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.


  1. I suspect the real motivation was keeping down the rates by making less open space for the enjoyment of tenants. I never hear anyone complaining that the open space round their houses are too big *sigh*

    1. It's a good point, Richard, but Cullen and Richards were thinking more at the time about trying to steer the design and planing of post-war public housing away from the dominating influence of those 'England is the countryside' ideals and the sub-urban garden cities, and towards something more 'urban'. However, no-one I knew where I lived were complaining about the open spaces.

  2. Amazing works, I like colourful projects. Thanks for sharing.