Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Horrible Histories

My review of BBC2's The Secret History of Our Streets is currently on line at BD. I'll post the review up in time for anyone that's interested who doesn't subscribe to the paper, but I wanted to add a couple of comments here now.

SHOS has generated a lot of discussion, well at least among architect and planners in the UK. Mainly this is because the documentary makers have gone out of their way to blame them (us) for the destruction of many of London's finest streets. The programme even repeats the cliched line that post-war planning did more to destroy London than the Luftwaffe. 

When people talk about "fine streets" they invariably mean Georgian ones. As fine as they, the consensus that these are the only legitimate way to plan a city seems deeply problematic to me. Undoubtedly it is often better to refurbish than demolish buildings but SHOS veers into sensationalist demonisation at times and this is never particularly helpful.

Although highly aware of the social and class based issues inherent within urban planning, SHOS also tends to sentimentalise working class community life whilst appearing ignorant of the exploitation these communities often faced (or still face) from exploitative and unscrupulous landlords. Post-war reconstruction was an attempt to alleviate this as well as rebuild a genuinely bomb damaged city. 

To be fair, this bias manifests itself mostly in the first two programmes which look at Deptford and Camberwell. After that the series settles down a bit and begins to tell a less ideologically biased story. But the episode on Deptford High Street perpetrated a number of falsehoods, some of which this website attempts to rebut. Most unfairly, it went out of its way to demonise Nicholas Taylor, a post-war planner who was held responsible for the sins of everyone. That Taylor was the only person prepared to talk to the programme makers and attempted in vain to articulate a more nuanced position than they would allow made it look like a bad case of bullying. This is doubly unfair because Taylor was/is a particularly enlightened and sensitive thinker. 

As David Knight points out in the comments on this website, Taylor wrote a book called The Village In the City and campaigned against precisely the wholescale 'slum' clearance attacked by the programme makers. Although later episodes lighten up on the anti-modernist rhetoric they also inadvertently reveal the extent to which urban planning has returned to a kind of pre-war, pre-social democratic state. 

The large scale housing projects of the post-war period can be seen as an aberration not in a positive sense but in the sense that the exploitative landowners they attempted to remove have returned with a vengeance. The episode on the Caledonian Road was particularly revealing in this respect, visiting some horrendous and quite probably illegal modern day slums built for students and migrant workers in the basements of wealthy Islington

Revealingly, these flats didn't appear to have planning permission, something that would undoubtedly have stopped them from beings such highly unpleasant places to 'live'. This was an irony that the documentary makers were not keen to point out having demonised the planning profession in earlier episodes. The fact that the present government are so keen on running down and reducing the role of planners sits happily with SHOS's own agenda against any form of top-down planning. Far better it seems to leave such things to the market that bequeathed us all those fine Georgian streets as well as slums containing forty people per property.

As I tried to make clear in my review, I'm not a wholesale apologist for post-war planning or architecture. But the idea that the streets in question should be left to some kind of 'natural order' is a highly dubious one. To intervene in this supposed order was shown to be, at best, an example of mis-guided do-goodism. That this line fits neatly with a neo-liberal, anti-welfare state agenda was one of the more troubling subtexts of an otherwise intriguing and interesting series. 


FrFintonStack said...

The smaller houses show in the picture above are extraordinary: it's not merely that they could have been built yesterday, but shocking that they weren't.

Blaize said...

Are you still planning on posting the full review? I'd like to read it, but don't subscribe to BD.