Saturday, 28 April 2018

The Radburn Idea 3: The private sphere - 'true' Radburn, 'partially' applied.

In my last post on the development and use of the Radburn Idea in the design of postwar council estates of the later 1960s and beyond, I promised we’d look at how Radburn principles were also used on private housing estates. So, on a beautifully warm and sunny spring morning, I found myself in Peterborough, on what is known as the Netherton estate. At this stage I need to thank Tim Skelton for making me aware of this estate a few years ago, and for supplying me with a set of pdf images of some original, mid 1960s cyclostyled plans for the estate, several of which are reproduced below (I don’t know if they were ‘cyclostyled’ as such, I just take some joy from using that particular word). Tim suggested to me that while Netherton is ‘not as exciting as some of the private estates in the 1960s’, it nevertheless remains ‘the only serious experimentation with Radburn in line with the original ideal of detached, private housing with on plot parking. It deserves to be better known.’ With this in mind, I found myself first of all looking at what Tim described as the ‘earliest Radburn experiments … centred around the footpath between Meynell Walk and Wilton Close and north of Atherstone Avenue e.g. Lyme Walk.’ Lyme Walk is one of four such ‘walks’, which are actually short spurs that run off at right angles from a main residential road. As you can see from the photograph of the front aspect of Lyme Walk below, these consist of a limited grouping of modest, early 60s semi-detached houses (around six to eight homes either side) that look out onto generously proportioned, open-plan lawns, and with a pedestrian footpath running between the two sides: 

As such, these fronts can more or less be considered as 'true' Radburn, as per this detail from a 1930s brochure for the Radburn estate itself:

Typically also, Lyme Walk has a service road at the back with some on-plot parking up to the back gardens (eg. to the left of the photograph below - not that anyone seemed to be using them at this time):

So far, still so 'true' Radburn, and so pretty - the fronts were particularly nice - here's Denham Walk, the next plot along from Lyme:

But why did I later come away from these almost preserved-in-aspic manifestations of a 1960s English suburban dreamtime feeling a little underwhelmed? Why wasn’t I experiencing the quiet excitement that I felt when I visited the Meadows last summer? I was left a little confused, a bit wanting, and I couldn’t work out why until I thought about it more on the train home.  Look at that photo of Denham again. 

To me, these little instances of private Radburn suffered from a fundamental flaw, specifically with regard to the central idea of separating the car from the pedestrian. Denham 'Walk' is surely a 'close'. What was lacking here, in relation to the Radburn council estate, was a wider network of pedestrianised spaces and footpaths away from the car and out and about across the estate overall - which tended to be the key characteristic of all Radburn-influenced council estates created over this period. Those graciously open, pedestrianised fronts do nothing other than to allow pedestrian access to and from the houses. Dedham Walk's verdantly lined central footpath meets a fenced-off dead-end. The potential for sociability that the various adaptations of Radburn afforded to the council estate, and which was considered desirable – essential, even - to the well-being of those new communities, literally goes nowhere here. Radburn in the private housing sphere, on the basis of this example at least, is pretty, but truncated, and oh-so-very private (understandably of course, but so much so that when you try to find these walks on Google Maps, it appears that someone has requested that the post-mounted signs that name each 'walk' are blurred out). Markedly, the estate also lacked the communal pedestrianised green spaces that, for instance, still characterise council estates like Middlefield today. 

But this was not quite how it was meant to be on the Netherton estate. Once upon a time, as the original drawings show us, the estate was intended to be an expansive, 1960s go-ahead, fully-fledged facsimile of Radburn NJ, transplanted onto the fenland surrounding the English cathedral city of Peterborough:

This aerial view shows a short spur access road at the bottom, with a 'super-block' of houses around it, but also with a more comprehensively planned network of footpaths to the left and right and, especially, above, running diagonally across the near-centre of the drawing. All absolutely à la Radburn. The location plan below shows the size and extent of what surely would have been one of the most concerted attempts to accurately replicate Radburn NJ (itself a private development) this country had ever seen:

The oval shape in the centre shows the aforementioned 'walks' as four spurs just above where the area is marked 'Existing Estate', but the newer, much more extensive experiments in 'True Radburn', marked as 'Residential Areas' here, and shown in yet more super-block detail on the site plan below, never quite came off. Much of this development was never built as planned, mostly it seems because the 'New Outer Ring Road' was eventually moved closer to the city centre, more or less where that arrow pointing to 'Residential Area 3' is on the site plan, thus splitting the site into two. In a further twist of fate, another mid-70s estate was nevertheless planned and built Radburn-style on the far side of the ring road. This time however it was a public, local-authority development, created by the Peterborough Development Corporation as part of the city's new, 'new town' status. 

So this almost unique opportunity (I'm sure there are other examples elsewhere in the country that I don't yet know about) to create a different way of private living through the comprehensive use of the Radburn Idea was mostly lost here. One of the drawings demonstrates how this modern, pedestrianised, sociable way of life, amongst a future of new and exciting housing forms would have looked on the ground, and contrasts it with the sterile, family-free monotony found in another drawing pointedly labelled 'Typical layout ... FOR COMPARISON':

The more architecturally ambitious 'linked housing' on the left of the first drawing also never really appeared to any great extent, except with just four examples on Meynell Walk (sadly only partly pedestrianised in itself, the 'walk' is cut off at one end by a traditional road lined with some quite ordinary 60s 'front access type' housing and, in spite of the grass buffer zone, a number of badly parked cars):  

More snapshots of what might have been appear to the west of Meynell, for instance at Walcot Walk, here in a photograph courtesy of Tim Skelton. Sixties bungalow ranch-style architecture aside, this is as true an example of Radburn-inspired planning as you will ever see:

And then there was Knole Walk, the last bit of Radburn-esque I found on my visit:

Knole Walk is an undoubtedly beautiful point at which to finish this unashamedly long post, but it was also yet another oddly isolated, one-off example of Radburn planning on this estate. I came across it by accident, wandering, not even following my nose really, in an attempt to get away from what was yet another pleasant but otherwise quite ordinary 1960s private street. Here at least the footpath went somewhere (no dead-ends) even if it essentially joined one suburban auto-landscape to another. In itself it was Radburn Heaven but, taken in its wider context, it was also just another fragment of a whole that never quite happened. 

I know that this series of posts on the various applications of the Radburn Idea in postwar English housing raises many more questions than it answers. I wonder, for instance, how differently the Radburn-influenced council estate would be viewed today if this mode of planning had also really took off in the private sphere? Why did I personally find these private examples of Radburn all a bit demure? And why am I more excited by what I saw on Google Maps of that council estate on the other side of the tracks/the 'New Outer Ring Road', eg. this:

Newly modified Radburn with cycle paths anyone? But these posts are just a start, and I hope to dwell upon all these questions, and more, as part of a much bigger research-practice project on Radburn in postwar Britain that I'm developing over the next year or so. It is clear though that the architectural and planning professions, private and public, were at one time quite swept up by the creative opportunities Radburn presented for new experiments in planning homes and communities (and so I also need to understand why it came to be so discredited amongst those professions). The architects and planners who used, replicated, adapted the Radburn Idea in the postwar years certainly did not get it right all the time but I, for one, will at least applaud their efforts. Private or public, the Radburn Idea still seems to me like a good design for living.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

I miss my pad and the places I've known

'Daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity.' 
― Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

It's nearly two years now since I helped to organise what was probably the first ever archaeological dig of a postwar council estate. The most magical thing about this event for me personally was that it enabled me to be back on Middlefield for a duration of time (some four days all told, the longest length of time I've spent there since I moved away some 30-odd years ago). Towards the end of the final day of the dig, I felt myself slipping into the deeper time and space of the estate. There was one moment when I found myself walking over to one of the test pits, down a path that I always used to follow as I headed home from town, from school, from work, or at some strange time in the early hours of the morning after a night out. As I walked along that path and reached the point where the roofline of my old house and the window of my bedroom began to appear above the other houses in front of me, I suddenly thought of myself as a teenager c.1977, coming home from wherever on a similar, sunny Spring Saturday afternoon, and I thought that maybe my Mum was there cooking tea, that my Dad had just got in from the allotment, and that my bedroom was still there with its window open to the sunshine. And for a split second I was there again. The precise feeling is virtually indescribable. There was no wobble in space; the path and the houses around me didn't somehow shift back to their 1970s state. It was all in my head, but somehow I became me as I was back then. My home was there, my parents were there still, alive and with me once more. And then it passed. For that moment, it all seemed too easy - after all, how many times would I have walked down that path during my lifetime on the estate, expectant of getting home? How easy therefore to recall what was once an everyday state of being, my life on the estate as that teenager (although it could have just as easily been me as a nine year old walking home from school, or from the shops).

Sunday, 11 February 2018

The Radburn Idea 2: Partial/True/Modified/Experimental

In my last post we saw how some architects who were toying with the Radburn Idea in the immediate postwar years seemed to prefer terrace-like arrangements of houses fronting onto wide expanses of pedestrianised 'greens'. At the same time, these 'fronts' also tended to be strictly linear, with straight footpaths laid around the rectangular green areas, unlike - for instance - the pedestrian spaces seen above in a typically stylish Architectural Review illustration for an article entitled  'Over and Under – A survey of problems of pedestrian and vehicle segregation' (May 1961, p.323). In fact, any sense of an open, public, green space like the one seen below seems to be completely missing from this illustration (and in a scene which, in any case, appears more like a private housing development).

Indeed, the drawing is very reminiscent of this photograph (or artist's impression?) of the Radburn development itself as it appeared when new, and which tended to have quite naturalistic, wavering footpaths running centrally down the middle of wider open green spaces - parkland, even:

In one way, these images all happen to strike at the root of the critical stance many have taken against the way architects and planners applied the Radburn Idea to the postwar British council estate, as if council estates could never 'do it properly', ending up with a watered down version to suit cultural economies of scale. Radburn however was essentially a private development, and the AR drawing in turn seems to suggest that it would only do for private housing developments (to the point where, as more and more local authority housing developments adopted Radburn, the private sphere seemed to then drop it like a hot and very unsavoury potato). Indeed, the AR drawing for the 'back' of this imaginary Radburn estate reinforces the image of cosy mortgaged suburban life: 

Nevertheless, these illustrations were served to expressly represent a 'True' Radburn system, which is just one of the ways in which the Architectural Review tended to characterise the Radburn Idea. Here, and across a number of other publications of the time that comment on the Radburn system, four categories were generally used: 1. 'Partial' (aka 'Radburn-Type'); 2. 'True'; 3. 'Modified', and 4. 'Experimental'.

For an estate to be characterised as a 'true' application of the Radburn Idea, the main criteria in the 'Over and Under' article seemed to hinge on the idea of providing all 'householders' (note the phrasing there, which again seems to imply ownership) with 'access to a continuous belt of parkland' [my italics]. Yet degrees of difference in interpretation remained. In the AR of January 1960, the Chimswell Way estate in Haverhill, Suffolk (part of which can be seen below) is also referred to as 'true' Radburn (p.57). Some semblance of that 'parkland' ideal is apparent here, as is the curving footpath which is reminiscent of the one which can be seen in the above image of Radburn (the fencing and walling around the gardens at Chimswell would have come later, as a consequence of post-1980s right-to-buy deregulation). But there's perhaps little to formally distinguish this from the 'partial' or 'Radburn-type' Middlefield Lane estate also shown above.

Again, different architects and site planners would naturally interpret the Radburn Idea to their own personal creative ends and, especially, in relation to local authority needs and desires, alongside other factors such as any budgetary constraints. On the other hand, the AR of January 1961 notes that the planning of some (unspecified) municipal housing at Harlow New Town was based on a modified Radburn system’ (p.35 - my italics again) which, as described, seemed to do away with any green spaces, parkland or otherwise, altogether, leaving only footpaths to divide the fronts of the houses ... 

Either way, we are still a long way from the cosy, sylvan world of the 'Over and Under' drawings. Or are we? The same article concludes by stating that ‘The Radburn system, besides providing open space which people can really use, also makes life safer for the pedestrian and car parking and garaging easier. Though this scheme has been imitated in a number of countries, in Britain planners have been slow to realize its implications and the majority of layouts based on it so far have been uninspired.’

Which leaves 'Experimental' Radburn. I first came across this term while looking through various research papers published by the Stevenage Development Corporation in the late 1960s, where the appellation crops up many times, for instance when referring to the Pin Green neighbourhood. Given this photograph of the area taken from Frederic Osborn and Arnold Whittick's book the New Towns the answer to megalopolis (Leonard Hill, 1969) however there's not a lot which is 'experimental' about it all, aside from some creative bits of landscaping:

A closer read of these documents however reveals the true aim of the later 1960s experiments with Radburn at Stevenage. While the earlier schemes mentioned above seem content to simply separate the car from the pedestrian, it seems as if the planners at Stevenage wanted to totally eradicate the car from their housing estates: 'Sishes End – purely pedestrian (high density) ... forcing roads to function as local distributors … ' [my italics again]. On that note, I want to turn to The Meadows in Nottingham which I visited on a lovely sunny, summer's morning back in August last year:

Of course this photograph was taken in somewhat favourable conditions, but I might as well nail my opinions to the wall and say that I think The Meadows is one of the most beautifully designed council estates ever. As my good colleague Chris Matthews says in his excellent book Homes and Places: A History of Nottingham's Council Houses (Nottingham City Homes, 2015), the Radburn approach here resulted in 'a clean, green, low-density and peaceful environment' (p.79). The layout, he goes on, 'could be confusing to others', and he's right. There was nothing for this outsider to do but to wander at will, and what follows here is little more than a series of possibly too effusive observations on this quite remarkable place, based on that one morning's visit. 

The Meadows is a late example of Radburn planning in that it was only really completed during the mid to late 1970s, and it is truly ‘experimental’. Its layout is complex, difficult, abstract even, and almost improvisational in manner. If Middlefield and Haverhill are the Straight No Chasers of council estates, The Meadows is an ECM album. It is free, free in its arrangement and certainly designed to be as free from the car as possible. Even the classic Radburn 'service' roads at backs of the houses are quite few and far between in some places. Much of The Meadows consists of clusters of houses which are often completely surrounded by intimate, purely pedestrianized green areas with a number of footpaths all in and around:

This doctored google maps plan demonstrates just how much the car was excluded from this estate - the blue lines are the access roads; the rest is pedestrian access only:

In addition to this, it is also clear that by this time there was no need to even think about mirroring the nineteenth century terraces this estate replaced: the fact that these places still remained in our cities during the 1970s had become an embarrassment and needed to be forgotten. Everything was new, modern, innovatory, forward-looking. Chris Matthews describes The Meadows as low-density and he is almost certainly right; even so parts of the estate still came across to me as densely clustered – perhaps too much so at times, maybe a little too tightly knit:

In fact - and I can see that this also could be construed as a bad thing - on the day these 'gardens' and 'closes' around their grassy areas seemed to me to hark back further in relation to working class housing, to a pre-modern, pre-industrial urban Nottingham, to medieval in-fill and hidden away gardens in small courtyards. Radburn though was essentially suburban, and in a country where the car economy was more acceptable the cars could still park up to the house on car ports. In 1970s England however, and for those working class people who were in desperate need to be rehoused, the car was still by no means a consideration. As such, The Meadows is an exciting example of experimental Radburn purely in its desire to ignore the car altogether: as a consequence it is a real thing of beauty and, in its own way, nearer to Radburn - or at least the Architectural Review's ideal of it - than ever:

To finish, I'm certainly not about to get into a debate here around what Nottingham City Council once described as 'the problems associated with the layout of the New Meadows Radburn style layout' and how it apparently contributed to 'the anti-social behaviour and crime in the area.' (From a report of the Acting Director of Local Communities,, 7 Jan 2009). If there was one good thing to come out of the Grenfell tragedy, and in respect to social housing in general, it's that such off-the-cuff remarks like this are now almost de-trop. In a time of acute housing scarcity/social precarity I'd argue that we should move ourselves beyond all that. The Meadows didn't not work because of idealistic layouts, just as much as high density slab and tower blocks could never create crime and anti-social behaviour in themselves. The Barbican has always seemed to be ok in that respect and, well, there are also examples of Radburn planning within private estates, and they seem to be ok too, so next time ...