Monday, 14 December 2009

Old New Towns, New Old Towns

David Heathcote in Billingham

Until this evening,  the following programme will be available to watch online, or you can download and watch for a wee while longer (unless some kind soul has a means of permanent capture and can put it on youtube...)

The relevant part is approximately ten minutes in, a ten minute segment of a longer programme.

As it says in the Beeb blurb:

How often do you ever hear good things about our new towns? You are more likely to hear people say we should knock them down and start again. But is that the answer? Architecture historian David Heathcote thinks not - in fact he's got quite a soft spot for concrete.

Alongside the programme there is the blog of the series presenter

and several comments under which are pertinent and which has a telling video of what went wrong with Killingworth New Town which shows what replaced the demolitions. However, raised in the comments is the fact that that so much of Killingworth was neglected, and the question has to be asked - why? Is the cycle of build, then neglect so people demand action,  demolish, build not able to be broken? Are the principles of town planning laid down by Patrick Geddes, of 'conservative surgery', removal of the bad, small scale interventions not mass clearances, repair then renew, never to be learned?

What was touched on on the programme was that the new 'town centre', in fact a glorified shopping mall of little architectural distinction, is now a covered over privatised space. Public rights are none.  It presumably seems a grand idea, to certain councils, to hand over land and what should be civic space and public realm to private companies, but for those who think so, I would suggest a reading of Anna Minton's book Ground Control.

For a flavour of it, here's Will Wiles review for ICON magazine:

A glimpse is shown of one of my favourite pieces of post war architecture, the Ryder Yates & Partners Killingworth Gas Research Station , thankfully now listed:

Of the three places featured, I was struck again by how pleasing Billingham town centre is, if only it could have a few quid spent on it and removal of tacky plastic signage.  Its heart is human in scale, with carefully designed buildings which are of their time,  and not a pastiche of any previous era. There's greenery and places to sit, with robust street furniture which isn't fakery 19th century, and a whimsical walkway from which you can either consider yourself centre stage or use to view your fellow humans and the architecture. There's a mix of scale and some drama, too, in the wider view, and the larger civic and other buildings, although it's clear that too much has been allowed to be run down.

Thankfully, the campaign to have the Forum listed succeeded, and the threat to demolish has receded;  but I gather that there are plans to 'regenerate' Billingham centre and hand that 'regeneration' over to a private company. So no doubt all that is decent, interesting, human scale, accessible, sustainable, all the right buzzphrases, will vanish into landfill, and be replaced, instead of repaired and refurbished. Dissent will be stifled, consultants will be hired to talk about 'renewal' and 'vibrancy' and something will be built with a lifespan of around a few decades.  How much 'public realm' will persist remains to be seen. Of course, as at Killingworth, there will be sweeteners in the form of 'community facilities' such as a library and meeting rooms, but is this a substitute for handing over yet more land into private control, for many decades to come?

Glimpses of  Billingham  can be seen in this video, which takes in the good and the not so good at Billingham:

Also mentioned in the Inside Out programme is Peterlee, and in particular the restoration of the Pasmore Apollo Pavilion.  Peterlee was one new town which didn't rely on massive tower blocks, and allowed for green space, but which also used architecture of its time which seems to have succeeded; no-one is calling for mass demolitions of homes.

The story is here:

and a great deal more information on the post-war 'New Town' movement:

...The aspirations of the initiative, with the emphasis on green and open quality and their successful balance between living and working, were inspired by the garden city movement launched by Ebenezer Howard and Sir Patrick Geddes. Howard’s book Garden Cities of Tomorrow was a source of inspiration to planners, legislators and politicians alike....

...These New Towns were not intended to be suburbs or industrial estates but rather self-contained communities combining the convenience of town life with the advantages of the country. They would have their own local shops and amenities and art was regarded as a vital aid to ensuring that all classes would benefit equally.

The Conservative government, which took over in 1951, maintained Labour's ambitions. However the spiralling costs of the programme resulted in stringent limitations in building costs that severely affected the quality of provision.

Of the 11 New Towns designated in Britain between 1946 and 1955, eight were London overspill or satellite towns. But a number were built for other reasons. Aycliffe (1947) and Corby (1950) were designed to provide better quality housing for existing employment areas and Peterlee (1948) was intended to provide an urban centre and alternative employment options for a mining area.

By the late 1950s some of the earliest New Towns were coming to the end of their main development phase. They were disparaged for their rushed construction, their tendency to feature car-oriented layouts, and for the fact that the new communities, having no collective history, lacked social cohesion.

While many of these issues were addressed in the later New Towns (the third generation towns in particular had substantial resources invested in developing a social infrastructure), New Towns have intermittently continued to receive poor press...

And so here we now are, in the 21st century, again in the throes of building 'new towns' or extensions of old towns, with a claimed agenda of sustainability, work/housing/community mix, with the buzzword of 'eco' thrown in, to deliver what is perceived at government level as a housing shortage. Of course re-use of existing buildings, the halting of the Pathfinder demolition programme, looking at ways of using the many empty homes and spaces on the upper storeys of existing town centres which are lying empty should all be considered as priorities, but alas, those part solutions aren't attractive to developers.

Whatever your views on expanding housing provision in this manner, whatever the arguments for some housing renewal, and I accept that it does vary from area to area and blanket solutions/condemnations may not be appropriate, what I find heartily depressing is the fact that many of these new developments will be built on the 'Poundbury' principle, of so-called 'traditional' building, which of course is in too many cases nothing of the sort, being modern construction under the generic 'traditional' facades, and dressed up with a town square and a clock tower.

The post-war New Town movement, whatever its perceived failings, and surely lessons could and should should have been learned about what worked and what didn't, had new architecture at its heart.  Where today is that vision?  What, assuming global catastrophe hasn't annihilated  humankind, will we be handing over to future generations as 'of our time'?

Why are we in many cases building Toytown?

And when we aren't, why are we building so many banal buildings and removing sound ones which could be retained and refurbished? A 'clean sweep'?


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