Thursday, 31 January 2013

The low spark of 'well-heeled utopians'

The Green, Middlefield Lane estate, July 2012

I teach critical and cultural studies on a graphic design degree - occasionally the students do a visual project on the theme of 'Utopias' and I give them a primer on utopian thinking. For a bit of fun at the end of the session I read out a summary of what would constitute my own perfect world (well I think it's fun anyway - I suppose that's the point of a personal utopia) and it starts like this: 

‘My utopia is safe and good and simple and bright. It is always summer. It is Modern. Our houses are Modern and are all well planned with plenty of green spaces to play on and to walk around. All houses are state-owned – there is no burdensome and socially divisive house ownership or mortgages to strive for. The council periodically decorates the outside of our homes for us, and we look forward to seeing what the colour of our front door will be this time. We don’t mind having the same colour door as our neighbours.’

Naturally, I also go on to say that in my utopia all the essential services and utilities are state-owned, and that there is a fully funded and highly efficient welfare state. We are taxed accordingly to pay for this but we don’t mind because the state looks after the essentials in life for all of us so that we can live our lives to the full without worry. From there, I really begin to show my age by saying that children always play out, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends all live nearby, and that the everyday world is populated with friendly shopkeepers and smiling policemen, lollipop ladies, milkmen, posties, council workers, and lots of other people all working for the common good. And then I go on a bit about technology: that there's no ‘downloading’ of anything – we have vinyl and proper album-covers to gaze at while we’re listening to our favourite music – and that everything is tangible and present. We live in the real world with real people and friends who are nearby. We only need one phone ever which is in our house. Answer machines, voice mails, social networking sites and texts are just weird – if we are not in, or not available, then there’s a reason for that and we can always try later, and meet up in any case. 

This is an unashamedly Ladybird book view of things, but it is surely less of a utopian dream, and more of a straightforward description of the world of my childhood and youth on the Middlefield Lane estate. I've been reading that Policy Exchange Create streets report again (it is so grimly entrancing: Nicholas Boys Smith's 'About the author' blurb actually begins by telling us that he 'took a double first in history from Cambridge University'. Which is nice. Less nice is his co-author, Alex Morton, who is directly responsible for another Policy Exchange report that has the sledgehammer-subtle title of  Ending Expensive Social Tenancies, and which has essentially provided the groundwork for this government's aim to throw low-income socially housed families/council estate tenants out of affluent areas. 

The Create streets report essentially proposes the next step to this – that once these people have been shifted, post-war council estates should be demolished and the sites ‘redeveloped’ into those new streets where ‘normal’ people want to live. The more I read this report, the more meretricious it becomes, regurgitating one hoary old anti-modernist cliche after another: 'It would not be unfair to describe the creation of the large post-war estates as the work of well-heeled utopians ignoring what the people wanted in favour of what they thought the people should want' (p.26). Apart from the fact that this statement casually ropes all post-war estates into their polemic - which tends to prove to me that this report is fundamentally against all kinds of welfare state created public housing, high-rise or low - it offers no evidence whatsoever for its description of 'well-heeled' (presumably leftist, 'do-gooding') utopians imposing council estates on 'society as a whole' while 'rarely' choosing 'to live in them' themselves (p.7). 

I've said elsewhere on this blog that the Middlefield Lane estate gave me and my mum and dad exactly what we needed - a good, modern house, in a thoughtfully planned, spacious and pleasant estate. There was nothing 'utopian' about it at all as far as we were concerned. The same goes for the estate architect, Neil Taylor, who worked for a modest, local, practice. He told me how he was excited by the Radburn principles of estate layout, and that this influenced his design of Middlefield Lane, but he was no well-heeled utopian as Boys Smith and Morton so snottily put it - in his own words, and with a characteristic sense of public duty that is clearly way beyond our Policy Exchange friends, Mr Taylor merely wanted to do a 'good job' for the people of Gainsborough. 

The idea that the creators of council estates peddled delusional utopian dreams to the great British public then is patently untrue. At one time, modernist planning and architecture was embraced as something good, as something which was clearly aimed at improving ordinary people's lives, with an objective of social contentment and cohesiveness.

Illustration by Gordon Cullen, for the Government’s Central Housing Advisory Committee report, Homes for Today and Tomorrow (1961).

I like to think that this is still possible today, but I have more than a sneaking feeling that it is exactly what Create streets and their well-heeled protagonists don't want. 


  1. You put this so well. Council estates were once for everyone. I remember reading about a German estate where a university professor lived next door to a tramcar conductor. Somebody from one of the UK agencies said 'that's not social housing' to which the German estate manager replied 'Yes it is. In Britain you [now] have welfare housing'. I think the German was right #sigh

  2. I like your article for which thank you. My Father was a local authority architect who designed housing in Cambridge (among other things) and was not a "well-heeled Utopian" but just an ordinary man from a working class family who wanted to become an architect. I agree with your assessment of CreateStreets.

    The second image in your article, the one from the Homes for Today and Tomorrow is sadly easy to parody these days. The tower block in the background (if it still stood at all) would have a pitched roof or a butterfly wing as an added "feature" and coloured panels. The garages would be semi-demolished, the car a burnt out wreck, the slide broken with the children vandalising it and staffordshire bull terriers chewing the tree bark. It is an image of another more optimistic time but none the less welcome for all that.

  3. Thank you. I suspect your Father was like many of his generation who saw themselves as public servants.

    CreateStreets would be a scream, a parody of themselves if I didn't think that they have so much clout.

    Yes, the tower block in the drawing would have some horrible salmon coloured po-mo cladding. The garages would be demolished (there's lots of evidence of this on my estate - see I suppose it's a generational thing but the image seems harmonious and full of promise and I still cannot quite accept why Cullen's drawing could not be a viable reality, with a bit of education and some fundamental social and economic redistribution.