Saturday, 30 December 2017

The Radburn Idea 1: nothing lost and a good deal to be gained

... It would appear that there is nothing to be lost and that there may be a good deal to be gained by pursuing the Radburn Idea further, provided always that those who do so take the trouble to familiarise themselves thoroughly with the principles which underlie it.

J. Lewis Womersley, 'Some Housing Experiments on Radburn Principles', The Town Planning Review, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Oct 1954), pp. 182-194.

It's been eight months (April 2017) since I last posted here (on the perpetual wonders of children making their council estate home environment their own), but this was largely due to me working on what is really the crowning glory of this blog, my book Middlefield: A postwar council estate in time, which was published by the estimable Uniformbooks in the summer. In that book I wrote about how the open plan, pedestrianised spaces of the Middlefield Lane estate enabled its children to play freely across its spaces. As this blog has pointed out many times, Middlefield was but one example of those 'Experiments on Radburn Principles' that the architect, J. Lewis Womersley, refers to in the title of his 1954 article for The Town Planning Review. Since finishing my book I've become more and more interested in the 'Radburn idea' and how it was applied to other estates across the country, and so this post is the first of a series which will take the 'trouble to familiarise' ourselves with the Radburn idea and its principles. Despite my firm belief that these principles produced an environment where me and my friends could safely play and flourish to our heart's content, Radburn has gained a bad reputation over the years, especially in the snotty way it has been tagged as the 'council estate layout'. In particular, critics and historians have blamed architects and planners for not implementing Radburn in an 'authentic' manner, implying that they self-indulgently played around with its principles, creating estates with spaces that in turn wilfully 'experimented' with peoples' lives. Consequently, Radburn has been cited as yet another component part of the 'failed Utopian experiment' of council house building. As always with the postwar council estate however, I want to condemn less, and understand more. When and where was 'the Radburn Idea' adopted? How did it develop? How was it adapted; how did architects experiment with it in the design of local authority-built housing estates? How was the use of the Radburn Idea reported at the time? Despite the 'council estate layout' jibe, did architects attempt to use Radburn principles elsewhere? (The short answer is yes, and we shall later take the time to look at how they affected the design of one private estate).

The ‘Radburn Idea' stems from the small unfinished settlement of Radburn in New Jersey, which had been one of a number of experimental housing projects started in 1928 by the Regional Planning Association of America, and which was supported by President Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ programme of social and cultural reforms around the time of the Great Depression. The Radburn layout has been appropriately described by Alison Ravetz as ‘garden city plus motor car’. As we can see in one plan of the area below, the housing was set out in 'superblocks', closely-set, high density clusters of different housing types (eg. semi-detached, terraced 'townhouses', apartment blocks) arranged along relatively short cul-de-sac lanes that ran off a limited number of main access roads. These allowed the parking of cars at what was referred to as the rear, ‘service’ side of the houses (the letters within the houses shown below refer to the rooms within, with 'K' for kitchen facing the parking areas). Otherwise - and this is the most important facet of Radburn - the car, and the roads in general, were kept absolutely separate from pedestrians, who could get from A to B by using a network of public footpaths and green spaces at the front of the houses. 

Radburn planning was first acknowledged in this country in the Dudley Report of 1944 (Design of Dwellings, Central Housing Advisory Ctte, London: HMSO). One immediate and interesting contextual question to be raised about postwar British architects and planners adopting Radburn as a model for designing new estates is why they momentarily shifted their gaze away from Scandinavia, and towards the 'States for new inspiration? Was this by way of a cultural nod of thanks for the Marshall Plan? Or were they attracted by the soft socialism of the New Deal? Most likely I suppose is that they liked Radburn because they saw it as a new development in English garden city-type planning, but this is nevertheless a question that needs more exploration. Womersley's article is in any case one of the earliest to look at how Radburn could be used for new council estates, where he focussed on his Eastfield development in Northampton, which was being built at that time.

According to Womersley, Radburn principles were applied only 'in a limited form' at Eastfield. We shall look at why this was so in due course, however Womersley also admitted that he had been 'attracted by the Radburn Idea' but had 'lacked either the time or the courage to make a serious attempt to design a layout based on its principles'. That 'courage' was initially suppressed by one particular worry regarding rear service roads, which meant that visitors by car would have to enter the houses by the back door. Womersley then explains how it was pointed out to him that his own late Victorian house was part of a terrace which had since evolved to have service roads leading to garages behind. Being concerned about visitors having to enter a house by the back door might seem to us today as slight, quaint even, but it seemed to be based on nagging, pre-war conventions of suburban respectability and propriety (and it is one of the central criticisms of 'Radburn-as-council-estate-layout' that has persisted - in the long run however, this might say more about the social prejudices of the critics rather than the 'problem' itself). Thankfully, Womersley became convinced that any such 'risks' attached to a 'carefully designed Radburn layout' were 'almost negligible' while the advantages 'appeared to be considerable.' 

To me, the 'limited form' of Eastfield as a Radburn-Influenced estate seems to centre on the way its superblocks were defined by the terrace, rather than the staggered clusters of houses that were to be found at Radburn itself. In the early years of postwar reconstruction, council estate architects designing low-rise estates appear to prefer ribbon, terrace-like arrangements. Perhaps this was intended to maintain a sense of continuity and to make acclimatization easier for those being rehoused in the new estates (while also reflecting soon-to-come sociological studies such as Young and Willmott's Family and Kinship in East London (1957) which to some extent argued that (nineteenth century) terraced housing environments fostered strong social networks of dependence and mutual support). The photograph of the model of Eastfield above shows the terrace arrangements there, as does this recent view below:

Of course this was in any case a very different, more spacious and greener environment to the close-knit, overcrowded slum housing that estates like these were replacing (partly discussed here), but this form of Radburn nevertheless became a model for the design of other council estates across the country, including Middlefield, which began to be designed a decade or so after Eastfield in 1962 (interestingly, Middlefield's architect, Neil Taylor, once told me that his colleagues at this time in the small, provincial practice where he worked didn't know what he was talking about when he first mentioned Radburn to them). Like Eastfield, Middlefield also applies a terraced arrangement to the key Radburn principle of providing pedestrianised green spaces at the front of the houses:

Otherwise, it seems natural that any up-and-coming architect in postwar Britain would interpret the Radburn Idea to their own personal creative ends (which again would lead to non-architectural criticisms of a lack of fidelity to Radburn). Nevertheless, an examination of the various 'Experiments on ...' continue to throw up some anomalies. In his article, Womersley prides himself on following through 'Radburn theory ... to the end by designing house plans in which the kitchens overlook the pedestrian ways so that mothers can keep their children in view'. Yet, the Radburn superblock plan above shows that the kitchens there overlooked the service roads at the back (In this respect, Taylor got it right at Middlefield). Of course, it is difficult to know sixty years on whether Womersley simply got it wrong here, or indeed how much of the detail of Radburn he'd actually seen, but it does beg a more detailed scrutiny of the 'Radburn Idea' which will be attempted, however tentatively, in forthcoming posts (which might well end up perpetuating or even creating more anomalies!). In any case, the fairly utilitarian applications of the 'Radburn Idea' seen in this first instalment are completely blown apart in the later 60s and early 70s, when architects begin to really play around with its principles, for instance by almost completely rejecting any attempt to accommodate the car at all. But this will be explored further in the next post (which might not immediately appear but I promise it will be well within another eight months).

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