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.

7 comments:

  1. I echo you sentiments about Neil Taylor. I never had the privilidge to meet him, but there are his footprints all over the Town, and especially on the estates.
    You are right to identify the Guildhall as his masterwork. Sensitively designed, with elements reflecting the surroundings and history of the area. Quality materials too, such as Westmorland slate cladding, Portland stone and even hand-fished facing bricks. Even the street furniture too was in keeping - there was octagonal paving stones, and elegant concrete conical planters - sadly, the last of those was removed only a few years ago. I'm sure that Neil taylor had a hand in all those details. I applaud his memory.

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  3. I read your critique with interest on the work of Neil Taylor and his notable contribution to the post war urban development of Gainsborough.

    I was fortunate to meet Neil on a few occasions and during a slideshow presentation on the work of the Gainsborough artist Karl Wood in late 2011 I was intrigued to learn that Neil was a big fan of the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976). Neil told me he went on a touring holiday during his youth to take in his work.

    Alvar Aalto was not one of the mainstream European modernists such as Le Corbusier or Mies Van Der Rohe, but his work in my opinion was equally as important as he displayed a very advanced knowledge of materials and used them in a creative fashion which was fairly unusual during the early period of European modernism. He was a particular exponent of brickwork and explored the many uses of the material. This attention to detail can be seen in Neil's work on the housing estate, a tennis club pavilion and the Guildhall.

    It is a travesty the Guildhall could not be Listed, many fine civic centres have been awarded the honour such as Scunthorpe and Newcastle Civic Centres. I understand from reading the report it was considered to have undergone too many detrimental alterations over the years, in particularly the changes to the council chamber which was intended as a double height space.

    Although I now live and work in Newcastle I was raised in Gainsborough and come back to see family fairly often. Perhaps we could meet up over a coffee and discuss modern architecture in Gainsborough.

    Paul Stephen Skepper BA (Hons) Dip Arch.

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    1. Many thanks for this Paul. It doesn't surprise me that Neil liked Aalto above the other, more famous modernists - as you'll almost certainly know, it was the influence of Scandinavian modernism that was most prevalent in the design of post-war housing here (as well as some Dutch bits - Dudok and so on) mainly because of the softer, more homely qualities to their work.

      I was so pleased that Neil's brickwork at Middlefield Lane was revealed like this, and I have seen the similar work on his tennis club building (sadly demolished back in May).

      It is a travesty about the Guildhall - it was the interior that presented the main problem to listing as I understood it. It really is a beautiful building and I shall be very sad if it goes. I wonder if you know whether Neil had a hand in designing the 1963-ish Church St shops that curve around from Market St? There is a feature window at the end of the row beside the Horse and Jockey that looks very much the same as the one that was on the side of the Precinct shops that Neil designed for the estate.

      I would love to meet for a coffee in town the next time you're down here - do let me know when that might be.

      Best wishes, Ian Waites

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  4. Hello Ian,

    Many thanks for your response and it appears we think the same in respect of Scandinavian modernism. Have you looked at the work of the architects Tayler and Green? They designed some quite interesting post war housing estates many of which are now Listed. I am an active member of the 20th century society and a series of books have recently been published charting the work of some of the less documented British 20th century architects such as Aldington Craig and Collinge and John Madin.

    http://www.ribabookshops.com/item/twentieth-century-architect

    I note your comment about the shops on Church Street and it may well be Neil that designed those, although I am not certain. I am in contact with his former partner Robert Alder so will aim to ask him.

    I should be back down in Gainsborough in three weeks time. My email is skepp32@hotmail.co.uk if you would like to arrange a meet up.

    Best wishes,

    Paul.

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  5. Hello Paul,

    Thanks for this - I've tried to email you but it came back undeliverable. Here's the message:

    Thanks for your further comments - it would be good to meet and chat about Neil and Gainsborough, Tayler and Green (Norfolk houses a little bit too cutesy for me!) and the sadly abused Nadin (another bit of our civic past about to be wiped out in Birmingham) and more .

    My teaching will start w/c 30 Sept although my timetable is still up in the air but I will have days free in the week so let me know nearer the time when you are in town and around, and we'll take it from there if that's ok.

    Best wishes

    Ian

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  6. Hi Ian,

    Sorry about that. If you try paulskepper@talktalk.net it should hopefully work this time.

    Thanks for the update on your availability, I am envisaging returning in early October so perhaps we could arrange for a Saturday?

    Best wishes,

    Paul.

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