Many of the great British designers and inventors of the modern era have a nostalgic glint in their eye for boyhood dreams that never quite came to fruition. Norman Foster is probably the leader of this group of overgrown schoolboys:
But Foster’s work also reaches beyond flight, into space. A defining influence was Dan Dare, in the British comic The Eagle, launched in 1950, when Foster was 15. Dan Dare—a British astronaut who battled dastardly Venusians with the wit of a Spitfire pilot—captured the imagination of Britain; not the underfed grey-faced damp milksop country of the Suez Crisis, but atomic Britain, moving decisively towards technology and tower blocks. The future was wizard, and Dare exclaimed: “Sufferin’ satellites!” The British designer Richard Seymour says The Eagle introduced an entire generation of British boys to an electro-mechanical world, pointing out that Dan Dare took a leather steamer trunk with a Mars sticker into space with him. Foster has often remarked that the curvaceous buildings drawn in Dan Dare by the artist Frank Hampson (also born in Manchester) presage his own creations.
These visions weren’t just architectural, they were aeronautical and astronautical, but the sheen of nostalgia was no doubt exacerbated by the developments taking plcae in the real world. Cold War economics pumped millions into r+d and for a time Britain was a global player in the realm of cutting edge weapons. But a combination of technological over-reaching and wayward budgets put an end to many of the biggest schemes.
The Blue Steel Missile (‘Blue Steel required up to seven hours of launch preparation, and was highly unreliable; the Royal Air Force estimated in 1963 that half the missiles would fail to fire and would have to be dropped over their targets, contradicting their purpose of serving as standoff weapons’), the Blue Streak missile and Black Knight rocket, the British Aircraft Corporation TSR-2 (“All modern aircraft have four dimensions: span, length, height and politics. TSR-2 simply got the first three right.”), all promised much but were ultimately cancelled. The country had gone from the age of aviation to the missile age, steered by the mergers and cancellations demanded by the 1957 Defence White Paper, only to ultimately be confounded when rockets proved far harder and more elusive than initially imagined.
Most of our stock retro-futurology comes from around this period, the era before the sci-fi dystopia had been invented when space travel was just another technology to be swiftly mastered. There were only 66 years separating the Wright Brothers from Apollo 11. Cars would be atomic, meals would come in a pill and the shape of things to come would be limited only by the designer’s imagination. It was a strong nostalgia that stuck around long after reality had intruded, and still grips today; every time you see a detailed cut-out of an imaginary machine, you are witnessing a quiet anger for the blinkered bean-counters and their lack of visionary zeal, the ones who – all practical considerations aside – have confined us to the here and now.