Town planning has often attracted eccentrics and utopianists who envisage creating something beautiful, interesting and enduring, and yet when provided with the opportunity to start with a completely blank canvas, things often go terribly wrong.
Anyone who has visited the centre of South Woodham Ferrers, in my beloved home county of Essex, will know that it is a place that oozes eighties blandness. Similarly, Prince Charles’ pet project, Poundbury, is a virtuosic and extravagant exercise in chocolate box nostalgia and yet, to my mind, it is a dismal architectural sleight of hand that lacks authenticity and soul. Vibrant communities rarely emerge from the tip of a draughtsman’s pencil. So many housing complexes that were radical and exciting in their day have since been dynamited.
A vision that looks good on paper does not often translate well into reality. Our communities and settlements evolve organically and tend to be reflective of social, economic, cultural and aesthetic changes.
Those pioneers who sought to create new garden cities in the early years of the twentieth century were guided by a cheerful idealism that provided the perfect antidote to the grotty conditions to be found in many city slums. Hertfordshire is home to both Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City and architectural students from around the world visit both places in order to better understand the priorities of early twentieth century city planners.
If you sweep past JD Sports and emerge from the shopping arcade in front of Welwyn Garden City Railway Station then you find yourself overlooking Time Square….not the Time Square but still an impressively green space with fountains, carefully manicured privet hedges and an abundance of pigeons and park benches. If you squint a little in order to blur out a few garish shop fronts, then it is not difficult to imagine that this was a place of suburban bliss beloved by a generation of post-war commuters who travelled up to the city each morning. The dream, the vision, is just about discernible.
Founded by Sir Ebenezer Howard in 1920, Welwyn Garden City was designed to be the perfect town, combining the benefits of both city and countryside. After times of great turmoil, the town planner comes into his or her own. Society demands suburban order and a return to the comforting certainty of ‘normal life’. A whole genre of American fiction explores the limitations of such an existence. Think Revolutionary Road, The Stepford Wives, The Hours and The Corrections. After the First World War, new towns and housing projects seemed to serve as a corrective to the horror of the trenches.
The Garden City movement was a defining feature of developments in early twentieth century town planning but it was only recently that I learned that the very first garden city should have been Cleveleys and that the proposed plans were well underway at the turn of the century. Were it not for the fact that Letchworth got its act together very quickly, Cleveleys might now be celebrated the world over as an example of innovative town planning.
The crowning moment of the plan came with the Cleveleys Cottage Exhibition of 1906. In total forty four properties were built for the event, in an eclectic mixture of styles that emphasised the pastoral. Yesterday evening, I slipped out to go on a tour of Cleveleys Cottages. Happily almost all of the original houses remain and, collectively, they provide a fascinating architectural snapshot in time. As I wandered up Stockdove Way and down West Drive, I peered over hedges and tried to match up properties with the photographs online that are drawn from the original brochure. I imagined what it must have been like to view these new houses in 1906 when they were innovative and had a maximum build cost of just £180.
The exhibition was a success but the grandiose plans for a city never took hold – perhaps people were put off by the wind. The celebrated architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens, was commissioned to design part of the new garden city and he drew up plans for what he described as ‘my new town’. There was to be a classical pavilion, church, club and communal gardens. The arrival of the electric tram in 1898 meant that the area had become increasingly accessible to Manchester merchants who it was thought would jump at the opportunity to own a cottage by the sea.
Alas, few of the buildings Lutyens envisaged were built and by the 1930s, the central park area had all but disappeared. Sadly, a rather nondescript but perfectly agreeable patch of suburbia was allowed to sprawl over what would have been the very centre of Lutyen’s garden village. Described by Christopher Hussey as ‘surely the greatest architect since Wren if not, as many maintained, his superior’, Lutyens designed many iconic buildings such as the Thiepval Memorial, Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, British Ambassador’s residence in Washington D.C. and the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Dublin. Lutyens was one of three principal architects for the Imperial (now Commonwealth War Graves Commission) and it was his extraordinary vision that has served to shape how we commemorate and memorialise those who lose their lives in war.
Next time you travel in the direction of Rossall School from Cleveleys, glance to the left and you will pass Ivy Cottage – a wonderful example of the Arts and Crafts domestic style. Collectively these cottages provide just a glimpse of what might have been had things worked out differently. I love the fact that these cottages were designed by a world famous architect and yet they sit modestly amongst an entirely unremarkable bit of suburbia. The cottages sit either side of Way Gate which was named after Revd Dr. John Pearce Way, who was Headmaster of Rossall from 1896 until 1908. This was supposed to be the grand entrance to Lutyens model village but apart from the cottages nothing materialised.
Our lives are full of fragments of unrealised dreams and grandiose projects that never quite get off the ground. So often, we wish that we could turn the clock back and yet Prince Charles’ Poundbury stands as a sterile and boring monument to the conceit that allows us to think that we can meaningfully turn our back on the passage of time. It is, of course, nothing more than an illusion, a piece of artful fakery. Living an authentic life means accepting the rough with the smooth. It means having the courage to move forward and accept the random chaos of life. It is for this reason that the uniformity and order of garden cities always makes me feel a little queasy.
Headmaster of Rossall School