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Building Welfare States: New Approaches to Architecture, Community & Planning in Twentieth Century Britain

23 - 25 September 2020, Virtual Conference (now via Zoom)


Please register here to receive a link to attend (closes 28 August 2020)

Confirmed Keynote Speaker: Professor Guy Ortolano, Department of History, New York University

Organized by Ed DeVane in conjunction with Professor Roberta Bivins and Professor Mathew Thomson 

Kindly supported by the Wellcome Trust

The intersection of new histories of architecture, community and planning in the twentieth century challenges the mythology of a unitary welfare state. A narrative on the creation of a paternalistic system in post-1945 Britain and its displacement by neoliberalism in the 1970s continues to define public understanding and is reproduced in a substantial and multi-disciplinary body of academic literature. Yet policy such as the UK Government’s 2011 outsourcing White Paper ‘Open Public Services’, still imagines the endurance of an ‘old-fashioned, top-down, take-what-you-are-given’ model. Such inconsistencies expose how fragmented our understanding of the welfare state remains. Few have questioned if a wholly statist approach to provision ever really existed; crucial periods of consolidation and divergence such as the 1920s, 1950s and 1980s have been largely overlooked; the centralizing rhetoric of Whitehall has been privileged over variations in experience across local, regional and inter/trans-national contexts; correspondingly, the design and implementation of public sector schemes has been accepted as a rationalistic and dehumanizing process without adequate attention to cultural influences and effects. Building Welfare States therefore seeks to recover marginalized perspectives and challenge such contemporary uses of history. Through built environments of commercial precincts, council housing, hospitals, schools, universities, transport and energy infrastructure, it asks:

  • Of architecture: can a specific architectural language of modernism be associated with building the welfare state; in what sense was it universal and how did it differ across the public sector; can we better recover the role and contribution of the private sector to its development and evolution; how did visions of community and planning dynamically feedback into this style and, if so, what was their trajectory?
  • Of community: what were the challenges faced by the welfare state in attempting to build community; how was democratic accountability demanded and exercised; what moralistic visions of social relations, class, gender, sexuality and race underlay governmental programmes and how were these subjectivities operationalized in policy?
  • Of planning: how can we move beyond a top-down history and better integrate experiences of the welfare state; how were governing ideologies borne out in spatial assumptions; in practice to what extent did political and economic conditions really delay progress; what was the interaction between planning and cultures of austerity, affluence and permissiveness?
  • Of periodization: before 1945, how was the consolidation of public services represented and understood; what instances of continuity and collapse can be associated with the faltering post-war settlement and rise of neoliberal agendas?
  • Of place: need we differentiate between urban and rural building programmes; were geographies of inequality alleviated or extended by the inception of the welfare state; how were challenges and outcomes of building the welfare state varied by different regions across the UK; what was the influence of international competition and trans-Atlantic networks of expertise?

Across a range of disciplines and sub-fields, Building Welfare States brings together new and established humanities and social science scholars working on one or all of the above themes.