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Shankland Graeme

Graeme Shankland

Graeme Shankland (formally in full - Colin Graeme Lindsay-Shankland but also known as Graeme/Graham/Gordon Shankland, and Matthew Graham) was a leading British architect.

He had been a student of Arthur Korn, who taught from1941 at the School of Architecture in Oxford, and the world-renowned left wing scientist Professor J Desmond Bernal, who was long-term Communist Party supporter. The Communist Party had a long tradition of recruiting architects, no doubt helped by pioneering architectural developments in the Soviet Union.

In the mid-1930s, a union for Architects and Technicians was established, the Association of Architects, Supervisors and Technical Assistant. Its leadership was soon headed by Communist Party members. The organisation later changed its name to the Association of Building Technicians in order to reflect its move towards more a trade union approach to its work.

By 1937, a distinct antipathy amongst Communist Party activists towards `intellectuals’ had been replaced by a more concerted attempt to actively secure their helpful participation in the Party’s work. To this end, Robert, “R W”, Robson, the Communist Party’s national organiser was put in charge of building up the Party’s work amongst intellectuals,  or as it was known internally, the `professional sections’.

This work culminated in a `Science and the War’ Conference attended by over 600 delegates in 1942. These initiatives were followed up after the war, with the Party producing leaflets such as that by J B S Haldane (see separate entry), `Why Professional workers should be Communists’, produced in 1945. A feeling of great optimism over the chances of building a better world after the war, swept among architects and planners as much as it did amongst the British people in general, famously leading to the landslide Labour victory at the General Election in 1945.

Shankland became a member of the Communist Party in 1941 and came to the notice of the Security Service when he joined the army “suddenly” in 1942.  At a time he was still in the army, he had become enthused by the foregoing mood, stating in a letter: “Everything connected with planning and housing is hot news. Exhibitions, reports and books follow each other apace month by month. If the real thing comes out as good as the illustrations and the models, we will have certainly changed the face of Britain for the better in this generation … the architectural schools are packed and the public, better informed than before on planning and housing, is clamouring for results; new legislation such as the Town and Country Planning Act (1944) and the New Towns Bill is on the statute book, so things are moving."

The Security Services expressed concern that he was given a role where he had access to top secret information regarding the Potsdam Conference of the allies, including the Soviet Union, held only a couple of months after the cessation of hostilities with Germany to consider the post-war settlement. Shankland was moved to other duties but watched all the time.

As the Americans squeezed credit to Britain and the Labour Government channelled limited resources into rearmament against a fictional Soviet threat, plans for better housing and public building were put on hold. In 1950, Shankland noted, for example, that not one new Health Centre had been built since 1945.  

Writing in April 1950, he observed that: “This betrayal of the election promises of 1945 takes place at a time when the need and popular demand for such buildings is greater than ever before and technicians are keener and better equipped to carry it out.” …. “Disillusion is now setting in among technicians as a result of this frustration of their efforts and ideals and it is the task of Communists on the one hand to prevent this turning into cynicism and on the other hand to hammer home the connection between the building freeze-up and war preparations, to show our fellow workers that the way forward to the realization of these progressive ideals is through their participation with us in the struggle for peace, against rearmament and imperialist war, and for the fighting defence and advance of cultural and technical standards.”

After the war, Graeme Shankland was elected as a Branch Secretary of the Party.  In 1955, he became the first Secretary of the William Morris Society, a body devoted to remembering the work of the great visual and decorative designer, writer and early Marxist.  

But the main area of work arose when he became a prominent member  and sometime secretary of the Communist Party’s Architects and Allied Technicians (A & AT) Group, founded in 1948 under the direction of the Party’s National Cultural Committee. The aim of the A & A T Group was to “strengthen and increase the influence of the Party and of Marxism in the cultural and technical work of architects, technicians and students in building and physical planning”.

The Group’s activities included a regular bulletin, weekend schools, discussion groups and open meetings, as well as links with Soviet architects. Articles in the bulletin of the Group included subjects such as “Marxism and Modern Architecture” by Boyd and improving the designs and construction of pre-fabricated homes.

After the war, many of the architects and planners working on new towns, or on reconstruction of cities such as Coventry and Plymouth, were either members of the Party’s A & AT group, or influenced by it. But it was only in a few instances that the bold, innovative and people-friendly projects influenced by the A & AT Group taken up, notably in the case of Coventry’s pioneering pedestrianised Precinct. 

Shankland's own career as a leading architect of post-war Britain came despite his well-known Communist beliefs but it also made him a target for security force surveillance.

MI5 files reveal that intimate details of Graeme Shankland's homosexual relationships were noted after the MI5 intercepted his personal mail in 1956. He was recorded as living with his partner Peter Thomas: “Thomas has a small bedroom, adjoining that of Shankland, but this is seldom used, both men occupying the large bed in Shankland's room," a letter from the police said.

Graeme Shankland worked as an architect in the Planning Division of the London County Council and successfully designed many housing schemes and the redevelopment of the Elephant and Castle. He was the leading figure in the design of the South Bank Centre.

It is likely that it seemed time for the Party and himself to part, certainly Shankland’s career had been held back by his allegiance to Communism. But future plans by him for a new town in Hook, Hampshire, were finally rejected in 1962, despite the evident need for housing. In many cases, it would not be until the 1960s that most progressive architects finally got an opportunity to put their plans into practice in the slum clearance in major cities across Britain and new town projects. Shankland was heavily involved in developments in Liverpool (Liverpool City Plan 1965) and the new town in Milton Keynes.

By this time, Shankland had established his own architectural practice, based on the principles of a multi-disciplinary team approach, backed up by the extensive theoretical work of sociologists and other preparatory approaches. Shankland was soon joined by Oliver Cox, a former fellow architect from the London County Council. This company has ended up today, long after the founders retired, as a global business, with multi-million pound projects across the world including the infamous Palm Island in Dubai.

In later life, Shankland became especially concerned about the destruction of historical buildings in inner city areas; his view was clear: “A country without a past has the emptiness of a barren continent, and a city without old buildings is like a man without a memory.” 

Graeme Shankland died in 1984

Sources: World News & Views 29th April 1950 (Michael Walker); National Archives (KV 2/3108-3110) 1942-1958