William Mitchell in Harlow: chapter in Modern Futures book

modern-futuresI’ve written a shortish reflection on my pilgrimage to the ‘sculpture town’ of Harlow, a mid-twentieth century new town in Essex, earlier this year, focusing on the redeveloped Water Gardens in the town centre and the architectural sculptor William Mitchell‘s gargoyle fountains, as a chapter for the new Modern Futures book.

Modern Futures, which is published by Uniformbooks, is edited by Hannah Neate (my Director of Studies) and Ruth Craggs and is an outcome of the Modern Futures research network, which brought together academics, writers, artists, photographers and practitioners for a series of events and workshops around the country exploring questions around changing perceptions of the experience, appreciation and preservation of modern architecture. The book brings together contributions prompted, explored and developed through these events, as well as reflections from a few familiar projects from Manchester such as Angela Connelly and Matthew Steele’s Sacred Suburbs survey and Manchester Modernist Society.

The book can be purchased online for £12 at www.colinsackett.co.uk/modernfutures.php.

Modern Futures network second meeting: Barkingside visit

Next week is the second meeting of the Modern Futures network (I attended the first in Preston in January), which will take place in London with options to visit either the Southbank or Barkingside in the morning with a view to producing some kind of response. I have decided to visit Barkingside, for the following reasons:

I’ve been interested lately in the idea of the suburb and the perception and representation of suburbs, and what constitutes a place as a town, village or suburb as distinct from one another (a general observational interest grounded in my everyday experiences and encounters, not one which has led to any specific reading as yet). I’m interested in changing ideas across the last century of what types of buildings and facilities you might expect to find as a prerequisite to make somewhere an attractive place to live or work according to common understandings or definitions, and which of these were included or excluded, prioritised or passed over in new developments such as model villages and garden cities, new towns and estates, or as existing towns and outlying suburbs expanded. These might include but are not limited to schools, housing, health centres, shops, work places and transport links at a fundamental level to the optional ‘extras’ and life enhancers such as swimming pools, churches, town halls, public parks, cinemas, pubs and sports and social clubs.

I’m also interested in the relationship between the metropolis and its outlying areas; a friend recently told me that due to rising costs of living in central London more and more people were looking towards living in places like Barking. To what extent do suburbs function as places in their own right, independent of the metropolis, where one can live without ever feeling the need to venture into central London, and to what extent are they dormitories for London with the majority of people working and socialising in central London, and is this changing? I picked Barkingside as it probably isn’t somewhere I would have had reason to visit otherwise. I’m interested in what you can understand about a place as somewhere to live just by walking around or passing through it, how accurate an impression of a place you can get from its built environment, and to what extent this indicates how successful or pleasant it is as a place to live. I’m interested in how the places and facilities listed above have changed in priority or gone out of fashion as needs and interests have changed and what types of buildings have stood the test of time and what have been replaced, updated or made obsolete altogether, eg Fulwell Cross library is still functioning as a library, whereas the old Odeon is now a bingo hall (has it been replaced by a modern multiplex?). Were these places themselves updated or modernised versions of existing facilities, or were they initiatives prompted by the new needs of a growing population?

I’m also interested in how places such as Barking have changed over time to be regarded as part of Greater London as opposed to being defined by more traditional county boundaries such as Kent, Surrey, or Essex in this case, and whether there is a sense of this dual identity visible in the streetscapes of Barkingside. Do such places still retain a strong sense of separate character or identity as one small area of, or as close to but distinct from, London? This is something I have noticed in the outlying towns and suburbs around Greater Manchester, which would previously have been part of either Lancashire (to the North and West) or Cheshire (to the South and West) before local government boundary changes. Some of these towns are insistent on being identified as part of the city (for example Failsworth, officially part of Oldham, Middleton, part of the Rochdale borough, the former mill towns of Tyldesley and Atherton, formally part of the Wigan borough and separated from Manchester by the city of Salford and its outlying suburbs) – as is apparent in local business names, etc – whereas others are keen on maintaining and highlighting geographical links to their former counties, particularly the Cheshire towns (such as Sale, Altrincham and Cheadle).

I’m not sure what, if anything, this has to do with my PhD, although it could be interesting to bear in mind some popular education pamphlets I looked at earlier this year around reconstruction, published by RIBA and others during the war and in the years immediately afterwards. In this strand of reconstruction literature there was a strong emphasis not just on educating the public about the architectural styles and traditions which had made British towns, villages and cities look the way they did, and celebrating examples of ‘good’ architecture and town planning, but on encouraging the public as individuals to develop and be ready to express informed individual opinions on what they wanted from builders, architects and planners and what their needs and preferences were in terms of building styles and types, facilities and town and cityscapes. As well as looking ahead to the future and the opportunities offered by new styles of buildings and construction methods and the opportunity provided by the reconstruction process for a high degree of control over town planning, these pamphlets also provided a cautionary and provocative tale about avoiding the mistakes of the past, which were in many cases attributed to the sprawl of suburbia and inter-war ribbon development.