by David Hamilton (July 2009)
Since the end of World War Two, Britain’s towns and cities have been transformed for the benefit of local councils and commerce. Grievous damage was done by Luftwaffe bombs, but the Nazis were outdone in gratuitous destruction by postwar urban planners.
After the war, a sense of shame at our past and achievements became widespread amongst the intelligentsia, and led to an ineluctable weakening of our national identity. Our elites began wittingly or unwittingly to dismantle the very idea of England. Social engineering started to be used in architecture and planning as much as in education and entertainment. Its aim was to change the physical and mental environment, and thereby change people, who were seen as plastic and malleable. The theory was that planned council estates could change people for the better.
Marxism was fashionable and in 1938, Leeds City Council built Quarry Hill Flats to commemorate the Marxist insurrection against the government in Karl Mark Hof, Vienna in 1934. It was the largest housing scheme in the country and used the latest ideas and techniques. The flats had solid fuel ranges, electric lighting, the latest refuse disposal system and communal facilities. (However, the steel frame and concrete clad construction was faulty, and the flats had to be demolished in 1978.)
Park Hill in Sheffield was another Marxist utopian development. These flats were opened in 1962 and are now listed. They are representative of the “Streets in the Sky” fad. The idea was that of artificial “streets” built outside the front doors of tower block flats. It was envisaged that milk floats would go up in service lifts and on to the ‘streets’, make their deliveries and go back into the service lift and on up to the next floor. (Deliveries were stopped when a child was knocked over and killed by a float.)
In most of these schemes, there was great emphasis on pedestrian movement, as envisaged in Corbusier’s theoretic “Radiant City”or his “Unite” development in Marseilles. The new town of Skelmersdale was designed to separate vehicles from pedestrians with a system of courtyard layouts and cul-de-sacs emerging off spine streets, which led to disproportionate costs in street cleaning, refuse collection, ground and street furniture maintenance and, particularly, policing. It was built on an old coalfield and around a series of deep clefts in the moor side that go down into the middle of the town, which means that extensive ground remediation and stabilisation was and is required for any construction.
It was built using innovative and experimental techniques – but these were deeply flawed, requiring expensive remedies. Many houses had central heating outlets in the ceiling. The fact that heat rises was ignored, so the bedrooms were heated moderately well but not the downstairs rooms. And it is possible to punch a hand through walls because the houses’ metal frames are corroded and the concrete slabs have collapsed.
Local communities were dispossessed for such gimcrack schemes. The theory was from the Corbusian model of “uniformity in the part, variety in the whole,” which was necessary to produce the “house machine” or “A machine for living in”? This phrase says it all: treating people as machines.
As well as the vague but generic desire to change society, there were more direct motives for such grandiose developments. For example, trade unionists on Sheffield council wanted to create municipal socialism and get back into power1, by creating a new class of grateful client voters. Businesses also usually preferred to build anew rather than rebuild or restore, as re-development usually offers higher returns than conservation. There were often baser motives. In The History of Halesowen (2004), Julian Hunt relates how in the late 1950s and early ‘60s when the historic town centre was demolished for a concrete shopping centre, three of the local councillors were builders, and a fourth a demolition contractor.
For all these reasons, a plethora of radical new municipal building swept across the country from the 1950s onwards – schools, hospitals, offices, civic centres, entertainment and sports venues, shopping parades, shopping malls, new road schemes and street furniture, apartment tower blocks to house tenants whose ‘slums’ had been bombed or condemned as unfit for habitation. Whole new towns were created, like Stevenage, Corby and Cumbernauld, and historic towns such as Peterborough altered radically by vast, bland and often jerry-built new housing estates for ex-slum-dwellers. These schemes looked exciting in the plans but in practice turned out usually to be ugly, expensive and inefficient. At least some of the ‘slum clearance’ may not have even have necessary. Norman Dennis, told me in private correspondence, that In 1970, “Four out of every ten families living in the 1965-70 clearance areas were very satisfied with their present living conditions, in some areas the proportion was as high as six out of every ten. Two out of three owner-occupiers were not in favour of demolition.” But it went ahead anyway. The ruling mentality was well expressed in 1950 by the Labour minister for Town and Country Planning, Lewis Silkin: “It is necessary to lead the citizen – guide him. The citizen does not always know exactly what is best”.
Hackins Hey, for example, was a quaint by-way in Liverpool with small shops dating from the 18th century. But to planners and councillors it was only history and so it was destroyed overtime for a railway station that was not built. What little remains of Liverpool’s unique character and community spirit is still under threat. In 2005, the government issued a directive to destroy 20,000 habitable homes in Liverpool (and thousands more elsewhere), to be replaced by largely executive-style homes beyond the economic reach of dispossessed locals. Whole Liverpool neighbourhoods are still being flattened and their often unwilling communities compulsorily dispersed.
To see a ruined city, go to Coventry. The bus station is cold, drab, dirty and unwelcoming and just outside there is a piece of modern art to commemorate Frank Mitchell, inventor of the jet engine, that looks like four waste disposal chutes poking up into the air then coming down again. It suffered some of the worst German bombing of the war, as a result of which the word “Coventration” passed into the German language. But after the war, it was still an English medieval town - then the council got to work on it.
Two plans for redevelopment were submitted: one proposed by the city engineer, E H Ford, would have re-created the old city centre using the existing street lines; the other, the plan of city architect Donald Gibson, was the one adopted. Based on completely new street lines with pedestrian shopping precincts, it was seen as a great opportunity to create an ultra-modern city centre based on entirely new thinking and almost erasing the past. The centre of Coventry had had congestion before the war in its narrow medieval streets and the bombing gave the council an excuse to sweep it all away. The development soon dated and it is now generally regretted that most of the city’s history has been erased, as it is now recognised that history attracts tourists. They could have rebuilt it as it was, as in cities like Budapest.
Exeter was recently voted the most “Cloned” town in England, but before the war it was beautiful, and though wartime bombing hit some excellent buildings they could have been rebuilt on the old plans - but the council had them replaced in the modern style. In 1940 German radio announced, “Exeter was a jewel. We have destroyed it.” They had not. It could easily have been rebuilt.
The City Council commissioned a town-planning consultant, Thomas Sharp, to prepare a redevelopment plan for the reconstruction of the city. The plan was published as “Exeter Phoenix”. Bedford Circus, was damaged, it had been one of the most impressive examples of unified urban 18th century architecture in England but the council destroyed it and Princesshay turned into a pedestrian shopping precinct which was redeveloped again in 2005 into shopping and leisure complex which manages our time. Sharp believed buildings that “will best stand the test of time will be those which show no stylistic tricks at all but which depend for their effect on being clean, well proportioned and honest”. He had it the wrong way round.
Pictures of old Birmingham show a fine Victorian city with buildings like Snow Hill station, which was like a cathedral in its proportions, The Woodman, a glorious Victorian pub, and the old library to see the wanton destruction so often perpetrated by local authorities. The Bull Ring shopping area was redeveloped in the 1960s, and was so ugly, so unpopular and so badly constructed that it has all just been redeveloped again (not entirely successfully, although it is an improvement). In 1971, Liverpudlian sculptor Arthur Dooley presented a statue of a town planner to Birmingham Council - a little man in pinstriped trousers and a bowler hat with a key in his back. The council did not keep it!
In the 1960s, one Shrewsbury councillor wanted the entire historic town centre dismantled and rebuilt outside the town so a shopping centre could be built in its stead. Thankfully, he was overruled. Yet the council has wasted many fine buildings, such as the beautiful String of Horses pub, which was removed in 1969 to make way for a traffic roundabout. (It was reconstructed at the Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings in Bromsgrove.)
In 1968, the 140 year old London Bridge had started to sink into the Thames. Instead of trying to rescue it, the Corporation of London sold it for US$2.5m. American entrepreneur Robert P McCulloch had the bridge dismantled and sent by barge to Arizona, where it was rebuilt at Lake Havasu. Near the bridge is an “English Village” which pays homage to our culture, while here our authorities are destroying it. It has Tudor-style architecture, and the shops and restaurants create the atmosphere of ‘Olde England’, with tree-lined walkways and local breweries for hand-brewed ale.
An example of what our towns and cities could and should be like is Cambridge. It is a human-scale city, where Roman roads and walls can still be seen, along with the Saxon church of St Bene’t’s, the Romanesque Church of the Holy Sepulchre, university buildings from the early 13th century, the awe-inspiring 15/16th century King’s College Chapel and many characterful later houses and cottages, which do not imitate American models or make people feel insignificant. The beautiful, historic buildings give residents not just civic pride, but also a sense of being part of something that transcends themselves, uniting them with something deeper and bigger than the present moment. This respect for architectural tradition, be it noted, runs in parallel with an international reputation not just for academic excellence, but also the cutting-edge technology of Cambridge’s so-called “Silicon Fen”.
In much modern architecture, everything is streamlined - flat surfaces and geometric shapes without the ornamentation that lends character and beauty to so many older buildings. So-called ‘rational’ architecture eschews tradition and local and national vernacular styles and materials, leading to conformity and an artificialism that make people feel out of place. It is impossible to love tower blocks or office buildings built along these lines, or places dominated by such buildings.
This is not just a matter of aesthetics; it is about our very identity, which is the reciprocal relationship between people and the places in which they live. Building on what we have in a similar scale and style maintains continuity and helps to focus culture and identity. National and local governments alike are destroying places that are sanctioned by time and use, where communities have grown up and grown together partly instinctively.
People’s natural bonding instincts are increasingly thwarted by buildings that separate them from one another and are not physically conducive to developing community spirit - the sense of belonging and of knowing with whom you belong.
Canadian Plains Indians, the Innu, were moved by government into specially built estates. The Innu were effectively forcibly transformed into Canadians, just as Britons are being forcibly transformed into ‘citizens of the world’. Like us, the Innu are having their past erased and are being offered nothing for the future – despair has set in, as it is setting in on Britain’s sink estates. One important difference is that the Innu have been dispossessed by a different ethnic group, whereas we are being dispossessed by our own elected representatives. In many young Innu, their deculturation manifests in drug and alcohol abuse and petty crime. More and more of Britain’s young people are similarly aimless, lacking in self-respect, without tradition or a sense of being part of something. Many of them have likewise started to prey on their own people. There have always been people at the bottom of the pile, but they used to develop within a cultural tradition to which they belonged, albeit peripherally. Most Young people do not misbehave out of endemic wickedness, but because they have been decultured.
Thanks to a combination of social, cultural, political and now environmental pressures, many young people in this country have been effectively estranged from Englishness, severed from civilizing structures that their ancestors could take for granted. Buildings need to develop from traditions and renew those traditions with the sense of familiarity to helping civilise young people and minimise the viscious crimes we now have.
Local councillors are only elected by a minority of voters and are not therefore fully representative of the public. We need an office appointed by the Crown like a lord lieutenant with responsibility for protecting communities not factions of it. The Office of the Lord-Lieutenant dates from the 16th Century and has the force of tradition behind it at a time when we are victims of unrestrained change for profit at our communities’ expense.
The Lord Lieutenant is apart from local politics in the County and is interested in all aspects of life - voluntary and business, statutory and social and cultural. This office could be expanded into a Royal representative to appoint local authorities with responsibility for maintaining the continuity of local areas and communities.
1. Farewell to Yorkshire, Roy Hattersley.
See: People and Planning: The Sociology of Housing in Sunderland, Norman Dennis, Faber & Faber, 1970
Planning and Urban Change, S V Ward, Paul Chapman, 1994
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