"Tradition is a barrier to progress. The massive complexity of a town embraces techniques and ideas which extend over hundreds of years and whose rate of change is necessarily slow. We are all locked in this matrix of living and have to accept the conditions of life and work that others have created."
These opening lines begin Anthony Tucker's 1967 book "Climate For Living", which I came across last week. At first glance, the book looks like a rather dull survey of postwar town planning.
However, it soon becomes clear that this 64-page paperback is an uncompromising Modernist manifesto, giving a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of those architects and town planners who believed that social engineering was part of their remit.
Tucker's use of images is highly selective, contrasting the filth and squalor of traditional urban environments, with the bright, clean, "healthy" environment of the new townscapes:
There is also an alarming overuse of the word "efficiency", which always sets my alarm bells ringing. Efficient for whom?
Here are some of the illustrations, with the author's original captions:
What a depressing world to live in: windowless workplaces, concrete landscapes and microwave meals accompanied by tasteless, mass-produced lettuce. It's hard to believe that anyone could have been naive enough to think that this was really progress, but at the time I suppose many people shared the conviction that modern, urban planning would liberate the masses from the squalor and discomfort of the past.
In fairness to the author, he does later acknowledge that:
"Tradition may always be a barrier to progress, but it may also contain elements of great importance obscured by a clutter of obvious obsolescence. The problem lies in teasing these factors out so that they can be properly assessed, and then using new techniques in such a way that they are taken into account.
The upsurge of architectural and engineering optimism of thirty years ago died in its own cold wilderness of concrete because its eyes were on structural possibility, not human requirements.
Planners and engineers are now concerned first and foremost with the creation of environments that are sympathetic to human needs..."
Ironically, it is the original Modernist buildings, built between the wars, that have proved to be more enduring than the townscapes heralded by Anthony Tucker. What does that tell us? Perhaps simply that good design is what really counts, not a utilitarian social agenda, however well-intentioned.
Today, the urban landscapes celebrated in "Climate For Living" feature prominently in books and websites like "Crap Towns" and Between Channels and are almost universally derided. We know just how quickly the "cities in the sky" became sink estates, with broken lifts, graffiti and urine-soaked stairwells. It's amazing to think that half a century ago, this all looked like a good idea.
As for being "locked in a matrix of living...that others have created", I'm more than happy to live in a slightly chaotic hotch-potch of medieval, Tudor, Georgian and Victorian buildings, rather than some drab, functionalist vision of efficient living.
That's probably very inefficient of me.
*Apologies to anyone who hoped that this post was about naturism.