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Are New Towns a thing of the past?

4 January 2022

From the January 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here

The first wave of British New Towns was an extraordinary achievement driven by an acute post-war housing need, particularly around London, and defying the critical shortage of building materials. Fourteen were designated in three years. Introducing his New Towns Bill in the House of Commons in May 1946, the Minister of Town and Country Planning Lewis Silkin MP drew on Thomas More’s Utopia. This was practical idealism, ‘building for the new way of life’, in Silkin’s words.

Stevenage in Hertfordshire was the first of the New Towns: to mark the 75th anniversary of the New Towns Act, Historic England has published a careful and revealing study of its genesis. The authors have concentrated on the ‘pioneering new town centre’ of the subtitle. At its heart is a pedestrian square, still quietly radical to the modern eye, organised around a pair of raised platforms: one bears a skinny clock tower, its toes in a shallow pool, and the other a bronze sculpture, Joy Ride, by Franta Belsky, in which a mother happily swings her son on her back – symbols of old and new. Rising beyond is a lofty campanile, a concrete open-frame design marking Seely and Paget’s vast new parish church.

St George’s Church (now St Andrew and St George), Stevenage, built in 1956–60 to designs by Seely & Paget

St George’s Church (now St Andrew and St George), Stevenage, built in 1956–60 to designs by Seely & Paget Photo: Patricia Payne; © Historic England Archive

Yet a traffic-free central space in Stevenage was highly contentious. Gordon Stephenson, author of the 1946 draft plan, was proposing a solution that had been tested in America but in Europe only in rebuilt Coventry and Rotterdam. He appointed Clarence Stein as his deputy, Stein having been responsible for Radburn, New Jersey, a pioneering 1929 design separating cars and people in residential areas. Opposition to Stephenson came from the ministry as well as from Stevenage Development Corporation. Their prejudices, said the exasperated Stephenson, were based on ‘conventional wisdom, inexperience and lack of knowledge’. For all the arguments, Town Square – opened by the Queen in 1959 – was the defining feature of Stevenage. Beyond, the spreading New Town consisted of modest housing set in archetypal ‘neighbourhood units’ of shops and amenities. Many tenants were builders and their families, giving them a particular, personal stake in the fate of the infant town. At Stevenage the professional team worked within the Development Corporation. A recently demobbed Royal Engineer, Leonard Vincent, went on to become chief architect in 1954, just as work on the centre began in earnest. Wartime experience stood the New Towns and their creators in good stead.

At Harlow, designated a New Town early in 1947, the ambitious Frederick Gibberd showed what independence could achieve, especially in the hands of an architect-planner with an aptitude for team-building and direction. Exempt from wartime service, he had built up excellent contacts in government and elsewhere. Importantly, where design was concerned, he understood the impact of a strong architectural statement, puncturing the skyline with the first residential tower block to be built in Britain, The Lawn. Set on open ground fringed with mature trees, an example of the landscape architect Sylvia Crowe’s ‘green fingers’ approach, the 10-storey block rose victoriously into the sky from a launch pad of conventional housing. In his guide to Essex Nikolaus Pevsner judged the building ‘eminently successful’, for, he added, all the New Towns needed strong ‘visual accents’. Gibberd admired Giuseppe Verdi, an autocrat after his own heart, and The Lawn still packs a dramatic, even operatic punch.

Stevenage’s planned civic centre was never fully realised, while in Harlow a rebuilt civic centre ruined Crowe’s Water Gardens as well as the Civic Square, a lesson in poorly considered ‘regeneration’. More positively, Gibberd’s emphasis on public art and a bequest he made to the town encouraged Harlow to crown itself ‘Sculpture Town’ and to show works on paper from his collection in the town gallery.

When the third wave of the New Town programme was under discussion, north Buckinghamshire was soon identified as a possible site. During the 1960s a number of ideas were under consideration, but one remained top secret. From 1962 onwards the architect-planner Fred Pooley toyed with an extraordinary plan of his own. Working behind locked doors, he and his deputy, Bill Berrett, were dreaming up a new city entirely based around a free monorail system. But, when revealed in 1964, their project was judged too unproven. When Milton Keynes was designated in January 1967, it had become a city designed around routes for motors and cycles, sharply modernist and grid-planned. Half a century later, it is still predominantly a city for road transport, but your takeaway supper is likely to be delivered by a small white robot. Futuristic ‘Pooleyville’, as it was nicknamed, is not quite dead.

French and British new towns had little in common beyond their respective ambitions. Cergy-Pontoise, focused on an acid-green metal-and-glass administrative building, is one of five in Île-de-France built in the early 1970s to relieve pressure on Paris. The town is home to the celebrated writer Annie Ernaux, for whom it provides a neutral backdrop for observations on human exchange in supermarket, train or street.

Les Espaces d’Abraxas in Marne-La-Vallée, near Paris, designed by Ricardo Bofill (b. 1939) and completed in 1982.

Les Espaces d’Abraxas in Marne-La-Vallée, near Paris, designed by Ricardo Bofill (b. 1939) and completed in 1982. Photo: Viennaslide/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images)

After the docile, even dull, norms of British New Town housing, their counterparts in France offered intense exercises in architectural form-making. The work from the office of the Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill verged on the inhuman, huge columns taking the light from windows of tiny apartments, the over-scaled, crudely classical blocks stacked close together. He speaks of a wish to ‘exalt’ the lives of working-class residents. The cumulative effect appalled the late architectural critic of the New York Times, Ada Louise Huxtable, leading her to term it ‘disquieting reality’. Few would disagree.

Back in Britain, Milton Keynes is unquestionably the boldest and most successful of the 27 New Towns. Its population is now nudging a quarter of a million, and its city centre reflects that, with the height and density of buildings increasing. The recently upgraded art centre, MK Gallery, has been transformed by 6a Architects with a touch both light and svelte. Beyond lies impressive Campbell Park, while beneath the endless boulevards is an accommodating space where an apparently endless Thursday market thrives, an atmospheric counterpoint to everything above.

Silkin’s gentle revolution was bound to be slow and, perhaps inevitably, beset by misunderstandings. As the anniversaries mount, the ‘new’ towns are ripe for reassessment as a national achievement of which we should be proud, as many of their residents are.

From the January 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

One comment

  1. The Victor Pasmore Bridge / relief in Peterlee and the public sculpture commissions for Greater Peterborough are also notable achievments of the New Town era. However having lived in the ‘outer’ residential areas of Peterborough New Town in the late 1970’s early 198o’s the faults of ‘urban residential housing estates are also apparent and once designed and built very difficult to alter and correct. Often stretching several miles from the City Centre over previously green fields, connected only by dual carriageways and therefore cars, with few local shops , and scarcely any opportunities for small local businesses, workshops to develop amongst the housing then they soon become marginalised from the main benefits of the new Centre and fall into decline however good the original architectural design was as the fault is in the planning design concept.

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