Small projects, big impact: How John Laing influenced our everyday

The John Laing construction company are most famous for their landmark post-war projects such as Coventry Cathedral, the M1 motorway and Berkley Nuclear Power Station.

But these schemes were, by their very nature, rare engineering triumphs.

The Breaking New Ground project has demonstrated that Laing also undertook an extensive range of smaller schemes alongside these renowned feats of construction.

Although more inconspicuous, these projects significantly altered England’s post-war built environment and the lives of its inhabitants.

Jack Mitchell, Image Selector on the Breaking New Ground Project at the Historic England Archive, takes us on a tour of images that characterise the socio-political atmosphere of the post-war era.

They shine a light on some of the less famous, but no less important, undertakings of the Laing company.   

Car Parks

© Historic England Archive JLP01_08_083081

Car parks are an integral component of the post-war British city. Car ownership increased rapidly during this era and this necessitated new, purpose built spaces within which they could be easily stored.

Despite being regularly dismissed as a dull and ugly aspect of our urban landscape, their clever designs have undoubtedly facilitated inner-city commercial and leisure pursuits for millions of people.

Built from concrete, and displaying a startling, abstract beauty, the above image shows the Minories car park in London.

Shopping Centres

Although the narratives around the decline of the British high-street involve various and complex factors, general trends indicate that we have fallen out of love with the retail experience offered by our local high streets and shopping centres.

© Historic England Archive JLP01_08_071866

But it wasn’t always this way. After the Second World War, small town shopping centres popped up across the country including this 1968 example from Yate, near Bristol.

The number of people present for its opening ceremony signifies how the introduction of new, commercial centres were once a really noteworthy and appealing public event.

Supermarkets

Since their introduction in the early 1950s, supermarkets have become a ubiquitous part of our landscape and have fundamentally reconfigured how we conceive of, purchase and consume our food.

© Historic England Archive JLP01_10_05341

Laing were responsible for building numerous large scale stores across the country during the 1970s and 1980s.  As was common to many other post-war commercial pursuits, the concept of the supermarket was predicated on car ownership and use.

For example, their conventional out-of-town location, large footprint, and huge car parks encouraged us to bulk buy our food. The French retail company Carrefour were pioneers of this mass sales approach and they opened this example in Patchway, Bristol in 1978.

Leisure Centres

© Historic England Archive JLP01_10_02674

Although commonplace today, the first leisure centres did not appear in England until the late 1950s. This beautiful pyramid structure (sadly now demolished) was built at Bletchley in 1974.

The rapid expansion of state funded leisure centres during the 1960s and 1970s primarily demonstrated two things. Firstly, that the public had more free time and more money to pursue leisure activities, and secondly, that the state were prepared to finance buildings that promoted fun and enjoyment.

Sewage Works

Successful urban development is reliant upon infrastructure that goes largely unrecognised. By safely storing and treating the waste water from municipal homes and businesses, sewage works allow for a habitable and operable environment for their local citizens.

© Historic England Archive JLP01_10_07923

This example, constructed at Carlisle in the 1980s, continues to underpin the functionality of the Cumbrian town to this day.

Housing

In the aftermath of the Second World War England’s housing stock was severely depleted. Consequently, quick and efficient construction methods were in high demand after 1945.

© Historic England Archive JLP01_08_065725

Laing’s Easiform process offered a great solution for desperate local authorities. Many Easiform estates and houses are still standing and have been responsible for providing safe and welcoming housing for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people.

Aside from demonstrating Laing’s craftsmanship, the above image also conveys a sense of hope common to the post-war period. Such deliberate depictions of stable family units and young children ensured that the homes became recognised as vital, foundational components of the reconstruction and future prosperity of post-war England.

Further reading

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