Wednesday, 22 February 2012

A new estate just like the old estate, only NEW!

This is 'John Jenkinson Close' which is on or - rather - within the Middlefield Lane estate. Unlike the rest of the estate which was completed in 1965, John Jenkinson Close was built in early 2009 by the local social housing company that is now responsible for Gainsborough's former council housing. The close consists of 21 sheltered housing bungalows that are part-rented, part-shared ownership. So far so reasonable, but JJ Close raises a number of questions and problems in relation to the estate's history and its continuing survival and preservation. Here's the Close from further behind where I was standing above:

This shows some of the original flats in the foreground with the new development ahead - and what is, to all intents and purposes, a new, half-hearted, gated/fenced community, segregated from the 60s Modernist housing that remains. The rural historian, Jeanette Neeson, once referred to the eighteenth century parliamentary enclosures that enclosed and privatised England's common land as having 'a terrible and instructive visibility'. The same can be said for these fences here, which are clearly meant to 'instructively' demarcate the nice new bungalows from the nasty old council flats beyond.

But what used to be there before John Jenkinson Close was built? Well, this:

This was 'The Precinct', a Modernist block of shops with some nicely recessed, balconied maisonette flats above. For a remote Lincolnshire market town, this building was adventurous and impressive in its time - as a child it always reminded me of Marineville. The flats that are now segregated from the new-build bungalows can be seen here in their original setting to the left of the shops. I have a whole load of stories about these shops that will have to wait until another time, but I do want to briefly consider the original landscape planning around here. This is The Precinct on a 1975 map ... 

... within what is a plain but clearly ambitious example of council estate landscape planning that is akin to a baroque country-house landscape garden in scale and geometry, with the Precinct set centrally within the estate as its focal point, and with green avenues reaching outwards from it: the ‘Parades’ either side and ‘The Green’ ahead. 

Gerry Anderson's beautifully designed 21st Century world was made manifest in The Precinct, but they are aberrations now, a strange, lost, parallel alternative to what we have in the real 21st century. On Wednesday the 18th of October 2000, a meeting of the West Lindsey District Council Planning Services Committee granted consent to demolish The Precinct. The minutes of that meeting noted that the application to demolish was made by the social housing group responsible for John Jenkinson Close, who stated that The Precinct and its flats had "a long history of low demand, serious vandalism and unlettability [sic] and, in view of the declining condition of The Precinct in recent years the applicant considers it important to look to replace such buildings with higher quality and more appropriate accommodation."

These minutes give us an insight into the attitudes of those who had spent the previous 20 to 30 years running down the estate they’d created: "In view of the applicants’ wish to carry out a proactive role in regenerating and redeveloping the area, it is considered that this demolition work is appropriate and acceptable and helps to open up the centre of this residential area, creating a more pleasant and less enclosed environment."

I’m at a loss as to understand how the apparently ‘enclosed environment’ of The Precinct and its environs needed ‘opening up’. By the 21st century however, places like these had come to be perceived as ‘enclosed’ not only because the type of Modernist planning involved here had been discredited, but also because it was now negatively equated with the ‘communal’ and the ‘sociable’. From a corporatised council’s point of view such qualities are now viewed as dangerously progressive and backwardly ‘socialist’ - whereas the ‘opening up’ of the area was clearly understood to create a more ‘appropriate’ spatial environment of individualistic self-determination. 

And so The Precinct was demolished to make way for a development that turned out to actively reinforce the notion of an 'enclosed environment' rather than to open up what used to be, in any case, the open-plan centrepiece of the estate. In the 1960s even an ordinary market town like Gainsborough could have its own exciting and progressive Modernist structure in a carefully designed landscape, but not any longer. There is a particular lack of vision in John Jenkinson Close that has created nothing other than a dull, bland subtopia. 

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