Post-war British architecture often gets a bad rap. But it wasn’t all concrete and cars—some, like my father Peter Self, wanted to created urban living spaces on a human scaleby Will Self / July 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
In 1965, Frederic Osborn responded to the Sunday Times’s characterisation of “two apparently irreconcilable groups of people who want to determine the character of our future towns and cities.” According to the newspaper these two schools were dubbed—in mutual antipathy—“water colour” and “arrogant, intellectual, theorising, high-density madmen.” Osborn, a leading light of the first Garden City group, made his remarks in a letter to the chairman of the Cumbernauld Development Corporation, that quintessential example of New Town radicalism. This article, he said, has “escalated a border incident into a nuclear war.” Osborn was percipient, for the fallout from this massively escalated conflict continues to haunt its objective correlative—namely, the British built environment.
I do need to declare an interest here. Osborn wrote the introduction to my father’s book Cities in Flood (1957), which, as its title suggests, is an account of the dangers of unrestricted urban growth. Peter Self, Professor of Public Administration at the LSE, a long-time activator in the British built environment through his involvement with the Town and Country Planning Association, was decidedly of the “water colour” persuasion. When I was a child, I’d occasionally go with him to visit “FJO” (as my old man reverently described the old man Osborn), who lived in a predictably Arts & Crafts-inflected house near to us in Hampstead Garden Suburb. When I got older, I realised that such advocates of the Garden City—and latterly New Town—ideal, were in fact involved in a bizarre sort of mise en abyme, painting themselves into their own vision by living in a small-scale enactment of their urban philosophy, which was itself surrounded by an abyssal London.
In his meticulous new book Boom Cities, Otto Saumarez Smith wishes us to understand British architect-planners’ activities in the 1960s and respect their objectives. “We need to revise our understanding of the period,” he writes, “in a way which sees it as both messier and less polarised.” Much as urbanists love the Punch-and-Judy knockabout between the Béton-brut [raw concrete] disciples of Le Corbusier and the red-brick parterre ones of Self senior and the Garden City pioneer Ebenezer Howard, Saumarez Smith contends: “the Manichean narrative of modernists versus conservationists has been damagingly limiting.”