle still being played out across all fields of human activity: Logic or sentiment? Machines or men? Straight lines or wonky ones? Industry or craft?

At about the same time as his ideas had filtered through to inform the planning and design of post-war British cities (see Plymouth, for example) another expression of the logic/machines/straight-lines way of thinking was also underway: the Big Six project in British brewing.

Whitbread, Watney’s, et al, became seduced by a Utopian vision of pure efficiency. They rejected the idea of lots of little breweries all over the place in favour of big ones in central locations, connected by motorway.

They decided computer-control was the way forward, reducing the opportunities for human interference to introduce inconsistency into the product.

Tradition was a nuisance — something to be ‘got over’.

It is with tinges of regret that we witness the disappearance of the traditional brewer wandering around the brewery with only his sensitive nose, keen palate and a few basic scientific instruments to guide him… [as] we move to a new generation of white-coated technicians bristling with scientific qualifications, guided in their work by panels of flickering lights…

H.A. Monckton, A History of English Ale & Beer, 1966

The Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW), Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), the pub preservation movement, and ‘micro brewing’, all stood, and still stand, on the side of sentimentality and ‘the human touch’. Greenleaf over Ironsides.

And in marketing terms, the sentimentalists have won — we don’t think many breweries these days would invite the press to see their computers, as did Whitbread at Luton in May 1969, or use an image like this one from Boddington’s, c.1978, in promotional materials:

Boddington's computer controlled brewery, c.1978.

But most people don’t feel that strongly either way — they’re turned off by automation, but expect a certain level of consistency; they appreciate the fruits of efficiency, but don’t want to see old pubs or breweries knocked down to achieve it. They are, in short, pragmatic.

But pragmatism, as far as people like Le Corbusier are concerned, is synonymous with compromise — the worst of both worlds.

Excuse us thinking aloud. We’re working on something — a longer article, or maybe a video — about flat-roofed, cube-like post-war ‘modern’ pubs, which is why we happen to be reading outside our usual territory.

17 thoughts on “Utopians vs. Sentimentalists”

  1. Le Corbusier was one of the most destructive figures of the 21st century. Given the obvious crap nature of his ideas, it’s incredible anyone was daft enough to pay attention to them.

    A city designed by Le Corbusier is my idea of an architectural and social nightmare. I imagine it like Alphaville.

  2. It was his kind of thinking led to all those regimented housing estates and high rise flats in the 60s that we are now tearing down because humans cannot successfully live in them. That’s what you get when you develop an ideology that isn’t rooted in human nature. He was, in short, a failure.

    1. Don’t entirely agree with this. Humans are very successfully living in the Barbican estate, despite the fact that the design isn’t much different from (say) Elephant and Castle. A lot of the blame for the social problems in tower blocks and sink estates was the long-term policy of dumping people in a ghetto and ignoring them, not the style of architecture that was used for the ghetto.

      1. I agree. There is nothing inherently “craft” or charming or useful about old buildings, this is a fallacy perpetuated unfortunately by Prince Charles and many others. The street plan of Paris where it did not reflect the broad boulevards and orderly rows of housing introduced by another great innovator, Hausmann, reflected an earlier period of advances in design and transport, infrastructure in a word. Le Corbusier’s vision became the norm in the commercial and industrial worlds, and today we laud the Seagram Building and Empire State Building etc etc. when at one time they looked like characterless boxes. Build what works, otherwise you freeze in time and reduce the economic value of old properties. What I find fascinating is how conservative this instinct really is, although often it is advanced by people viewing themselves as politically progressive if not radical.

        I don’t really see the connection anyway to brewing (you did state your ideas were somewhat inchoate) because scale and automation in and of themselves have nothing to do with quality. You can have all that and consistency and great quality (e.g. Pilsner Urquell, probably Sierra Nevada Pale Ale), and craft conditions and lousy quality.

        Gary

  3. Kinda depends. Lot’s of places are right dumps that would benefit from knocking down and starting again. The only argument is regarding which are the dumps and which is a quaint bit of history.

    As Tom Petty said, “we’re gonna live in century city”, and that was after seeing Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

  4. Is anyone brewing like this:

    “… the traditional brewer wandering around the brewery with only his sensitive nose, keen palate and a few basic scientific instruments to guide him…”

    Isn’t much of micro/craft more the kin of the lab coat? Hybridized hops adding any fruit flavour, free-wheeling additions of adjuncts, the electronic control panel reduced to an iPad mini?

  5. As I’m a Northerner, I can’t comment on either the Barbican or the Elephant and Castle, and it is always easy to find the odd exception anyway. Furthermore, I’m not saying that everything built nowadays is a failure.

    Here on Merseyside, high rise flats are being demolished and estates which were built more with the architect’s “vision” in mind rather than the needs of the future residents have been flattened, some not much more than 30 years old. This is happening on quite a significant scale, and would be happening a lot more if we weren’t in a recession.

    1. As a Northerner, but one who has lived abroad in a tower block, amongst a sea of tower blocks, i wonder what makes the British so unable to live in purpose built dwellings more than two storeys high?

      What special requirements do the residents of Merseyside need, when it comes to home building?!

    2. Conversely, I wouldn’t say there have never been mistakes with large-scale housing projects, but a lot of the time it feels like the architecture is being used as a convenient scapegoat for a failure of social policy – ie “well, we put all these people in a modernist housing estate and then gradually strangled their access to jobs, education, culture, leisure facilities, public transport – and now there’s a load of drugs and crime! Must be that nasty modernist architecture….”

  6. A dichotomy summed up very well by John Betjeman in The Planster’s Vision.

    The 1960s, of course, were the era of a whole set of attitudes around modernity, progress, planning and “big is beautiful” which very much crashed and burned in the following decade in a whole range of areas.

  7. This type of great thought/discussion starter is why I’ve always loved your blog. Thanks for all your efforts, and hurry up with another book. Ron has done a excellent job setting the bar for the rest of you slackers :)

  8. @Alan – In the UK microbrew world, I’d say us & most are much nearer the old school brewer than either the modernist or post-modernist version given.

    Being underfunded, perhaps due to the relatively poor profits & level of competition for rare ‘free’ handpumps, most UK micros have relatively untrained/un-qualified staff & little in the way of tech equipment.

    With care & good ingredients, you can still make some damn fine beer mind!

    (We have a pH meter, hydrometers, pumps, manual-emptying mash-tun, & a visiting consultant who periodically checks our hygiene, QC, that our beers are in spec, etc, using some more hi-tech kit & outsourced lab facilities)

  9. Good point. I should not have conflated micro and craft. You are lucky. There are so few micros or nanos over here who do not immediately set out on the low broad road of craft, ashamed of the beer they purport to brew, lacing their work instead with all the blindings that science can provide.

  10. As a brewer, I’d rather work with some of the latest kit, incl labour-saving stuff (though the weight-gain that would result in me not having to dig out 250kgs of spent grain a couple of times a week would be a bad thing) & as long as you still have the skills to focus on what you’re looking for, you can make great beer on almost any kit – tiny to massive, shiny & techno, to old & simple.

    In the past I worked on some pretty hi-tech kit & the versatility is what I loved – I could use any ingredients & the step-temp mash-mixer & lauter-tun would cope, plus we could set our CO2 level to what was right for the style being brewed & had a great little auto wash&fill keg-plant. I do miss some of these things!

  11. But, without a “gotcha haha!” intent haven’t you slid from one side of the dichotomy to the other? Traditional micro brewing is like traditional technique craft weaving or cheese making or heirloom vegetable growing. Small scale industrially advanced scientific machines are the child of the electronic lab coats – perhaps, to be fair, not to the degree of the baddies of Genesis of the Daleks. The problem for me is the usurpation of “craft” by what are new modernists. Craftsmanship is constrained. Only in beer does craft mean freewheeling futurism.

    All I advocate for is a delineation. Fair warning that I might find mango in my stout or a cherry sauce in the biere de garde. So that I can order something else.

    1. Actually, apropos of my architecure-as-scapegoat-for-policy comments earlier, it’s interesting that we’ve come to inextricably link the big, technological, futuristic bewery with the cheap and bland product that they were used to produce forty or so years ago. Whereas presumably that’s mostly a matter of what they were trying to do with it – ie produce something that they could make as much money out of as possible – and there’s no reason that you couldn’t use all manner of shiny computerized monitoring and control technology to produce a characterful but traditional bitter, or a watermelon flavoured gose or whatever else took your fancy. (Apart from the fact that the people who put up the capital for the machinery are probably going to want the sort of returns that watermelon gose doesn’t normally generate.)

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