Sunday, 29 December 2013

Nothing, like something, happens anywhere

Tile Hill estate neighbourhood centre, Coventry. From The Architect's Journal, October 1953.

Back in 2009, George Shaw, the poet-artist of the postwar council estate, said of his work that: 

'THERE IS NO NEW WORK. It is the old work rotting and I can't recognise it anymore. It is departing slowly from me.' 

I've just published an article in the new edition of Cultural Politics that attempts an interpretation of how and why Shaw visually memorialises the Tile Hill estate in Coventry, where he grew up in the 1970s and 80s. The article offers an understanding of how Shaw’s work is a product of a struggle over time between the idealistic principles of postwar council estate planning and the later, negative, social and aesthetic stereotyping of these estates. It takes up some basic principles of childhood development, and of the formation of autobiographical memory to show how the places and spaces of Tile Hill had an indelible effect on the formation of Shaw’s personal and cultural identity. Just how misguided I am in my analysis is up to the reader. I'm particularly cognisant of the fact that the artist himself might not recognise any of his work in it, and that such academic musings (unfortunately, Cultural Politics is an academic, subscription only journal that asserts and preserves its 'rights' to the nth degree) might only serve to distance his work even further away from him. 

But it is well meant - the photograph of the Tile Hill shops above reminds me so much of the 'neighbourhood centre' on my estate, and of what must be similar, shared memories of hanging around the shops there, playing, hiding, being a nuisance - and it is sincerely done almost in spite of academic conventions or theoretical concerns. As George Orwell nearly put it in Coming Up For Air, I belong to these estates. So do you.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Modernity and Idealism: 'It is as political as it is poetic"

Last week, The Guardian reported on yet another piece of current free market fundamentalist, fuck you and me, anti-social conceit via the thoughts of James Tooley. Remarkably, Tooley is a Professor of Education at the largely state-funded Newcastle University, but that doesn’t seem to stop him from saying things like: ‘I want to see private schools emerge and then the state just move aside from education.’ 

Too much credence these days is given to this type of wilfully destructive, ‘maverick’ shit, and so I just moved Tooley aside by meditating once more on what is nonetheless fast becoming a dreamtime of post-WW2 social cohesiveness, modernity and idealism – by posting a scattergun range of things that remind me of those very things. I naturally began to think of a few of my very favourite songs: ‘Friends’ by The Beach Boys, ‘What the World Needs Now’ by Jackie DeShannon, Scott Walker’s ‘On Your Own Again’ and – best of all – the song you can hear for yourself on the post before this one, ‘Bach Ze’ by The High Llamas. 

‘Bach Ze’ was released in 1999 but its reflective, more-chord-changes-that-you-can-shake-a-stick-at, exquisitely arranged beauty is a song out of time. For me, this might be because the video also has some hazy, sun-filled shots of a power station that is very similar to one which was a constant presence in my 1960s childhood worldview – West Burton, the cooling towers of which you can (just) see here in the heat haze of a photo of Gainsborough’s railway station that I took in the early 1980s:

'Bach Ze' is influenced by certain forms of Sixties music that managed to be progressive in the way that they wavered in and out of an easy listening mainstream – Bossa Nova/Tropicalia, The Fifth Dimension, The Free Design. The song also questions the passing of the decade’s space race, hence the line ‘but now we rarely make the trip’, and alludes to the now-historical notion of looking forward in terms of an organised, technologically and socially progressive future: ‘it’s now a flashback for a dedicated few’. The video contains elements that are reminiscent of the films made by Charles and Ray Eames, such as House (1955), in the way that it presents a motion capture flick-book of everyday found objects and experiences: bric-a-brac, pebbles, toys, wistful images of sun through trees. As he was busily creating his new Po-Mo retro-fit world, Robert Venturi hailed the Eames aesthetic as the embodiment of the reintroduction of Victorian clutter, but to me it has always been representative of a sunny, optimistic-humanistic, and still forward-looking Modernism. 

The two posts before ‘Bach Ze’ are purely personal. The aerial photograph shows the back of The Precinct shops on the Middlefield Lane estate, and it’s extensive megastructure-ish complex of flats and maisonettes, with their stacked-up rear entrances and stairwells reminiscent, I fancifully think, of Moshe Safdie’s ‘Habitat’ housing complex at the Montreal Expo 67. This structure, combined with The Precinct and my memories of Marineville, all come together as what must be the wellspring of this blog’s ideas and musings. Even as a nine year old in 1970 at junior school in deepest Lincolnshire, I felt the need to express my excitement about this new world when I made a model of Habitat out of various cardboard boxes. A year or so later I saw a film that I knew as S.W.A.L.K. (a.k.a. Melody). S.W.A.L.K. is a tale of two school chidren who fall in love and vow to marry, much to the general derision of their parents, teachers and classmates, which is all couched within a typically period expression of youthful rebellion, and of ‘freedom’. As such, it doesn’t weather very well in today’s fraught and pinched dog-eat-dog society, but its somewhat melancholy soundtrack and its crisp social and geographical eye for a London in transition – of crumbling docklands, pre-war council flats and just beginning to be gentrified Georgian terraces, punctuated by still-new tower blocks, had an indelible effect on me then and continues to haunt me now as an example, for all its flaws, of a hopelessly romantic sense of modernity, both in terms of what it stood for back then, and in relation to what has happened to it since. 

The idealistic spirit of this time – and of childhood itself – is also represented here by an early 1970s photograph of the Ferrier Estate at Kidbrooke, S.E. London. There’s an excellent, heartfelt defence of this estate by Iqbal Alaam here on his flickr site which takes it for the spacious, happy, healthy place it was, and could still be. There were never flats like these on the Middlefield Lane estate but this photo still excitingly evokes the same, happy, sense of spaciousness and freedom that I palpably felt as a child in the 1960s and 70s. The drawing below is one by Gordon Cullen, the master draughtsman of quirky postwar British modernity, of the Finsbury Health Centre, where the sun has to be king in this new architectronic welfare state. The sun glistening through wavering leaves optimism of the Sixties reappears once more in the marvellously uplifting opening titles of the 1969-71 BBC TV series, Take Three Girls. To me, the bright yet quite propulsive folk-jazz theme tune (The Pentangle!), that little skip that one of the characters does as she walks along a busy London street, and the snappy, of-their-time directness of the titles themselves (‘Take Three Girls: Kate … Avril … Victoria’) have now lost their well-worn ‘swinging London’ connotations and come across in today's tired age as vibrant and refreshing. What do you think?

Either way, and as one line from Jean Luc Godard’s 1967 film Two or Three Things I Know About Her puts it, it is as political as it is poetic. Godard made it clear in this film that he was no fan of the Parisian high-rise ‘banlieues’ that were springing up at this time, but his sentiments here (again with sun and leaves momentarily and stunningly reflected on a car bonnet) ring very true for me personally, and in relation to how we can all possibly resist the shit were in at the moment.   

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Bread and circuses

I was wandering around the estate yesterday enjoying a day off work (strike action but not researching/working necessarily – I went to Gainsborough to see my Auntie Gwen, then I went home and spent much of the rest of the day catching up on a couple of episodes of Homeland) and I was amazed to find that a circus had pitched up on the playing field by Aisby Walk:

 This is a first as far as I know. The field was created in the early 1970s with a number of football and rugby pitches, and a changing pavilion. You can see how much it used to be a well-used, sociable spot here on an aerial photo from that time:

From the 1980s however, its use as a sports field went into a decline and the pavilion was eventually demolished due to vandalism, the slow death of the social and so on – and now it is clearly seen as the type of wasteland space that can typically be used as a site for a circus. This is all fine and good I suppose, but if Joan from the superb but cruelly underrated BBC comedy series Early Doors ever got around to asking me her favourite question, “do you like circuses, Ian?” then I would have to answer in the negative. The lights of the circus tent on this gloomy autumn morning also reminded me of a scene from near the end of Patrick Keillor’s film Robinson in Space, when Robinson reckons that Blackpool, with all its glitter, lights and amusements, held the key to his Utopia. It’s never made especially clear why the character feels that way. I always thought it was a bit of a situationist-hipster line to take on Keillor’s part, but I guess it’s really something to do with the resort being on the edge of the supposed revolution of everyday life, where the amusements there still have the potential to purely amuse rather than manipulate and abuse us. The same might apply to circuses, but for me this ...

... is more than incongruous.The landscape architect Thomas H Mawson, who designed Blackpool's Stanley Park in 1922, reputedly once said “Blackpool stands between us and revolution”. Essentially, places like Blackpool distract us, divert us away from revolution. But the Middlefield Lane estate is emphatically not Blackpool, and I wonder why this circus should be here at all, if not to do anything other than to deliberately prolong that process of distraction. Even in a small market town like Gainsborough, the Middlefield Lane estate was actually intended to be revolutionary - the Gainsborough Urban District Council proudly saw it back in 1964 as a sign of how the town and its people were forward-looking and progressive. Back then, the creation and constitution of new spaces like those found on this new estate were meant to be socially transformative. The GUDC's motto then was "Strive for the Gain of All'. The authority that replaced it (and which would have allowed this circus to pitch up on the estate) is the West Lindsey District Council - which now prides itself on being 'The Entrepreneurial Council'. 

It could be that the older I get, the more I'm turning into Tommy, another magic character from Early Doors who, when asked by Joan whether he liked circuses, replied "Nooo, they're shite". But the appearance of this circus on an estate where real social, economic and material deprivations persist is shite. This circus is certainly no indicator of a revolution of everyday life. Its presence not only stands between us and revolution, it sticks one big top finger at the possibility. For me, it also makes it that little bit easier to imagine the end of this estate as it was originally conceived.

Sunday, 27 October 2013


Not an attractive photo of a very old 'No Cycling' sign on the wall of the South Parade flats to introduce what is a bit of a holding post, keeping the blog ticking over while I deal with the demands of teaching and spending hour upon hour writing applications for a bit of research funding so I can begin a proper study of the Middlefield Lane estate.

This sign almost certainly dates from sometime after Monday 12 July 1965. I know this because the Gainsborough Urban District Council Housing Committee minutes for a meeting on that day noted some ‘complaints received' about the 'nuisance caused by children riding cycles on footpaths near to old people’s developments on estate’. The committee agreed to put up some ‘No Cycling’ notices around the estate, and this is one of them.

The research money I'm after will fund a project that aims to analyse the design and planning of the estate to see how successfully it functioned as an environment for childhood play and development. I want to use Clare Cooper Marcus and Wendy Sarkissian’s brilliant but undervalued 1986 book, Housing as if people mattered (1986), which presented a comprehensive set of site design guidelines for medium density estates like Middlefield Lane. 

The plan is to critically ‘map’ the designed visual, physical and spatial characteristics of the Middlefield Lane estate onto those guidelines that related specifically to children’s needs. Perhaps more evocatively, I want to supplement this by using memories and experiences of childhood on the estate during the 1960s and 70s to find out how the children themselves interacted with the adult-configured planning of the estate, and how they were able to create and construct their own spaces and places there.

They did this in part by bombing around the pedestrianised estate on their bikes, up and down the 'parades' and the 'walks', gleefully exemplifying what Robin Moore, in his 1986 book Childhood’s Domain, describes as a child’s ‘intimate, fluid and intense’ interaction with a ‘flowing terrain’. Adult planners would refer to all of this as 'non-conforming use'; the adults on the estate however would just tell us to clear off if we were bothering them - and we would do as we were told, we'd move on, grumbling a little to ourselves, but I'm sure we'd be out there again the next day. But you don't have to take my word for it - if I can get some research money I can ask some others who lived there too. Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013


Another beauty of the drawings for the projected Irvine New Town shown in my previous posts (that actually date from 1971) is the way the project envisaged the widespread use of my very favourite typeface, Microgramma.

To my mind, it is the typeface of the 1960s and 70s: 

Designed by Aldo Novarese and Alessandro Butti for the Turin Nebiolo Type Foundry in 1952, it became the typeface for technical illustrations, manuals and, it seems, for estate signage in the depiction of a cool but conspicuously uniform way of life, complete with well-tailored beautiful young things kicking around walkways. 

As anyone of my generation with similar inclinations to mine will know, Microgramma also became the typeface of choice for a TV21-fuelled future because it was widely used by Gerry Anderson in the titles of Captain Scarlet, Joe 90 and, best of all, UFO:

The Sheffield group, The Human League also knew of Microgramma's potential in all these respects when they used it as their signature typeface for all their pre-Dare recordings:

And from a world where yet another golden hour of an imagined future is constructed with Microgramma, the beautiful, excited but not quite-yet ironic integration of banks of oscillators, modulators and patch circuits, and the Park Hill flats.

Monday, 16 September 2013

How life nearly was

Further to my post yesterday, there's lots more of this wonderful world here:

Have a look and dream ... 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Future Crayon 2

A civic future. Project drawings for Irvine New Town, late 1960s, from the Voices of East Anglia website: 

This is how life nearly was.

Thursday, 4 July 2013


This is Pantone 15-5519, or Turquoise to you and me. I have an abiding memory of our front and back doors being painted turquoise when we first moved into 36 Dunstall Walk in the spring of 1964. I say 'abiding' because I'm not entirely sure, but this is the colour in my mind's eye when I think back to that time. It certainly wouldn't surprise me if the doors were in turquoise because this was one of the colours of the early 1960s, and a natural 'up-to-date' choice for a provincial but ambitious and modern estate. We might associate such intense shades with the psychedelic, slightly later 1960s, but turquoise, along with fuschia pinks, limes and tangerines, first appeared in the 50s, and were particularly used as 'Contemporary' accents against 'neutrals' such as concrete, wood, stone and - yes! - pebbledash.

These were the days when you rented your house from the local council, and when 'the men' from the council 'works department' periodically (every four years or so) came to redecorate all of your exterior paintwork, on the basic stipulation that you accepted the colour you were offered (generally from a choice of two).  

All of this might seem incredibly prosaic, arcane even, so let me give this some social context. It is easy to forget within today's privatised and increasingly self-absorbed society that people were once excited, as we were, about moving into a brand new, 1960s modern, local authority-provided home, and that this produced many shared everyday experiences and memories. This is what Alison Twells has to say about the painting of council house doors on another East Midlands council estate in a post entitled The ancestral home from her ace blog, Socks for the Boys!:

I stop my mum. I want to know the colour of the front door, and she knows why. We laugh. Council house front doors interest us more than they should. For the first fourteen years of my life, we lived with my grandparents in a postwar Nye Bevan beauty of a house on a big corner plot round the corner from Moira Dale. When the men from the council arrived every few years to re-paint the front door, giving the tenant a choice from one shade each of blue, red or green, my gran would choose red (for Labour!) and then, in her own small protest at this excess of local authority uniformity, would get her paint-brush out the following day.
‘Did she ever just ask them not to paint it?’ I ask.
‘Oh yes, but they had to. They knew what she’d do. Nobody batted an eyelid when she got that olive green tin out’.

Naturally, there are differences here to our experience on the Middlefield Lane estate - especially in the way that Alison's gran got her favourite shade of olive green out and did it for herself anyway once the council had gone. I don't remember us having any grave objections to the colours we were offered. We liked consensus, and I certainly used to enjoy the little expectancy of seeing what colour the doors would be next (it was very exciting for all the kids on the estate to see an army of painters descend upon the place). The other difference lies in the choice of colours - of a more traditional palette in the 1940s and early 50s before the gaudier hues of the 1960s. Either way, the colour of our respective front doors, painted 'for free' by the local council, came to be emblematic of the sense of pleasure we all got from our council houses back then.

And what colours! First the ‘Contemporary’ turquoise blue. A bright, 'day-glo' orange came next 1968-69ish, and then the pink you see in the c.1975 photo of my house at the top of this blog. The colours change with the times - the pink could be seen as being representative of that early to mid 70s Glam/1950s Rock and Roll revival (think early Roxy Music and, if you must, Mud and The Rubettes). From 1979 and into the post-modern Thatcherite 80s of Brideshead Revisited and so on, I recall a number of heritage colours, when burgundies and racing greens became the norm. 

There are still one or two original doors to be found on the estate amongst all the days of yore-style uPvC doors. Here's one seated nicely under its original concrete canopy:

I need to find out from ACIS, the estate's management company, why some of these original features have been kept - whether it was deliberate in order to retain the original feel of the estate, or whether these are the homes of long-standing tenants who want to keep things as they were. At the moment this door is in a nice, satisfying Doc Marten-like ox-blood shoe polish colour. But I wonder what lies beneath? One of these days, I will get some research funding to do all of this properly, and one of the first things I'd like to do is to get my University's Conservation and Restoration people to do a paint analysis of this door, in the hope that it would reveal a wonderful colour-chart of the estate's history.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Monday Monday

If anyone's wondering what the hell was going on with yesterday's somewhat oblique post, what with the photo of Cilla and all (looking very 60s cool however) then I feel I should explain. At the weekend I attended the excellent 2013 Unofficial Histories Conference in Manchester. UH aims to 'discuss how society produces, presents, and consumes history beyond official and elite versions of the past'. I was kindly asked to chip in with a defence of council estates beyond the elite, academic, version of them, but along the way there were lots of other fascinating papers, for instance one that examined a lovely set of scrapbooks made in 1965 by the Women’s Institute to celebrate the organisation’s golden jubilee. Each village W.I. made their own scrapbook with an intention to provide a snap shot of village life at that moment in time. They were incredibly inventive visually - sometimes being a cross between a dadaist collage and a McKnight Kauffer London Underground poster - but the most interesting aspect of them lay in how they then seemed to openly and excitedly embrace the white heat of modernity, even in the most rural and, presumably, traditional of places. 

In addition to this, there were two papers that examined two very different sets of personal diaries dating from the 1930s to the 50s. One of these is beginning to be chronicled in an excellent blog called Socks for the Boys! which can be found here. It is well recommended so do go and have a look. The papers raised an interesting historiographical dilemma in how we can begin to reconcile history, fiction and memoir. I have no answers to this as such, other than to present the usual mish-mash of memories, photos, historical research, architectural criticism and odd references to pop music that you find on this blog. To add to that mix, the You're my World post yesterday offered some, erm, 'creative writing' - an excerpt from a not very good attempt to fictionalise my memories of growing up in the 1960s and 70s, that I've called Monday Monday after the Mamas and Papas song that has a particular resonance for me and my time on the Middlefield Lane estate. I hear those opening ba-da, ba-da-da-da's and I'm in my classroom at Heapham Road Infants, just five minutes walk away from home, in the summer of 1966, with those oh-so west-coast harmonies in my head, just as the caretaker's going by mowing the playing field. In the words of the fabulous Motown singer, Chris Clark, I want to go back there again. 

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

You're my world

The new, knee-high privet hedge is already covered with clusters of tiny, creamy-white buds. In years to come, Ian will habitually snatch fistfuls of these buds as he gets home from school, and he will toss them high into the air without even waiting to see them fall. It is Spring. These buds always come too early, and so never seem to open in any case, even those that happen to miss Ian’s careless, destructive grasp. Somewhere in the distance, a cement mixer churns, creating a metallic loop of sound. Shirley has a golden Yale key in her hand which she wriggles into a new lock on the back door of a brand-new council house. As she pushes the door open, there is an audible release of air that reverberates through the emptiness of the house, as if it has been hermetically sealed ready for the new tenants. ‘Oh Jack, what do you think?’ Shirley exclaims. ‘Well, let’s get in properly first,’ he replies. The house smells so clean, of putty and of freshly planed and painted wood. In the face of such newness, Shirley and Jack are both momentarily stupefied by a mixture of excitement and bemusement. Ian takes his Dad’s hand as they all step inside, and straight into a small utility room. Later they will put a table and some matching chairs in there, and will come to call this space ‘the meal room’. The table will have a lemon-yellow Formica top covered with black-lined abstract squiggles that Ian will obsessively trace with his finger. Because it is a cool room, they will eat their tea there on hot summer days. 

As they move into the new kitchen, they remain speechless. Even Ian, who talks more than enough now for a three year old, says nothing, and their footsteps echo in their prospective, just-finished and ready-to-move-in home. The house is plain: four-square, and with pebble-dashed exterior walls. It has a turquoise front door with a parabolic concrete canopy over it. The house is semi-detached but only by virtue of being on the end of a short row with three others. It has two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room, a kitchen, and that utility room. Jack turns and shuts the back door because the house is also cold and as yet unlived in. There is no heating other than what the open fireplace in the living room will offer, but Shirley already has her eye on a couple of new paraffin heaters. ‘Dinky’ and ‘clean-lined’ she says, in her newly-acquired ad-speak. She cannot stop herself now, she is so excited: ‘look! – a bathroom and inside toilet, kitchen ‘tops’, hot and cold running water, a TV aerial socket, a picture-window.’ 

Jack has already switched off, and stares at the chrome taps that hang over the stainless steel kitchen sink unit. The taps have little red and blue dots embedded in them, one for hot and one for cold, and Jack lifts Ian up to see them. ‘Red and Blue’ says Jack. In that moment, Ian’s world is transformed. His world – a modern, 1960s world – is transmitted in colour for the first time. ‘Red and Blue!’ Ian repeats, and his Dad hugs him closer, while Shirley bounds up the wooden, carpet-less stairs: up from a monochrome nothingness and into a world of red and blue dots, as this family finally crosses the threshold into the 1960s.
Late spring winds itself up into a summer, and the sun streams through the large, oblong, living-room window. The sun warms Ian’s back as he draws and colours on scraps of paper. He tuts as the paper slips about on the immaculately polished, mahogany dining table where he is sitting. His mother polishes it all the time. It is late June, two months or so after they have moved into their new home. Ian turns to look out of the window. They have found themselves on the edge of nowhere, at the end of the estate and exactly where the town stops. The ‘picture window’, as the promotional blurb for this new estate called it, looks out onto open countryside. ‘We pay more rent that anyone else on the estate for that view,’ Shirley tells Ian as she notices him looking out. She is decorating, busily putting wallpaper up everywhere. Jack can’t do it, she says to herself, as she gleefully stretches up to the ceiling with yet another dripping strip of gold and green flock wallpaper. 

The wallpaper’s Regency swirls move, and threaten to subjugate the modernity of the house, so Ian quickly turns his mind back to his drawing. Cilla Black’s You're My World starts to play on the radio. High pitched strings beat out a simple, haunting, morse code-like rhythm: dit-dit ... dit-dit ... dit-dit. Its sweetened pop dissonance beats back the old-fashioned wallpaper patterns for a moment, and then Cilla's voice comes in, soft and tentative for a change: ‘You're my world, you're every prayer I say ...’ Ian stops to listen, already connecting the voice with a photograph on the large, square ‘Pop Parade’ card he got free with a Mister Softee ice-cream that his Dad had bought him the previous Saturday afternoon. For about forty-five seconds or so, Ian listens intently to that heart-stopping, memory-arresting intro. But then the song builds up too quickly. Cilla’s voice, always strained at the best of times, suddenly belts out the chorus and, in an instant, Ian’s still, sun-filled moment, is shaken and shattered. 

Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Future Crayon

This is not the first time I’ve used a song title by the group Broadcast for a post and it probably won’t be the last (I’m still waiting for a chance to use ‘City in Progress’) but this title of a compilation album of Broadcast outtakes, B-sides and remixes popped into my head last night on the train back from London. I’d been to a quasi-Governmental/private sector organised ‘policy briefing’ called ‘Putting a Roof over Britain: The Future of Housing in the UK’, and I was thinking about the notion of a ‘future’, both in relation to what I’d heard from the various invited speakers at this event and, indeed, to what I imagined would be a future of new, plentiful, good, and affordable rented public housing.

When we think of crayons, we almost automatically think of children, and the relatively spontaneous workings of a young, unfettered mind. When children are drawing they are almost certainly in that very present moment of doing, but there is also a forward impetus to their activity because they are expressing themselves with an eye (and hand and mind) to their continuing development which is (unconsciously) predicated towards the future.  

Some might think that the drawing on the cover of the July 1965 RIBA Journal above is ‘childlike’ but it was undoubtedly of the moment, and undoubtedly intended to visualise the future now. It is a sketch of Lambeth Towers, made by the building’s architect, George Finch. Whatever Broadcast might have had in mind when they conjured up that title for their album, Finch’s drawings seem to me to be representative of the ‘Future Crayon’ at work (alongside Gordon Cullen’s similarly lively and stylistically quirky drawings for Homes For Today and Tomorrow in 1961). You can see more of Finch’s drawings on the Utopia London website, and they are well worth looking at. They are such fun – animated and art-brutish in style - but utterly representative of that optimistic but dignified, self-fulfilling but social/sociable world that Finch wanted to create: “I was very happy” he once said “that we were providing good quality housing available at reasonable rents for people who wished to live and work in London.”

Sadly, George Finch died in February this year but I would have loved to hear what his socialist/municipally-minded self would have made of the event I attended yesterday. What would the speakers from that event produce with their future crayon – or any crayon for that matter? On the face of it, a title like ‘Putting a Roof over Britain: The Future of Housing in the UK’ seems very much like something from c.1965, something positive and practical – ‘go-ahead’. Predictably however, what came out of this event had little to do with Finch’s simple aim – for London, or for anywhere else in the country. 

We were told first of all that the government’s 2011 Housing Strategy plans for a vastly increased supply of housing – across all types of tenure apparently, but while the term “affordable housing” was bandied about quite a bit yesterday, the emphasis throughout was sadly on ‘affordable’ ownership and ‘affordable’ new-builds to buy. In spite of this, out of the four categories of housing/resident types given, the second biggest was that of “lifetime renters” (19% of all households in the UK, or 4.1m homes). I imagine that a good proportion of these lifetime renters are in former (now ‘social housing’) or still extant council housing stock, but this wasn’t especially made clear. There was in any case, according to the Head of Affordable Housing and Investment at the Department of Communities and Local Government, a “concern over quality” with the homes within this category, and with how these tenants had a “lack of control over their home.”  The rhetoric here once again seemed predicated towards the ideal of home ownership where it was presumably thought that ‘quality’ and having a sense of ‘control’ over one’s home could only be assured by owning, and by having a mortgage. 

Government investment in the rented sector – the “£1bn ‘Build to Rent’ scheme which aims to produce 200,000 homes turned out to be centred purely on “PRS schemes” (Private Rented Sector schemes to you and me). “Incentive and Community” schemes included “Community Right to Build” which sounded like a good bit of Double Deckers-like “hey let’s create a youth club right here!” astroturfing to me, with its lame big society abstractions about giving “communities” the “freedom” to build new homes, shops or facilities “where they want them, without going through the normal planning application process.”  But no build-to-rent money will be going to local authorities that will otherwise only be given the scope to support private house building schemes, rather than building homes themselves for their communities. 

In contrast with all this faffing about, it is a national scandal that there are 5m people in the UK on social housing waiting lists. It was left to the Chief Executive of the Federation of Master Builders, Brian Berry, to point this out rather than the person from the DCLG. He got excited about “retro-fitting” – the notion of bringing existing houses up to current standards, with a particular emphasis on energy efficiency, but also – nicely – with an eye to working with the wide range of vernacular and designed styles in the UK. I asked him whether there was much in this for his members in terms of them being contracted by housing associations or social housing groups to carry out the maintenance of council estates but he said not – perhaps when councils first began to transfer their housing stock over to housing associations and so on back in the early 1990s, but not now as these contracts tended to be given to larger contractors. In any case it was later suggested that housing associations especially had become “corporate” and “bland”, and are ceasing to do what they originally set up to do by ‘diversifying’ into new-build ownership developments for themselves.

Other contributions to the event were formed out of things like a charity that campaigned for the retention and redevelopment of empty houses, and a self-help ‘industrial and provident society’ that encourages young, disadvantaged people to actively reverse the ongoing crisis of youth homelessness in Teesside. Sadly, despite these good works, the development worker for this particular organisation went on to more or less disparage those parts of the housing sector who hold themselves to be ‘not for profit.’ In contrast, he was certainly not ashamed to make a profit.  I’m also pretty certain that I heard him say that the public sector was dead but then he was a self-confessed “pragmatist” which, to me at least, always seems to hide all manner of potentially unappealing inconveniences these days. 

All of this served to reinforce the happy fact that I’m still a determinedly Statist Leftie. To some of those present at yesterday’s event, I might have been viewed at worst – and in the parlance of the current government – as an ‘enemy of promise’ or, at best, an outdated defeatist. One thing this event did make clear to me was that we could and should build our way out of recession, and that plenty of new publically-funded and publically controlled rented housing should be a necessary part of that. Despite its title however, no one mentioned “The Future” at all. Clearly, there is an acute housing crisis in this country that is socially and culturally corrosive. It is a crisis that needs to be fundamentally and comprehensively addressed by the State this minute, but the practice of centralised planning no longer seemed to signify with the majority of those involved in this event. There were lots of undoubtedly well meant initiatives but no real consensus, and no sense of a future, just an atomised present – a free-floating, marketised crayon scribble of never ending ‘partnerships’ and ‘initiatives’. 

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Taking the long view

Walking around the estate earlier the other week, I saw that someone had cut down all the overgrowth that had covered the walls by the car park at the top of Priory Close, and I was astonished to see the decorative brickwork underneath:

There are two of these walls that act as end-points to a group of garages and both had been cleared in this way. I’m sure that this type of brick patterning appears within many council estates of the 1950s and early 1960s, but the revealing of these forgotten details came as such a complete surprise to me that I just had to step over the road to photograph them together, and this is what I saw:

The whole scene suddenly opened out to me, more or less as it was intended when it was all first designed - a lovely, thoughtfully planned vista and, as the place-name suggests, a Close – with the walls framing and leading the eye into the car-park, to some bars and steps (a favourite play area when I was a kid) and to Priory Close itself, with its long expanse of grass and the subtle downward incline of the rooflines. 

As I looked on, it struck me how this estate was planned as a number of vistas or ‘prospects’ – here on Priory Close, and here:

with the ‘Parades’ that radiated out from the complex of shops and maisonettes on The Precinct. (I keep using this photo from 1967 because it is the only one I have of The Precinct and its environs, and in the vain hope that there is someone out there reading this blog who happens to have other photos of these buildings – I would love to hear from them)

Another vista centres on the curving road that leads onto one of the two access roads to the estate, ‘The Drive’:

And there's the one that takes you all the way down Dunstall Walk itself: 

I’ve posted before about the contemporary criticisms – the ‘prairie planning’ - of this manner of estate design, but it seems to me that Middlefield Lane was designed with an awareness of such debates in how it struck a balance between giving the residents nice, green, open spaces and in replicating the more urban situations of the close-knit Victorian rows and terraces from which families like mine were being rehoused back in 1964. 

In his 1978 book, New Towns: The Answer to MegalopolisFrederick Osborn suggested that housing units can be repeated seven times with good effect but that this can become monotonous if doubled or more (p.256). There is a sense of monotony in the row of blocks along Dunstall Walk, some of which do go beyond Osborn’s desired limit with only a slight staggering of the blocks (and design variations only between the frontage of a 2-bed and 3-bed home). However, Dunstall Walk’s front was determined by the grand, lengthy downward sweep of the pavement/walk/promenade, that was clearly designed for walking along with the open countryside views to one side - and for the many times as a kid that I bombed hell-for-leather down that path on my bike.

It’s at this stage that I must commemorate the designer and planner of the Middlefield Lane estate, Neil Taylor, who was an associate in a Gainsborough-based firm of architects, Fisher, Hollingsworth and Partners. 

I interviewed Mr Taylor about his role in the creation of the estate in March 2012 and it was clear to me that he had a strong vision for the design and planning of the estate, which certainly manifested itself for example in the composition of the view of Priory Close above. The overall construction of the estate was contracted to George Wimpey and Co Ltd, and the majority of the housing on the estate (including my house) was designed and built in what was then a typical, often repeated and fairly traditional Wimpey-style. Mr Taylor told me however that he was “trying to produce a modern estate”, and that he was “keen to keep Wimpey at bay” by giving the estate a more modernist feel. This of course was exemplified in his design for The Precinct, and in this small group of homes that can be found on the outskirts of the estate:

In fact, Neil Taylor made a considerable contribution to the built environment of post-war Gainsborough, designing for instance a pavilion for the town’s tennis club in the mid-fifties, and the St Stephens Methodist Church in the early seventies. He is also responsible for what can be considered to be his masterpiece – The Guildhall, seen here in a photo from a 1971-ish council promotional brochure:

People routinely criticise 60s Modernism for its insensitivity to 'traditional' urban environments but look at The Guildhall in relation to the Georgian Elswitha Hall next door and see how the proportions and arrangement of its windows were deliberately intended to compliment those of its older neighbour. The Guildhall overlooks the River Trent, and its wavy roofline is meant to reflect the ‘aegir’, a seasonal tidal bore or wave that can be seen on the Trent in the Spring and Autumn. The concrete detailing and the lovely grey-green Westmorland slate (the same colour as the Trent most days) here attests to the architect’s attention to quality and detail in The Guildhall’s design: 

The Guildhall was opened on the 7th July 1966 as the home of the Gainsborough Urban District Council. With the reorganisation of local Government in 1973-4, the Guildhall became the HQ of West Lindsey District Council until 2008 when the council needlessly abandoned it for new and ‘more appropriate’ premises strangely but perhaps predictably within a new shopping mall on the other side of the town. The Guildhall is now empty and deteriorating fast. English Heritage refuse to list it and it is destined to be demolished in the near future. In March last year, Mr Taylor explained how the “idea of it being lost makes me shudder because of the loss to the town of a significant piece of civic architecture.” He went to state that what really irked him was “the fact it was a quality building. I was told it had to last a long time, much longer than 50 years.”

Sadly, Neil Taylor died last August, four months or so after I interviewed him about his work on the estate. The last time we corresponded he suggested that we should take a “perambulation” around Middlefield. I would have greatly appreciated the chance to walk around the estate of my childhood with the man who designed it but we never quite got around to it. Words and ideas like “civic architecture”, “quality”, “lasting a long time” seem sadly anachronistic in this short-termist, profit chasing, privatised and individualistic era, but they speak for a good architect from a now near-lost generation. When Neil Taylor designed buildings like The Guildhall and planned that vista into Priory Close, he was indeed taking the long view in the belief that he was helping to nurture and uphold those post-war notions of civic, public, and social consensus. We will probably never see the likes of him again.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

The First of May

Like everywhere across the country at the moment, Spring is still struggling to happen on the Middlefield Lane estate, even on the first day of May. Both the leaves and the blossom here seem to be battling it out with one another in order to catch up with the late stage of the season. But who wouldn't want to live here, as it was this morning, within this very (whether you like it or not) English council estate scene? It would suit me but then, as you are fully aware constant reader, I am biased. The romantic eye is always selective but I am fully cognisant of the fact that the estate does have problems, and not all of it is as well-tended as here, along The Walk.

This below is a photo of our back garden. I'm not sure when it was taken - late 1960s I think - but it is full of all the things my mother loved, such as rose bushes, bits of crazy paving. A gnome or two, and a gnome-sized windmill appeared later.

It's all very English, and suburban really, and all concerned with the keeping up of appearances, of neatness and beauty (although the privet hedge needs a clip by the looks of it). Here is more or less the same view taken this very morning, on the first of May 2013 from over the gate:

The old house was in a bit of a state, with (naturally) no vestige of the garden as it was, just some rubbish, a pool of water in front of the back door, and this disgusting fencing which really does blight much of the estate as a whole. These days, such fencing seems to be necessary, particularly across some of the more unruly parts of the estate, in order to prevent intruders etc etc, but it does coarsen the place, and makes it seem bleak and arid. 

I've posted about the remnants of privet hedges before now, and of how the greenery softened the landscape of the estate, but they were also very good in a defensive, protective way. Imagine trying to get over or through this hedge on the left compared with the fence opposite:

It would be impossible, and I know from many childhood attempts to breach a hedge like this one here. The era of slackening council control and maintenance of the estate from the 1980s onward gave tenants (or owners, post right-to-buy) the choice to grub up these hedges and to replace them with fences. Why they should want to do that is largely beyond me, but there are two reasons I suppose, the first being that you no longer needed to bother cutting the hedge, while the second would be borne out of the relative novelty of being allowed to do your own thing, and of wanting to put your own stamp on your home. But the cost to the fabric and environmental coherence of the estate has been great. Many of the fences there, such as the one that is now around my old back garden, have almost certainly been provided by ACIS, the social housing group responsible for the upkeep of the estate. They seem to be solid enough, and necessarily protective, but imagine the difference, visually, materially and psychologically, to the look and feel of the estate if the privets were reintroduced. 

The local council used to have high expectations for the estate; tenancy conditions relating to the upkeep of the houses and gardens were reasonably stringent while, in return, the council themselves were responsible for the general external maintenance of the houses and the spaces around them. Today, many might say that such notions were over-paternalistic, and that they produced individually restrictive and uniform environments but I imagine that ACIS quite rightly have their own, similar, terms and conditions. To reiterate what I've stated so many times over the course of this blog, the Middlefield Lane estate was carefully and thoughtfully created - privet hedges, green spaces, 60s space-age lamp-posts, pebble-dash, and the deliberate separation of the pedestrian and the car, all contributed to the sense of well-being that my family certainly experienced there during the 60s and 70s. What if ACIS contemplated the restoration, part or full, of Middlefield Lane as it was originally planned, designed and developed in the 1960s, and made a lovely PR-driven, heritage-y, communal fuss about it? How might this transform the national and local view of the post-war council estate and, more importantly, of how the tenants felt about living there. They could start on what used to be the North Parade Community Centre, seen here as it was in 1967:

Note the Modernist coherence of the block, it's simple symmetry, the lovely wide, circular door handle, the tile-hung wall decoration, and the paved landscaping around. 

In contrast, this is how it was this morning, on May-Day:

It’s very easy to spoil the original design of this building by replacing the tiles with some cheap cladding and that pitched roof. We recognise the problems of a flat roof and the possible problems (heat loss, damp) that might come of a tile-hung wall but there must be ways and means these days to counter such things. What could be achieved here if we started to remake/remodel the estate as it was, in all of it's 60s glory? In any case, a  beginning might be to make this a community centre again - sadly, at present, it's a conveniently and thoughtfully placed, I’m sure, local office for NACRO (National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders).