Monday, April 28, 2008

New Town Boy

Last week I went to Harlow. Harlow is set to double in size over the next few years, expanding further and further out into the Essex and Hertforshire countryside. While I was there I was thinking of Simon Jenkins' recent dispiriting article in the Guardian railing against the government's plans for new Eco Towns. Jenkins article was not just depressingly locked into a worldview that always equtes 'new' with 'worse' but factually suspect. His contention that the housing shortage could be dealt with exclusively through development of brownfield sites within existing cities, is a hoary old chestnut of an idea effectively dismantled by James Heartfield in this book, amongst others. It is also predicated on the assumption that people will be content with only one housing choice which is a one bedroom micro flat over a dual carriageway.

Harlow is interesting because it represents an optimistic period when there was a sense with the New Towns that someone was actually planning a better future. Its expansion however will inevitably be described as 'concreting over the countryside'. This claim is routinely made about absolutely any new building despite the fact that only something like between 8 and 10% of the UK's landmass is currently built on. Cities are now mysteriously assumed to be static entities that have existed in their present state forever. Their physical extent is always assumed to be at a maximum and that any further development will result in mindless 'sprawl'.

Harlow itself is kinda nice. Designed in the early 1950's and featuring the UK's first residential tower it represents a Scandinavian influenced light-Modernism similar in spirit to the Royal Festival Hall and equally reviled by the Brutalist generation that came after it. It is very much a jumbo cord, holidays in St Ives sort of modernism with bits of slightly camp decoration allowed to creep in around the edges and lots of improving public art. But now, in the wake of what came after it, is seems bracingly modern again, with a scale and expansiveness alien to most English architecture. It also feels slightly lost, its optimistic qualities of civic expression inevitably enveloped by a misty nostalgia, its elegant signage and domestic scaled public art slightly lost in the new shopping precinct. Still, you can sense something of the optimism that infused its conception, a diluted still palpable piece of futurism landing in the Essex countryside.


owen hatherley said...

The problem, and one which I don't expect a Trot-turned-neoliberal like Heartfield to mention, is that all the things you mention about Harlow that make it intriguing will almost certainly be absent from the expansion. It's possible to be in favour of new towns and the growth of old(ish) ones without welcoming a potentially endless Barrattopia stretching from Cambridge to Torquay (which is the logical conclusion of his book, irrespective of the interesting research and good gags).

Charles Holland said...

well heartfield isn't interested in design so, yes, that is one possible outcome. but why inevitable? most of the barratopian schemes have been kicked out of the new town assessment. we seem to be back in simon jenkins land where everything new is de facto shit.

i'm quite sceptical about heartfield in places especially his new green conspiracy stuff but there is a tendency for affluent middle class people to lecture everyone else on their aspiration to have, like, a house to live in, or for shopping at tescos, which he is quite good at exposing.

it is possible and desirable to have some optimism that we can build something genuinely good too.

owen hatherley said...

He is definitely very good and frequently right when bourgeois-bashing, probably a legacy of the Living Marxism days, that...

I suppose the real question is whether (ignoring Simon Jenkins and his ilk for a minute) eco-towns will become little Dongtans where the middle classes can pat themselves on the back for being so ethical, while places like Harlow and other South-East towns will get spec extensions of dubious architectural and ecological merit.