Sunday, 18 November 2012

The distant rim of sentimental green landscapes

In July 1953, Gordon Cullen published one of the very first of his self-illustrated and typically amiable demands for the design of new state housing developments to be characterised by a more urban, 'townscape', type of environment. 


'Prairie Planning in the New Towns' (along with J.M. Richards' preceding companion piece in the same edition, 'Failure of the New Towns') was daring for its time in how it asserted that the New Towns largely suffered from the same faults as the pre-war suburbs which they were meant to improve upon. In particular, their layout was far too spacious due to over-large expanses of greenery, long walks and 'lavishly' wide road widths. Richards felt that we were still building garden suburbs and that we had forgotten how to build towns. In a fabulously lyrical, yet tart, turn of phrase, Richards sympathised with the 'unhappy' New Town housewife 'marooned' on the 'distant rim of their sentimental green landscapes ... cut off from the neighbourliness of closely built-up streets.' What Cullen called 'Prairie Planning' meant boredom:


'The main impression of prairie planning is that of vastness, the feeling that the little two-storey houses are far too puny and temporary to match up to the monumental, overpowering space.' 

In my post before last, I showed how my house, alongside others on our row, looked out upon open countryside. One of the photographs that was used by Cullen to illustrate his critique of prairie planning was this one of the outskirts of Stevenage New Town:


When I first saw this, I had to do a double-take. Here is a view of Dunstall Walk taken from across the other side of the field last seen in my post Bus Stop:


As I said back then, the Middlefield Lane estate was originally built on the very edge of the town looking out onto open countryside (to the left of this view now is another, much larger estate, a by-pass, and an ever-growing industrial estate) but this is still a very similar situation to the one that Cullen and Richards were criticising nearly sixty years ago. Cullen noted that all of this wasn't the fault of the architect; they were the victims of 'committees' who had got 'the bee of dispersal in their bonnets - the idea that it is not quite nice to have a neighbour, that the ideal town is one that will fill - or empty - a prairie.'

On the face of it, Middlefield Lane has all that Cullen and Richards disliked - large expanses of greenery:



And those 'lavish' wide road widths:



While some of the original tenants did feel somewhat 'marooned' out on the edge of town (until the Bus Stop came, and the estate's own precinct of shops a year after the estate was opened) as a kid I was very happy on the distant rim of my sentimental green landscape. Cullen and Richards' articles were prescient in the way they suggested a fundamental shift towards greater densities and a more urban sense of neighbourhood coherence but, in small-town Gainsborough, the open, 'prairie' like spaces of my estate gave me an enormous amount of space and freedom to walk, run, cycle, and to chase around. 

The New Towns somewhat belatedly came to embody that 60s yearning for 'freedom', for instance in the 1967 film Here we go round the Mulberry Bushwhich was uniquely set in Stevenage New Town. This is a still from the film:



The lead character - ‘Jamie’ - played by Barry Evans - is seen here cycling in and around a landscape very similar to Middlefield Lane. At this moment 'Jamie' is sadly prattling on to the camera about ‘birds’ in a groovy, permissive and very non-PC 60s manner. Stevenage had already been described in a 1959 newsreel as ‘the design for living’ for ‘the citizens of tomorrow’, which was particularly made manifest by what the newsreel described as ‘the sense of spaciousness’ in the town. The publicity for Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush celebrated the location for epitomizing ‘the mood of swinging new Britain’ and the ‘fresh possibilities’ in this new, seemingly carefree, and highly modern environment. The 'sentimental' New Towns, provincial estates like mine, and the high density tower block estates all presented different aspects of those same 'fresh possibilities', and a remarkably shared set of experiences. Jamie embodied the zeitgeist of 1967 by bombing around the prairies of Stevenage on his bike, just as I was doing at the same time as a seven-year old on the Middlefield Lane estate – except I wasn’t going on about birds -  well, not yet anyway.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

The Transformation of Urban Britain

Drawing/collage by Gordon Cullen, Architectural Review, July 1953

Gordon Cullen produced a number of illustrations and articles for the Architectural Review throughout the 1950s and 60s (as well as providing some very cool drawings for Homes for Today and Tomorrow, a key report on housing standards produced by the Government’s Central Housing Advisory Committee in 1961). The above drawing was made for J.M. Richards' polemic against low-density developments, 'Failure of the New Towns' (AR 7-1953, pp. 29-32) which was followed by a piece by Cullen entitled 'Prairie Planning in the New Towns' - something that I will write about in more detail with regard to the Middlefield Lane estate in a forthcoming post. In these articles, both Richards and Cullen were already beginning to push for a denser, more robust urbanism in opposition to the garden-city-like New Towns. 

Such debates were long and complex and, sixty years on, there's still a lot of thinking to be done here in relation to new towns and council estates in particular, and the post-war urbanisation of the country in general. The days are getting shorter and colder and I'm already looking forward to next summer when I shall be going to this:

The Transformation of Urban
Britain Since 1945
A conference organised by the Centre for Urban History, University of Leicester, 9-10 July 2013

which promises to shed some much needed light on issues like these, and to hopefully nurture a network of scholars and practitioners on post-war urban Britain. 

For more details, see

Monday, 5 November 2012

Bus Stop


Back in the day when governments actually planned a future, the 1944 Housing Manual envisaged new 'neighbourhoods' of 5-10000 people in 3 forms. The first was characterised as ‘open development’ with a low density of around 30-40 persons per acre; the second was ‘inner-ring housing’ with a density of 70ppa, and the third was called ‘central area development’, that would consist of housing within the centre of a town or city with much higher densities of 100-120ppa (naturally involving high-rise blocks of some kind). 

The Middlefield Lane estate fell into the ‘inner-ring housing’ camp. When it was completed in 1964, the estate was situated on the very edge of Gainsborough, and about a mile and a half from the town centre. The estate looked out onto open countryside  - one reason why the estate seemed like such a paradise to me when I was a kid - and for several years our house looked out onto this:


At that time, the estate clearly wasn't yet 'inner-ring' but within ten years of this photo being taken (1966) it had become just that. By 1976, a by-pass ran across the middle of this field, and a large 'London Overspill' council estate (the Park Springs estate) was being built just beyond the hedgerows you can see to the right of the photo. 

One of the frequent criticisms lobbied at new council estates like Middlefield Lane was that they were too isolated from the centre of town and its amenities. The front page of the Gainsborough Evening News on Tuesday 29 December 1964 held a report on 'The Likes and Dislikes of a New Estate'. According to this piece, the Middlefield Lane residents had 'few complaints'. 'Top of the list' of 'likes' was the 'fresh-air feeling', as one woman put it. High on the list of 'dislikes' ('the biggest bone of contention') was the lack of an adequate bus service into town. The Lincolnshire Road Car Company diverted a service that ran through the nearby Heapham Road and White's Wood Lane estates to the Middlefield estate, but the service was reported as being 'infrequent' and over crowded. The 'News reported however that the company was planning to put on extra buses at peak times, and a new bus stop was created on Thurlby Road, against the end wall of the North Parade flats. 

The stop consisted of a steel, flat-roofed, shelter that stood on a broad paved area which was built up in order to connect to the road where the bus stopped. I remember sheltering under there as a kid with my Mum, waiting for the bus in the rain, but it is another one of those original features of the estate that has disappeared over time, and the photo at the top of this post shows where it used to be. Against the end wall you can see a rough rectangle of lighter bricks and a darker line above where the bus shelter roof was. The patch of grass wasn't there in those days and the old ground level of the former paved area is indicated by the line of lighter bricks along the bottom of the wall just above the grass.  All quite boring, I know, but I become obsessed with finding these almost archaeological traces of the estate - they act like conduits in space and time, carrying me to the place as it was in its hey-day.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

'We'll drift through it all, it's the modern age.'




The account of the Failed Architecture Lenton flats workshop is now online: http://failedarchitecture.com/2012/10/from-the-great-adventure-to-our-dystopian-present/


Nottingham City Homes naturally seem to have the economic numbers stacked up against retention of the blocks but again there is hardly any mention of the tenants and nothing really about where or how they would be re-housed. Perhaps they thought they'd leave that to JTP architects who are doing something or another with the site (with a plan that only involves a fraction of new council homes being built there compared to the current number within the tower blocks) but it all really isn't good enough from a body that purports to provide 'homes and places where people want to live'. Taking various 'dystopian' cultural artefacts out of their context without any real consideration of what they actually mean in order to justify their decisions ('Control', which is cited almost in terms of 'wasn't the 1970s grim?' and 'these flats must be bad if they're being used to represent Macclesfield' - and Ballard's 'High-Rise' which, rather differently to the situation at Lenton, is actually filled with tenants who are smug, educated, wealthy, bored, and socially dysfunctional) also shows a particularly narrow understanding of our recent past and of the realities of social division and disenfranchisement in Lenton and elsewhere. 

There's so much more to take to task here: 'our dystopian present' anyone? That NCH have to make some 'difficult decisions' and that we should also 'try to look at the problem from a company perspective' tells me all I need to know about our 'dystopian present'. That old chestnut about people not sharing a ‘sense of place’ due to the 'lack of homeownership'? As though council tenants are simply not capable of forging communities because they are somehow hampered by not conforming to the great (and now surely discredited) English middle-class yardstick of aspiring to owning a home. And as for the NCH representative asking the FA Lenton researchers if they would like their gran to live in the Lenton flats ...  

All of this would not necessarily matter if the current tenants at Lenton were being guaranteed some sort of alternative accommodation nearby. Back in the late 1960s, tower blocks like those at Lenton gave ordinary people significantly better housing than what they previously had. Perhaps the current tenants do need better housing than what they have now, but sadly it still doesn't seem as if the new masters of these tower blocks are even going to give them that.