Contrary to popular myth, the UK has a rich and internationally influential history of urban planning, say the curators of this year’s British pavilion exhibition at the Venice Biennale
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More than a century after Ebenezer Howard delivered his legendary manifesto introducing the idea of the Garden City, we are facing our own building crisis, and it is prompting many to ask the very same question Howard posed back then: “The People; Where Will They Go?”
If, as some say, we are entering a kind of neo-Victorian age where issues of housing affordability, inequality and opportunity have returned, perhaps it’s no surprise that the idea of the Garden City has re-emerged too. And with it, an acknowledgement of something long forgotten: that contrary to popular myth, Britain has a rich and internationally influential history of urban planning.
We show early attempts at reform, such as the Boundary Estate in Bethnal Green – where one of London’s most notorious slums was cleared and replaced with social housing tenements centred around a circular hill formed out of the rubble of the old slum.
We trace how the Blitz bombings violently opened up light and space in the heart of Britain’s Dickensian industrial cities, and how this was seen by architects, planners and politicians as a new chance. It was this space, literally and metaphorically, that the "New Jerusalem" promised by the post-war government would occupy.
The dreams of social (and moral) reform contained in William Blake’s angry, polemical and mysterious poem Jerusalem were explicitly referenced by then-health minister, Aneurin Bevan, linking the practical and moral post-war project to the origins of modern British life, amid the smoke and chaos of the industrial revolution.
This visionary tradition of planning and architecture reached its high point in the second wave of “new towns” from the 1950s to the 70s. The fortunes of these places have waxed, waned and sometimes even worse. But it is not their perceived success or failure that’s in question here; rather their ability to imagine new ways of life. Each emerged not only from technical and practical expertise, but also from incredible leaps of imagination plugged into the mainline of British culture.
Cumbernauld, in Scotland, was the first of these Mark II new towns, designated in 1955. Its remarkable town centre was one of the first British megastructures to be realised. Stacking public and commercial programs, topped by penthouses, perched on a thick bundle of infrastructure, it was designed to be infinitely extended to meet the needs of this growing new town.
The British invented planning in its modern form, then implemented it with such ambition and skill that – from Howard’s original garden city all the way to the last (and one of the most successful) new towns, Milton Keynes – Britain was the global leader. Planning was not just the preserve of professionals: parliamentary stenographers, religious groups, architectural critics, authors, musicians, photographers, film-makers all contributed to the collective visions of Britain's possible futures.
A Clockwork Jerusalem, the exhibition we have curated for the British pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, tells the story of this century of planning, starting with the maps of poverty in late-Victorian London, produced by Charles Booth, that graphically communicated the crisis of urban inequality.
Its architect was Geoffrey Copcutt, who drew on a fascination for Minoan citadels and the then-exotic car culture familiar to the United States to create a concrete, drive-in acropolis atop the hills, in which the suburban neighbourhoods of the new town are embedded. But Cumbernauld town centre’s famed “flexibility” was also its architectural downfall, as it became swamped in generic shopping boxes, obscuring its antiquarian-futurist silhouette.
At the other end of this history is Milton Keynes, the last of the post-war new towns. When its architects, Hugh Llewelyn Davies and Derek Walker, designed Milton Keynes, they mined the British past of pleasure gardens and the picturesque. They welded these traditions with the endless possibilities of a technology to create a liberating electric landscape, a place equally science fiction and pastoral with houses dissolving into treescapes, and inhabitants that could live a life of leisure in the new post-industrial future.
With A Clockwork Jerusalem, we want to show that the relevance of the British tradition in town planning lies not in the actual design models it produced, but in something that is more difficult but crucial to reawaken: imagination.
Howard proposed and realised his Garden City dream without government. Walker and Llewelyn Davies realised theirs through the machinery of state planning at its most powerful and all-encompassing. Neither seem to be foremost in the minds of those who wish to start building garden cities and new towns again.
Our show doesn’t hold the answers to Britain's future. But we hope it can remind us all that even at the darkest moments, when our built environment seems subject to uncontrollable forces that imagination – both professional and popular – can invent new ways out.
We know that the problems facing our cities – affordability of housing, social tensions resulting from inequality locally and nationally, the powerlessness of architects and the institutions of public planning, and the less than hopeful outlook for the immediate future – deserve their own William Blakes, Ebenezer Howards and, indeed, Derek Walkers. Nostalgia for garden cities or new towns won’t help. Instead we need big, imaginative, courageous visions of the future of Britain.
Planning must become proactive rather than reactive. It must forward ideas for the future of Britain that are inclusive. It should be open to ideas from all quarters. And it should express these visions in accessible ways to the general public. We should understand the significance of our built environment as the ultimate embodiment of democracy, the place that all our collective decisions come together to form the places we live and work in.
We need also to visualise the way our nation is changing: how are decisions often made in isolation – say HS2, proposed new towns, energy policy, environmental decisions, education and economic policy – shaping the future of the British landscape. What kind of Britain are we building?
The real skill of planning is to articulate and propose the spatial implications and possibilities of society. It can act as a tool where policy, infrastructure and nature intersect and it can do this in accessible ways. Planning is therefore essential to determine the future of an open society that we all feel part of – as much as it is essential to help us imagine the future of the British landscape.With Blake’s words – “I will not cease … till I have built Jerusalem” – ringing in our ears, the show argues for architecture and planning to use the same imagination to build contemporary New Jerusalems. It’s a call for planning to re-engage its visionary, entrepreneurial, sometimes wild past and to regain its role at the centre of democratic society to make Britain a more pleasant land.
Sam Jacob and Wouter Vanstiphout are curators of the exhibition A Clockwork Jerusalem, commissioned by the British Council for the British pavilion at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale.
ΤΩΝ Sam Jacob & Wouter Vanstiphout
Πηγή: The Guardian