Geographies of Boredom: The New Towns of Britain and Ireland
This week, Dr George Legg (King’s College London) discusses a four nations approach to Britain’s New Towns of the twentieth century.
Few architectural projects have been as astricted by boredom as those that constituted Britain’s New Towns. From Peter Hall’s weary summation that ‘their architecture was boring’,[i] to the lack of ‘emotional core’ that Jonathan Glancey has associated with their development, Britain’s New Towns have consistently been perceived to epitomise banal design.[ii] However, this geography of boredom means that the variegated social realities that produced these landscapes has also been ignored. As the journalist Newton Emerson has noted in relation to Northern Ireland’s most infamous New Town, ‘Craigavon is just a black-hole in people’s knowledge of this part of the country’.[iii] Might a four nations approach be able to uncover the peculiar qualities of these urban geographies, providing us with a unique insight into their particular topography and distinct architectural vernacular? To test this hypothesis this post will consider the New Towns of Milton Keynes in England, Cumbernauld in Scotland, Craigavon in Northern Ireland and Cwmbran in Wales.
In the context of Milton Keynes, the New Town venture became ensconced with spatial angsts. At the time of its conception, a school of thought promulgated the belief that there was a scarcity of pastoral land in England. Milton Keynes was hereby often subjected to a three-pronged attack which avered that its construction would ‘involve an inordinately large scale sacrifice of agricultural land, endanger food supplies, and destroy the beauty of the countryside’.[iv] Conflated with these spatial anxieties, assessments of Milton Keynes’s have tended to become ineluctably enfolded in attempts to either challenge or reinforce such imputations. Canadian artist Liz Leyh astutely encapsulated this dialectic in her 1978 ‘Concrete Cows’ sculpture which took up residence in Bancroft parkland. Responding to the misconceived belief that Milton Keynes would consist entirely of concrete where once there had been – to channel William Blake – a ‘green and pleasant land’, Leyh’s sculpture tapped into what has now become a deep seeded concern that the very idea of a New Town will disfigure the bucolic nationalism that so obsesses the English psyche.[v]
In contrast to Milton Keynes, the New Town of Cumbernauld provides a peculiarly Scottish model of New Town design. Population densities remain high in this site, a trait that connects Cumbernauld’s modernist mode of living with Scotland’s older urban model of burghs. Rather than raising concerns about the defacement of the countryside, Scotland’s more compact approach to town planning meant that there would be, as Ian Nairn puts it, ‘green fields at the end of every long view’.[vi] Distances between housing and shopping precincts were also reduced by this concentrated design. Indeed, Cumbernauld was planned to have an acutely singular centre, what its designer Geoffrey Copcutt called a “megastructure”, which would come complete with a brutalist façade. In this, Cumbernauld looked beyond its Scottish traditions towards the vernaculars of The City of Tomorrow. Unfortunately, this megastructure did not instil a sense of architectural allure. Voted one of the ugliest buildings in the UK, the structure has been infamously described by one television pundit as ‘a concrete spaceship from the planet crap’.[vii] Yet despite these failings traces of a Scottish topography unwittingly remain. For one thing, the jagged edges of Copcutt’s structure echo, as Owen Hatherley has noted, the ‘rocky outcrop’ that forms so much of Cumbernauld’s backdrop. And, while its concrete façade has been scarred by the aggressive Strathclyde weather, even this gives the building ‘a certain craggy grandeur’.[viii]
Copcutt’s influence extends beyond Cumbernauld, however. He was also the chief architect for the Northern Irish New Town, Craigavon, before resigning due to the pressures of Stormont’s sectarian regime. As he told reporters in August 1964, he felt he had been asked to ‘engineer propaganda rather than design a new city’.[ix] Craigavon was a consciously political affair. The new city’s location between Lurgan and Portadown placed it well within the Unionist heartland, east of the river Bann. With this area roughly 71 per cent Protestant at the time, Craigavon’s construction was seen by many Northern Irish Nationalists as coming at the direct expense of the more underdeveloped, predominantly Catholic, west. Yet when it came to design, Craigavon’s planners were more sensitive in their approach. Despite the ‘city-in-the-sky’ mentality that otherwise dominated so much post-war planning, Craigavon’s design sought to recreate a distinctly Irish mode of living. In an almost unconscious echo of the clachan – Ireland’s pre-famine, ‘openfield system’ of shared land – Craigavon’s design team promoted the establishment of a ‘Rural City’ rather than a New Town.[x] In this Craigavon became a space driven towards ‘the establishment of village communities’ and ‘the close inter-relationship of urban and rural elements’.[xi] Although not apparent to Craigavon’s design team in the 1960s, the potential for protection and communality afforded by this type of settlement would be integral to how Craigavon evolved during the Troubles and beyond.
The Welsh New Town of Cwmbran represents something of an enigma in this four-nations schema. Designated a New Town in 1949, it lacks both the architectural scale and social ambition of the preceding examples. Along with Wales’ only other New Town venture, Newtown (a name hinting at the paucity of the creative thinking involved), Cwmbran was designated with a significantly smaller target population than New Towns elsewhere in Britain. In many respects this provided a snapshot of an altogether different urban fear – a belief that ‘if the New Town was too large and successful it might hold back the regeneration of the former coalfield communities further up the Valleys’.[xii] Where Craigavon had positively craved geographical discrimination, Cwmbran was freighted with topographical sensitivities before its construction had even began. The result, though, is a sprawl of housing between Newport and Pontypool that struggles to find a common purpose or identity. The signpost at Cwmbran train station entices visitors to ‘alight here for shopping’ – an apt summary, perhaps, of the space’s denuded status. That said, if shopping is, as Hatherley has argued, ‘the main event […] in any New Town’, then perhaps Cwmbran comes closest to being the most successful New Town in Britain after all.[xiii]
[i] Peter Hall, Cities of Tomorrow: an intellectual history of urban planning and design in the twentieth century 3rd Edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), p. 140.
[ii] Jonathan Glancey, ‘Brave New World’, Guardian, 6 November 2006.
[iii] The Lost City of Craigavon, written and presented by Newton Emerson (Double-Band Films, BBC NI, 2007).
[iv] Fredric Osborn and Arnold Whittick, The New Towns: The Answer to Megalopolis (London: Leonard Hill, 1963), p. 120.
[vi] Ian Nairn, Nairn’s Towns (London: Notting Hill Editions, 2013), p. 77.
[vii] Quoted in Owen Hatherley, A New Kind of Bleak: Journey’s Through Urban Britain (London: Verso, 2012), p. 302.
[viii] Hatherley, A New Kind of Bleak, p. 301.
[ix] ‘Stormont Attacked Over “New City”’, Irish Times, 15 August 1964, p. 11.
[x] Estyn Evans, The Personality of Ireland: Habitat, Heritage and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 91.
[xi] Craigavon Development Commission, Craigavon New City, in The New Towns Record 1946-2002.
[xii] Town and Country Planning Association, New Towns and Garden Cities: Lessons for Tomorrow (London: TCPA, 2014), p. 9.
[xiii] Hatherley, A New Kind of Bleak, p. 301.
George Legg is a teaching fellow in the Liberal Arts Department at King’s College London. His article on ‘Contradictory Capitalism, Geographical Inertia and the New City of Craigavon’ appears in The Irish Review, 52 (2016).