Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Health and Efficiency*

"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:

"Modern flats can blend with industry"

"Artist's impression of street scene in new town"

"Windowless instrument factory in Felixstowe"

"A central computer could serve the new town"

"Microwave cookers provide quick meals"

"Austrian glasshouse tower for continuous production of lettuce"

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.


The Poet Laura-eate said...

A fascinating post Steerforth. He sounds like a leftover Marxist to me.

The majority of buildings erected nowadays have a predicted lifespan of 55 years.

So much for sustainability.

Or perpetuity.

Then again I wouldn't want anything soulless to live forever!

The human element is not particularly evident in most new buildings either.

I wonder what today's architects are thinking of. Making a quick buck no doubt.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve lived in a couple of Scotland’s ‘new towns’ – Irvine and East Kilbride – both of which were built around existing towns. Of the two I preferred East Kilbride although neither was anything like in the pictures. I’ve always liked the idea of starting from scratch and it puzzles me that there isn’t more interest in the idea especially in places like the USA where they have more space than they know what to do with.

PAL said...

It's hard to think yourself back to a past era when what we now see as daft ideas seemed so reasonable, so obviously the right thing to do.

I blame the war. World War II has cast a long shadow forward into the future in every aspect of life and thought, and it is with us yet; someone should write a book about it. The need for planning and big solutions generally seemed so obvious then and appeared as the key to a bright new postwar future as well. Big root-and- branch stuff also feeds the vanity of politicians.

Steerforth said...

Laura - Where did you get the 55 years figure from? That's terrible!

I can never get over the contrast between medieval churches and today's buildings; the former built for posterity and the latter for expedience. The Millenium Dome is the ultimate modern landmark - a glorified circus tent that will last for decades rather than centuries. Our culture is devalued as a result, if that doesn't sound too pompous.

However, I have some sympathy with Jim's desire to start from scratch - not just the utopian Sim City player in me, but also remembering some of the grim towns that sprang up during the Industrial Revolution. It's a tantalising opportunity. But who decides the agenda?

I was going to write about how an absence of planning is usually so much better, but my wife comes from West Mersea in Essex, a once-lovely island, where an influx of East London emigres resulted in hundreds of terrible, jerry-built bungalows. In Mersea's case, planning would have saved the day.

Mr L - I completely agree that World War Two (and indeed the First World War) have cast long shadows. I often wonder what sort of society we would be living in if history had followed a different path.

I know that my father would have been a very different man if his mother had been able to show him some affection, but when her favourite brother was killed at Loos, she had what was clearly a breakdown and never really recovered.

This may all seem "off-topic", but it's all about mental health and the inability of urban planners to recognise that this is paramount.

Anthony Tucker's vision is the product of an age in which anyone who is unhappy is medicated.

Anonymous said...

I too like the old inefficient buildings. A lot of the 1950's & '60's modernist buildings (and furniture) can most tactfully be described as carbuncles on the landscape.

Perhaps writer Beverly Nichols said it best when he said that the 18th century English country house said all that ever needed to be said about domestic architecture -- large windows (which actually opened to let in air as well as light), spacious rooms, graceful staircases, mouldings, and fireplace surrounds.

With a bit of tinkering to upgrade kitchens and baths, to me, this style of house really does seem to be perfection. A lot of modern houses are making efforts to replicate these very things so perhaps Nichols was right. Just because a thing is new and different doesn't mean it's better!
Canadian Chickadee

zmkc said...

Houses without any trace of an individual human being's craftsmanship - what John Updike described as 'the quiet outpouring of refined details' - are dispiriting, I think.

Martin said...

Count me in for the .."slightly chaotic hotch-potch of medieval, Tudor, Georgian and Victorian buildings.."

Roger said...

The Planster's Vision

Cut down that timber! Bells, too many and strong,
Pouring their music through the branches bare,
From moon-white church-towers down the windy air
Have pealed the centuries out with Evensong.
Remove those cottages, a huddled throng!
Too many babies have been born in there,
Too many coffins, bumping down the stair,
Carried the old their garden paths along.

I have a Vision of The Future, chum,
The worker's flats in fields of soya beans
Tower up like silver pencils, score on score:
And Surging Millions hear the Challenge come
From microphones in communal canteens
"No Right! No wrong! All's perfect, evermore."

Any relation...?

Steerforth said...

Funnily enough Roger, I was going to cite Betjeman as an example of the derision that was suffered by anyone who dared to object to the destruction of monuments like the Euston Arch.

The annoying thing is that I don't want to be a curmudgeonly reactionary - I like the shock of the new, when it's good.

Martin - I love being surrounded by buildings from centuries ago. I feel grounded and, to some extent, protected from the ephemeral nonsense of the present.

zmkc - That's a wonderful quote.
I was driving through Lewes the other day and although I'd travelled along the same road for ten years, I noticed someone's front door for the first time and the wonderful craftsmanship of an inlaid design. I suppose the door was 18th century and the contrast between this unique door that was over 200 years old and the cheap, mass-produced items that aren't even properly seasoned was striking.

I blame the Industrial Revolution. I'm with William Morris. Let's build beautiful things that last.

Anonymous said...

Those illustrations made me feel truly thankful that town planners usually only achieved pockets of "modernity". We live in a Victorian flat that lets air circulate and has proper floorboards that don't snap in two if your children jump too hard. Hooray for architectural hodge-podge!

magiciansgirl said...

"What a depressing world to live in: windowless workplaces, concrete landscapes and microwave meals accompanied by tasteless, mass-produced lettuce." Alas, this describes somewhat accurately my own workspace and lunch time eating minus the lettuce...but as I work in a museum, I luckily only have to step outside my office door to enjoy a better view :-) Here in Detroit, architects and planners are finally starting to understand "adaptive re-use" of old buildings, instead of tearing everything down and building boring boxes with tinted windows that evoke nothing in one's heart. I do think there is room for the new, it just depends on whether or not the design is good and if city planners and officials as well as business and home owners understand what good design is (or is not). Prince Charles in particular has long been a critic of 'modern' architecture, and while he has some good points and ideas, I doubt simply building pseudo- Victorian, classical or Tudor structures is what will work. There has to be a sympathy with existing structures for any design or city/town plan to be successful. kim

Kári Tulinius said...

If you're interested in reading about the lost utopian dream of modernist architecture, you could do worse than check up on the writings of Owen Hatherley.

Brett said...

I'd be interested to know from Jim in what sense there is little interest in the USA in "starting from scratch".

I grew up in places around Orlando Florida that had no history at all. Subdivisions were built on virgin land to house us, our schools were built while we baby boomers waited in temporary quarters.

Of course, with all that space, building tended to expand horizontally rather than vertically. Ask me where I'm from and I'll say Orlando, 10 miles away, because to say Dommerich Estates would mean nothing.

The modernist visionaries assumed that there would be central planning. In the US, this was not the case.

Joel Garreau's Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, (1991) is a good account of development trends before the end of the housing bubble.

Annabel said...

I come from near the home of excessive redevelopment that is Croydon, and 'Croydonisation' is a word I see/hear increasingly!
I must be a glutton for punishment, as I also lived in two New Towns for years, Harlow and Stevenage - both in thrall to the kind of thing in this book. Thank heavens I now live in a smallish higgledy piggledy Oxfordshire town which has all the community that gets stifled in the modernist new towns

Lucy R. Fisher said...

My bro was thrilled to find this book in a charity shop - he's a fine arts prof and hoped to base some lectures on it. The sun is always shining in those artist's impressions! Through the clean air, of course - thanks to modern central heating.

David said...

Reading this makes me very sad, because while we all know what nonsenses "planning" led to - how many fine buildings were destroyed and how much rubbish was put up - there were some good intentions as well. And in some respects, what caused the whole idea to fail was that it wasn't modern enough. Look, for example, at that central computer for the city, housed in its cathedral-like chamber. In one way it was radical - and correct - to suggest that the computer would be important in our daily lives, it's just that nobody then could have predicted how important, or how this power would be delivered.

I think that the vision of the planners was restricted in just the same way they accused the old towns of being. I hope that at least we have now learned, whether we like it or not, that things will change more than we can imagine, but we probably haven't.

Steerforth said...

What I love about blogging is that I get such thought-provoking and interesting comments.

I was also intrigued by Jim's point, as I've been to many place in the USA that look as if they've been created from flatpacks, but these negatives are always offset by the lower population density and superior climate.

Most of the people I know in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have houses that are at least three times the size of mine and they enjoy better weather, so I don't think I'll find any volunteers for a house swap.

I agree with Kim - the answer doesn't lie in pastiches of older buildings, although as I said in an earlier post - - Prince Charles' vision of the ideal community is still more liveable than most places I've seen.

But in America, those traditional features look absurd and vulgar, like Southfork. It's far better when cities like Detroit keep faith with their own vernacular.

Kári - I will definitely look at Owen Hatherley's writing - I've just Googled him and it looks fascainating.

I will also take up Brett's recommendation of Edge City, particularly as he has been compared to the great Jane Jacobs.

Annabel - you are a glutton for punishment. But I suppose at least all three were near London, whereas some new towns are like open prisons, miles from anywhere.

David - I think you have something there. The urban landscapes featured in the book still accept the status quo of the Industrial Revolution, rather than propose a genuinely new aesthetic: people still work in factories; home are still situated near industry and the population density is still high.

Richmonde - it's good to hear from someone who already knows the book. It all looks very Mary, Mungo and Midge to me, with children happily living on the 14th floor of their tower block.

Amazingly, I used to envy children who lived in high-rise flats!

Brett said...

You might enjoy Philip Johnson's Lost Town at Archinect.

Steerforth said...

Fascinating. Thanks for the link Brett.

I think if I moved into Hirshhorn, I'd be on anti-depressants within a week. It looks like my idea of hell (or indeed, purgatory).

Gabriela Von Bohlen said...

People do not seem to remember anymore in what squalid conditions masses of people lived in Western countries as late as the 60s and 70s. Not all 19th century houses were well built. In large cities families with small children would live in awful mouldy flats with a lavatory outside. If you remember this, it's easier to understand 60s utopias with hygienic concrete high-rises. There just wasn't enough housing in cities for everyone! I rather admire those architects and town planners, even if they went too far.

And repro Victorian houses can be quite awful too, surface without any ideology. There is an American glossy with the name of something like "The New Victorian House", which illustrated this.

I live in a sixties pre-fabricated block of flats with big windows and a clever plan, and I very much like my home. Also, I don't understand the English fashion of turning Victorian terraces into modernist flats on the inside. (See any issue of Living Etc). It seems awful.

In Denmark in the 50s they did actually have central freezers, where families could keep their Sunday roast. It seems quite ecological.

Sam Jordison said...

Fascinating. Fantastic post. I'd love to read that book. Agreed about the talk about efficiency. Chilling. I've spent a lot of time touring the towns created by such visions... None of them I've visited have worked. Cumbernauld is particularly sad.

Meanwhile, I loved the archinect link. And Between Channels. had never spotted that.

(I really should try to do some kind of follow-up to Crap Towns, once I've gone more on the middle classes Maybe a tenth anniversary tour. I imagine it will be even more depressing now the coalition government are tearing the UK apart.)

Steerforth said...

Gabriela - I'm probably one of the few people of my age who did witness this squalor, as my grandparents refused to modernise their home and it was like a 1930s time capsule.

They had an outside toilet, no hot water and had to keep all their dairy products in an earthenware pot filled with cold water, as they had no fridge.

Also, their only heat came from an open fire.

As a child I hated their house, with its drab colours, hard chairs and draughty rooms. I loved everything that was new, bright and clean.

But as an adult, I've seen new blocks of flats quickly deteriorate, whilst those slums that weren't knocked down have often been regenerated into attractive, fashionable homes.

Overall, I'd prefer to live in a well-built modern home than a pastiche of an older style. I stayed in a friend's 1960s flat in Stockholm once and I was really impressed by the quality of the design and materials used. I also loved the 1930s flat that I lived in before moving to Lewes.

But so many postwar buildings in Britain are badly-designed with cheap materials and poor sound and heat insulation, so I naturally gravitate towards towns with mostly older buildings.

I find an unplanned urban landscape that has evolved over time, in response to human needs, far more appealing. But this townscape should also include good modern architecture (after all, every building was new once!).

By the way, I like your blog - some great photographs.

Steerforth said...

Sam - Yes, let's have more Crap Towns - we need it!

I loved the fact that the book really touched a nerve. I remember seeing all sorts of people pick up the book from the humour table, look at it for a few minutes, before calling over their friends or partners to have a look.

magiciansgirl said...

Reading through the original post and the comments, I was thinking that even the Crap Towns that exist and the modern monstrosities 'Westerners' are forced to live with, are better than living conditions in many countries around the world. I just returned from a work trip to Ghana and the living conditions of the average Ghanaian (the per capita income is about US$1000), are far, far below what we are used to in the US, Canada and Europe. Most of the slums seem to consist of small, basic wood or concrete structures with corrugated tin roofs, no plumbing, sometimes electricity (prone to frequent blackouts) and disease is rampant (although oddly, several homes in a slum like Madina have satellite dishes). Dirt, urine and shit (from animals and people) are pretty much everywhere. I'm guessing that much of what we consider to be terrible eyesores would seem like fine structures to many people living in shacks, so it's a matter of perception. There are really no zoning laws (or they are not paid attention to) so you might see an ugly modern office building (built by the Chinese or Koreans) next to a shack that has steer and goats penned in what passes for a front yard. Nevertheless, many homes are painted in beautiful, vivid colors, which alleviates the general air of depression. Outside the large cities, you see even more primitive structures made out of mud, straw, etc. In the US and Europe there has been a movement towards innovative homes as low income housing. A company like the Phoenix Commotion are building green homes out of recycled materials ( which proves you can building interesting and even beautiful structures without spending a ton of money. Other people are building homes out of straw bales ( or cargo containers ( Some people might find these homes ugly, but I don't, and they are certainly better than most low income housing in the US and Europe. Of course, you could build palaces for the poor but if the palaces are tagged and generally left to fall into ruin, sooner or later you’re back to squalor. So it’s not just zoning laws and architecture - it’s also up to people to take pride in and keep up their properties. I’m guessing this is where the ‘social engineering’ issue comes into play… kim

Steerforth said...

Kim - you're quite right. When I was 16, I went to stay with my aunt in Morocco and we visited a woman whose one-room house consisted of four mudbrick walls with a rusted sheet of corrugated iron balanced on top. She would have found my musings on architecture quite ridiculous.

Your visit to Ghana sounds fascinating. What was the main purpose of the trip?

As far as the straw bale and cargo container homes are concerned, I think they look great. The ex-containers remind me of the prefab homes that were built in Britain to accommodate people whose homes had been bombed during the War. They were apparently so well designed that when newly-built homes became available, some people were reluctant to leave. Here's a link:

I like these sorts of homes because there's an honesty about them and they can work if people are committed to their community and the surrounding environment is decent.

magiciansgirl said...

Morocco! I hope to see it one day,, it looks to be a beautiful place. I don't think the musings are ridiculous at all - we are all highly influenced by our environment, in myriad ways, even if we don't know it.

To answer your question, the museum I work for organized an exhibition of African Art and I went to Ghana to return some loans to their owners, accompanied by one of our conservators and our curator, who is Ghanaian himself. I'd love to see more of Africa, but work trips like this are very, very rare, sadly.

Thanks for the link on Pre-fabs. I live in sort of a pre-fab house myself. Sears & Roebuck (and other companies like Aladdin) used to sell housing kits via catalogs back at the turn of the 20th century and into the 1940's. I found out my house was one when I was renovating the kitchen and found a Sears label on one of the baseboards. You can find these homes all over the US - some are modest like mine and others are quite large bungalows. Incidentally, the plan of my house offered the house with or without indoor plumbing, so Gabriela is quite right, the conditions we are used to now are quite different!

Here's a link:

The houses were often built near railroads, since it was easy to dump off the building materials, which included everything - timber, doors, windows, hardware, lighting fixtures, etc. I have to say, I think they are well built homes and most have quite charming designs. In 1922,my house was $900 for the kit - not sure about the labor aspect, but you were expected to DIY with help from friends, I think - rather a lost art. I wish someone would bring this idea back, but I doubt it would be as cost effective these days and again, few people are able to build an entire house even with a kit.....