A town based on a technological future... now there's a plan
We all know the script – garden cities are good, new towns are bad. Garden cities look backwards to the security of nostalgia; new towns looked forward to a vision of a Britain remade. For a short time this was imagined as a New Elizabethan Age. New towns were planned, and therefore damned, because anyone who wanted to change society after the horrors of the last Great Depression and the war, or indeed today after New Labour and Osborne, is bound to be bad, or mad, or both. This is the thesis of the ‘secret history’ of our falsely remembered streets as recently brought to our TV screens by the Open University. ‘The planners’ demolished the little palaces of Family and Kinship in East London and dumped the unwilling inhabitants in new houses with bathrooms but without community and thus created the New Town Blues. So, as with virtually everything else in this country, it is a class thing. New towns were essentially working class and therefore on the wrong side of the Thatcherite misinterpretation of history which underpins housing policy, or rather dogma, today.
A university founded on creating that future...
As David Kynaston shows in his brilliant history ‘Austerity Britain’ (that’s the late 40s by the way, not today) public opinion was far from happy with renting squalid, dilapidated and overcrowded ‘little palaces’ from slum landlords. It demanded political action. The building of the new towns was partly a response to the enormous housing crisis of the post war years but they were also meant to be emblematic of the achievement of the new welfare state. New towns were conceived on similar principles to Howard and were intended to be economically self contained and socially balanced communities. Although larger and more urban in character than garden cities there was a strong emphasis on fostering a sense of community with 'neighbourhood units’ being a key part of this. However the Attlee government were keen centralisers and imposed undemocratic Development Corporations to deliver the new towns, rather than the self governing community vision of Howard and his followers.
Stevenage New Town
Mr Silkin meets Mr Mondrian at Stevenage Town Square
Stevenage was the first new town to be designated under the 1946 Act. The plan was hugely unpopular just as it would be today. Minister of Housing Lewis Silkin was heckled by a crowd of thousands when he sought to explain how the town was to be expanded tenfold. ‘I want to carry out in Stevenage a daring exercise in town planning …. It is no good your jeering, it’s going to be done’ he said as he left to cries of ‘Gestapo’. He found the tyres of his car deflated, with sand in the petrol tank, but unlike more recent ministers responsible for housing he had a clear programme and a plan, and he stuck to it. Building the new town commenced in 1949. It was dubbed Silkingrad by the right wing press. Now there is a nice bronze relief of him in the Town Square.
Light and rhythm - Southgate House
Located on the A1 between Welwyn and Letchworth garden cities, Stevenage with a population of 80,000 actually feels like a city. It certainly has scale and some style. As you drive along the A1 motorway the view is dominated by the confident big scale GSK campus. Your approach to the town centre is not through straggling suburbs but along dual carriageways lined with factories and offices which speak of some vitality and commercial confidence. Retail park dross is pleasingly absent from immediate view. The entrance to the town centre proper is signalled by a tall, slim, handsome looking Miesian office block – nothing special really but displaying style, poise, awareness of context and effective place making. Later we notice the offices are largely empty, illustrating one of the problems of Stevenage - employment is quite dispersed and the town centre lacks a critical mass of office uses.
Wonderful mural and bloody bunting - the social Town Square
Stevenage is justly famous for its shopping centre completed in 1957/8. One of the first large scale pedestrian precincts in Europe it was widely admired and copied. Pevsner says ‘with its completion Stevenage acquired its truly urban character’. The focus is the Town Square which is excellently proportioned, being small enough for 3 storey buildings to give a real sense of enclosure and provide the right, intimate, scale for social activity. There are fountains, trees and an iconic modern clock tower which includes a charming pictorial map of the town showing activities and relief. Primark displays a mural depicting the history of the town. The raised platform to the west includes an original sculpture 'Joyride' by Franta Belsky. It has been significantly altered and although creating enclosure and interesting levels does isolate the open area area beyond which is crying out for an open market to animate the space.
A legible town centre with useful balconies
The pedestrian streets leading from the square are simply executed and confidently expressed. They include canopies which Pevsner strongly approved of: ‘they make it a pleasure to walk around even in bad weather but one never loses sight of the outside world’. Subtle changes in building lines add interest and vistas are terminated by tower blocks and by the striking St George’s church. There is no doubt that Stevenage town centre is a masterpiece of its time. It is very reminiscent of Coventry’s precinct although it lacks the much broader context of that city. It also exhibits the same problems with the precinct model – the relationship with the area around it. The backlands of car parks and service yards often frame your approach to the centre. As in Coventry the market is plonked on a backland site, although here it is just the bottom floor of a multi storey car park, not a star building in its own right. Another similarity with Coventry is that the original restrained elegance of the plan and the architecture is constantly eroded by gimmicky tat that tries to jazz it up but ends up degrading it. Bog standard and tacked on additions – the Forum and Westgate Centre jostle for attention. Stevenage town centre is still stylish, but could be much more so with a bit of care and respect.
Ok architecture geeks, what style is this? Come on...
Pevsner was a mardy sod - St George's tower
Perhaps the fundamental problem for new towns is that the ‘neighbourhood units’ come first and the town centre was added later, so it is really difficult to knit the two together. This happens organically in traditional towns and even if mad highway building has resulted in much the same severance in many places there is usually some basis for stitching it back together. In Stevenage the town centre is entombed by dual carriageways, ironically not carrying that much traffic. This makes it very difficult for the town centre to develop functionally and to grow in complexity and interest. For example St George's church (1956), which includes the town’s museum in its undercroft, is part of the visual ensemble of the centre but being on the wrong side of the dual carriageway is completely isolated functionally. Pevsner unkindly says’ it succeeds in being a contrast with the commercial architecture but a depressingly ugly one’ We really liked it but its exciting concrete campanile is now completely eclipsed by the hulking Holiday Inn next door, if you were looking for ugly.
A popular pedway ascends
Stevenage’s grid of dual carriageways is determinedly not city streets, but there is another reason why the town centre feels somewhat stunted in its development. Although it contains lots of public buildings and facilities, these have little presence or impact. In a Swedish or Finnish new town you would find a magnificent library, theatre and town hall which would be the centrepiece of the place. In Stevenage they are all here but nondescript and apologetic. The town hall is a self effacing buff brick extension to a modest 60s curtain wall effort, ironically facing the Town Square where it should be the civic focus of the town. The utilitarian library building is drearily tucked away behind ‘The Plaza’ entertainment centre. Worst of all is the Arts and Sports Centre of 1975 which is just amazingly awful - a huge box clad in shiny white panels with a blue and a gold stripe around its top. It sits blankly facing the dual carriageway opposite the Station and you actually reach the Station via an elevated walkway which runs through this complex in a claustrophobic corridor. (Actually the external walkway is the most interesting thing as it has lovely ribbed concrete stanchions.) As well as the town’s theatre the complex includes an art gallery, although we could not find it, and a sports centre. It is extraordinary that an important civic project like this could have been conceived and executed without any interest in context, townscape, external expression, dignity or concept of beauty. It is crap inside too.
The art centre with no art
Continue along the walkway across the dual carriageway and you reach Stevenage Station built in 1973. It is difficult not to despair. Basically it is just a low ceilinged overbridge with a few retail kiosks, ticket machines and barrier. The only gesture to architecture is the big brick lift towers down to the platforms. Across the tracks is the Stevenage Leisure Park with cinema and franchised eateries around an agoraphobic car park.
A sign of the times - pastiche PFI modernism
So, welcome to Stevenage. It showed early promise but instead of developing a coherent vision for expansion as a proper city centre it completely lost its way in the 1970s. Reimagine the axis from the train to Town Square as a proper street with intelligently commissioned public buildings – a station like Coventry’s for example, a town hall to be proud of, a library as a centre of the community, buzzing theatre, art gallery with some presence and excitement. The 2002 Stevenage Regeneration Strategy sort of recognises the need for this but focuses on trying to improve the town's retail rankings by expanding its shopping centres.
Planning permission was recently granted for a big BDP designed scheme for new shopping plus restaurants, hotel, offices, a few apartments etc. This would basically have restructured the ragged area west and north of Town Square with more urban coherence providing a new open pedestrian street of a sensible scale parallel to Queensway, together with new public spaces. Town Square would remain the focus and be refurbished with the original concept of the Joyride on a 'floating' platform reinstated. By the standards of present day Britain this is a well thought out plan for expansion which would not totally dominate the original precinct, although EH were not entirely happy with the impact on Town Square. But it included little in the way of new civic or public buildings. Stevenage is not alone in this emphasis of course; that is really the story of civic Britain in the last 30 years. A nice example is the new North Herts College, actually quite a reasonable PFI type effort with an interesting Harry Weedonesque curve, but moved behind a new ASDA which now occupies the prominent site of the original college next to the town centre.
In any event the town centre developers, ING and Stanhope, having spent 5 years securing planning permission, have now pulled out of the redevelopment scheme. Bastards. Should be done for wasting planning time.
Stevenage burbs - not as innovative as Hatfield
26 miles of underused cycle super highway
Compared with the town centre the housing estates are generally of less interest. Although well laid out they are not adventurous, being predominantly low rise and often of informally grouped terraces. There are six ‘neighbourhood units’ which are compact and with local centres. A network of green walkways and cycleways is segregated from the highly over engineered main road network and Stevenage is definitely the place for the Underpass Appreciation Society. In fact the 26 miles of cycleways are one of the glories of Stevenage, broad and continuous. You can imagine that initially they were well used and may be so again but at present the volume of cyclists doesn’t really justify the fearful, nannyish safety features at every pedestrian crossing.
... and the picturesque (Town Park)
Across St George’s Way from the town centre is Town Park. This epitomises the vision and the quality of the new town’s inspiration, a beautiful modernist idyll with lake, bridges and harmonious landscaping with distant views of tower blocks. You could be in Stockholm. It has recently been restored and with its unfussy paving and clean lines is a real joy. This is the quality and standard Stevenage should be looking for as it develops in the future.
Hatfield and de Havilland
Vertical Forms (1951, Barbara Hepworth) at University of Herts
Hatfield is a less well known Hertfordshire new town, which owes as much to de Havilland as the Development Corporation. Famous as Hatfield and The NORTH it is a Great North Road town but this can be a bit confusing. The old road is now the A1001 and the Bypass with the De Havilland factory the A1000 whilst the A1 motorway dives into a tunnel under the Galleria shopping centre so you miss the Hatfield experience.
The Comet public house
The modernist aircraft factory on the bypass was built in 1934 next to an earlier airstrip. At the nearby roundabout is the Comet public house, actually a misleading name as it was built in 1933, as Pevsner says approvingly ‘one of the earliest inns in England to be built in the style of the C20th’. The town expanded in a haphazard way and was compared unfavourably with its immediate neighbour, Welwyn Garden City which itself was made a new town in 1948 along with Hatfield.
Tidying the car without losing street activity
The plan for the new town of 25,000 was drawn up by the architect/planner Lionel Brett. The 7 ‘neighbourhood units’ were smaller and less self contained than in Stevenage, but in some ways more distinctive. This is especially the case in South Hatfield where the buildings in the local centre, Hilltop, are well related and the hill is ringed by undulating terraces with monopitch roofs which are quite striking and visually coherent. Nearby is the extraordinary St John’s church by Peter Bosanquet (cf St George at Letchworth), although we could not see inside.
Hatfield Market - promise unfulfilled
Compared with this confident example of post war planning, Hatfield town centre is extremely disappointing. The plan by Maxwell Fry amounts to little but a two sided square of quite elegant two level shops with a pub opposite, which advertises ‘Food served all day’ but actually has none. In fact Hatfield is a desert for food – we were grateful eventually to find a Subway, although there is an extensive open air market some days, which we missed. Remnants of the earlier town just about survive – we were urged to photograph a 30s cinema/bingo hall which apparently is to be demolished to ‘regenerate’ the centre. But there were some decent examples of public housing nearby reached by elegant bridges of the (hugely unnecessary) segregated pedestrian network.
This is the end...*slits wrists* - The Galleria
That the town centre is unsuccessful is scarcely surprising as the Council has promoted a huge shopping mall not far away. The Galleria, opened in 1991, is in some ways quite ambitious – a pretend hi tech construct. The developers of the hateful Howard Centre in nearby WGC, adding insult to injury, got huge damages from the Council for promoting this scheme. It could certainly show the Howard Centre something about ambition, but it is not a success. Competition from bigger out of town complexes such as Lakeside and Westfield has relegated it to the Outlet league –where you go to buy out of season fashion, which is a non sequitor surely. New extensions house a lugubrious array of chain eateries. They may be more fun after a few beers but looked pretty miserable on a Thursday lunch time.
Understated and enjoyable - the 1950s Herts Uni buildings
Who eats there? I suspect the 25,000 plus students of what was Hatfield Polytechnic, now the University of Hertfordshire. Where else can you go? The nearby campus was donated by de Havilland. The original buildings of 1951-3 are modest, brick and tile, pitched roof, 2/3 stories laid out around quite an attractive quad with some interesting contemporary art works. Later phases seem to have had little interest in the arts, this being a science and engineering powerhouse, although one building is named after ‘two cultures’ CP Snow, the man responsible for me having to sit science GCEs. There is no discernable plan to the layout of buildings from the 60s onwards, or any apparent interest in architecture. Like most isolated campus universities parking is the main preoccupation with staff jealously guarding their spaces. The University has enterprisingly set up its own bus network, Unobus, which goes some way to overcome the market failure of the privatised, deregulated bus companies and links the campus to the outside world.
The sky is no longer the limit - Hatfield David Lloyd
A second campus has been built on the old airfield on the other side of the bypass, past The Comet PH. The pioneering Comet jet airliner which temporarily put Britain at the forefront of the commercial airline industry is widely celebrated around here, as is the de Havilland Mosquito fighter of the last war, but aircraft production finally ceased in 1992. The 30s factory on the bypass is now the Police HQ. The stunning gatehouse has been restored as a KFC with admirably discreet signage. Behind this on Mosquito Way the massive hangar and the control tower dating from the 50s have been retained and converted to a David Lloyd club and other leisure uses, which is admirable, but it looks a bit stranded in a sea of abject regeneration.
Inherit the national debt or this - Herts uni campus
Housing off Mosquito Way: Aspiration? See previous image.
There is little to say about the new university campus and business park because they are just so standard: shiny and belligerently assertive but actually faceless and completely unmemorable. What is memorable is the truly awful student housing which stretches along Albatross Way (no kidding – it was a de Havilland trans-Atlantic plane). The student flats really do look like a modern version of an internment camp complete with perimeter fencing The rest of the old airfield has been redeveloped with quite high density new housing of the dumbed down Urban Renaissance school. There is a grand(ish) pedestrian axis which bisects a weakly classical crescent at the intersection with Mosquito Way. Some attempt has been made to reflect a 50s version of modernism in the composition, possibly a homage to the fine, retained, control tower and hanger opposite although I might be giving too much credit here. The adjacent, mostly terraced, housing is certainly attempting modernist clothing and reasonably successfully. What is appalling however is the quality of the finishes and the lack of care and maintenance - unfinished paving, litter everywhere. There is little sign of the Big Society here and certainly not something for local MP and Minister for Housing Grant Shapps to be proud of.
1950s austerity pastiche (but without the welfare state stuff)
Beyond the formal crescent the estate changes character to what I might suspect the volume house builders think of as the garden city option. There is a ‘village green’, some attempt to vary the scale and composition of housing with B&Q range cottagey detailing around eaves, doors, bay windows etc. However even this seems to be on a ‘minimum we can get away with’ basis as the estate quickly gives way to over scaled and standardised blocks to achieve density and cost parameters. Compared with Upton, for example, the attempt at design is very grudging – not even half hearted and shows us just how difficult it is going to be to achieve anything like the quality of the garden cities and new towns in future developments, even in affluent Hertfordshire. One particularly nasty feature of the Airfield New Town is that, if not a gated community, it is a privatised estate. The roads are evidently not adopted. There are no yellow lines but if you are lucky you will notice threatening signs on lampposts from the wheel clamping merchants. Just an example of how squalid and unpleasant the New Britannia of Pickles World is.
A way out?
If local boy Grant Shapps and his planning oppo Greg Clark come across as sincere (if very misguided), their boss Eric Pickles clearly revels in his reputation as a political thug and know-nothing. His appointment as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was a clearly calculated shock tactic, just like the late and unlamented Ridley in Thatcher’s government. It is quite possible that Pickles will do even more damage to the England his party claim to love than did Ridley – and that is really saying something.
As a starter Pickles announced the abolition of regional plans on the absurd assertion that they were getting in the way of communities approving housing development. Even before the election the Tories had told ‘their’ local planning authorities they would be able to tear up housing targets, the methodology for forcing suburban and small town authorities to accept their responsibilities in providing for an expanding population and the desperate need for more housing.
A bit of fab pre-fab - Stevenage Clinic
Hertfordshire was covered by the East of England plan, an area of particular housing need. The plan included a policy making Stevenage a ‘key centre for Development and Change’ which is Orwellian planning speak for another 16,000 homes. But the problem was that Stevenage has very tight boundaries and little room for expansion. It is already compact and lacks significant brownfield sites. So the regional plan decreed that the adjoining authority must co-operate to enable this expansion and nearly 10,000 of the new homes should be built adjacent to the new town but in North Hertfordshire District. The main settlement of this authority is actually the alleged city of Letchworth, but it likes to think of itself as rural. Nevertheless NHDC co-operated on plans for an expansion of Stevenage across the boundary to the west of the motorway and north of the town. That is until Pickles came along and idiotically abolished regional plans. NHDC immediately and unilaterally scrapped the expansion plans claiming defence of the sacred green belt, the unfairness of the housing target, localism and the right of freeborn Englishmen. (A bit like the Made in Chelsea guy claiming discrimination against posh people –so beautifully skewered by Owen Jones on a Sunday morning chat show recently.)
Leonard Vincent's plan, akin to Otl Aicher
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose; the same reaction that Silkin faced in 1946. He was not daunted but of course politics and society is now geared up to protect the vested interests of the haves and at best ignore the needs of the have-nots. Which may well be our own children – certainly future generations. Plucky Stevenage tried to press on with the plan within its own boundaries but the Catch 22 of planning bureaucracy prevented it; 'the council cannot show that cross boundary issues have been resolved so that the strategy has a reasonable chance of being delivered'. The whole local planning process is now in limbo. Result for Localism!