Wednesday, February 03, 2010

'I Wasn't Sure What to Expect, but I was Pleasently Surprised'

A winter afternoon in New Ash Green



Span Developments Ltd was the other side of post-war mass housing to the one I normally write about. Founded by Eric Lyons, an occasional architect to Southampton and Hackney councils but mostly a private practitioner, it was both a profit-making business and an attempt to design spaces which were, at least implicitly, Social Democratic - this BBC article quotes their approach as 'community as the goal; shared landscape as the means; modern, controlled design as the expression'. Impeccably Butskellite, then, only with the emphasis on Mr But rather than Mr Skell.


I've written a bit about their estates in Blackheath before, and was recently amused by a comment from a moderately successful youngish architect that 'Span is interesting because it works'. I fail to see how what Span were doing - car-free, pedestrianised public spaces, low-rise, plenty of landscaping, a Scandinavian softening of Modernism - was any different in design terms from what Sheffield City Council did at Gleadless Valley, which 'doesn't work'. Span works for one main reason - it was designed, and designed very well, for (often upper-)middle class clients, so the spaces are looked after, the designs are scrupulously cohesive, and the inhabitants have invariably chosen to live there. It's not mysterious, and it's nothing to do with design.


Anyway - they are very lovely things. As an experiment, to see the bit of Span that might not work so well as those that are in Ham Common, Cambridge and Blackheath, and as an attempt to convert me fully to Social Democracy, Matthew Tempest convinced me to go out to New Ash Green, for which I am thankful. This place is not so much a New Town as a New Village which Span had designed in north Kent, so ambitious that it basically bankrupted the company, and the last few pieces of the scheme were entrusted to the somewhat less socially idealistic Bovis, who were chaired by Keith Joseph, who as government minister had tried to stop the place being built in the first place. Apparently Bovis still has its head office in the Village, which might explain some of the place's continued affluence.


It's properly rural, this is, although I say this with the proviso that I don't understand or know anything whatsoever about the countryside, generally considering it an ideological phantom wielded as a weapon against towns and cities, inducing them to surrender any true civic life to dreams of homes-as-castles-and-investments, as opposed to a real place, which I suppose it must be, for some. You can reach it only via car, or a tortuous public transport route - the nearest largish town, Dartford, is reached via a bus which seems to be either hourly or two-hourly depending on how bad a mood the bus driver is in. New Ash Green stops abruptly at one point, where rolling fields start.


Yet although it's essentially one of the Milton Keynes grids with all its surrounding infrastructure taken away, it's far more urban in design terms than most of what has been built for the last thirty years, albeit if the urb in question is in the outer reaches of the Stockholm Metro system. The houses, for all their wood and brick, are still deeply Modernist, almost futuristic at times, an impression reinforced by the signage, which seems to have escaped fully-formed from the head of Julian House - pseudo-rustic names spelled out in science-fiction letters.


Even the streetlamps have something decidedly Dr Who about them, furnishings that could beam you somewhere else entirely.


The landscape - nature under strict control - is the truly impressive thing here, something which even the drabber Bovis parts of the estate manage to retain - a sense that everything is public, and everything is permeable, except of course for the houses themselves - Span seem to have assumed that a largeish, well-designed house with big windows and a garden was all anyone needed for private space, with CCTV and driveways strikingly absent. Lyons and Span had evidently not read Defensible Space or the Essex Design Guide, and New Ash Green breaks every one of their nasty little rules, by placing what now seems like enormous trust in the place's inhabitants. If, as Alice Coleman and her ilk suggested, certain urban forms invite crime, then the following snickets should be a constant fest of knifings and rapes. By all accounts they are not.


Bad things do happen here, though, and when they do, it seems that it has the eventually sinister nature of all villages (he writes, in a similar knee-jerk manner to someone in a village assuming the same about a story about a death where he lives in south-east London).


There are nooks of mild criminality, however, in the form of the graffiti that is scribbled on the walkways, much of which is so cute and indie that it seems like the local youth are all living in a Belle & Sebastian song. Or at least in Gregory's Girl, a place that comes to mind often here, in its modernity and unrelieved niceness. Not in a suffocating, austerity nostalgia way, though, and the place lacks the Keep Calm and Carry On posters and general Farrow&Ballisation you can find in the Span parts of Blackheath.


Nonetheless, by the standards of 98% of Britain this is hard-line stuff - the hedges impeccable, the original features mostly in place, the spaces extremely trim. You could have a wonderful life here and you could also go completely bonkers in a week. Although not nearly as bonkers as a Secured by Design officer would become looking at the below.


Span probably knew from early on that this one would be a hard sell. The RIBA's recent Eric Lyons and Span book about their ex-president (and think of the relative fate of the buildings designed by their only other talented recent president, Owen Luder) has loads of pictures of the flagrantly sexist ads used to convince people to move to the back of beyond (or the back of beyond less than an hour's drive from London). Architect's Wives, 'vital statistics (no not those ones!)', some fairly blatant suggestions of possible wife swapping and the general sexual intrigue that goes with being terribly modern.


The place may well soon become both modern and terrible, as Broadway Malyan are slated to redesign it. To get an architect of similar talent and prominence to Lyons, they should really be asking Richard Rogers - and his recent spec houses in Oxley Woods are a precise modern equivalent - but I don't suppose he comes as cheap. The shopping centre is slightly knackered, but compared to, say, Thamesmead, is thoroughly self-sufficient - banks, health food cafe, branch of Oxfam, co-op, newsagent, various other bits and bobs. I've seen places in Zone 2 with less amenities. Up on the roof there is some slight sign of ruffness - though having 'HENCH' as your tag is a bit sad. Like writing 'I'M A BIG MAN, ME!' everywhere. It doth protest too much.


We hadn't expected it to be as neat as it was. Matthew had been through before in a car and briefly stopped in the Village Pub, and came back with the impression that here, Span had gone Yokel, and the air of chic and wealth-expressed-through-minimalism you could find in their main estates had gone in favour of the same menace you find elsewhere in north Kent. Actually though, there are only two places here where New Ash Green seems anything other than idyllic - the back end of the shopping centre you can see above, a car-parking area that for some reason has gone derelict before everywhere else. The pub is not exactly welcoming, full of regulars who look at us like we're from Mars - which is rich, as they live on it - but I've been in far worse.


The door of the pub advertises the Sunday Carvery, but rather than showing a farmhouse, the advert shows the outline of a thoroughly modern house.

34 Comments:

Anonymous antimatter said...

Interesting point you make about the rural life….
Of course you are right that in the south of the UK the sticks is by and large a huge suburb without any services or advantages of the city. For your blissfull relocation relocation, a 4x4 will be on the list of desirables for Phil & Kirsty. The reality is mind numbing dullness, as you are stuck in some traffic choked country lane on the way to the nearest Tesco barn. Do Span dwellers go to Tesco?

Then again the cost of living in the south, means that it is becoming impossible to live anywhere remotely urban. In Oxford you could consider Blackbird Less, Rose Hill or Barton. But if the profiles on chavtowns don’t put you off, the prices will. The choice is up to the sticks, or go North.

But a Civic Life in the sticks is possible, and does not have to be a cultural landfill. Your castle does not have to be surrounded by acre of landscaped gardens, miles away from the nearest Holland & Barrett or whatever essentials you cannot live without in the smoke.

The key is density. Forget the gardens, build em tall, plan facilities, forget cars, be Dutch use bikes. There are quite a few models, not garden cities, but market towns. Probably sounding yawningly twee, but they can work. You can walk to the H&B, the library, get the bus to hang out with moneyed city dwellers. If you are brave you can even walk out into the greenfields, but with the comfort that you are being watched by CCTV.

11:19 am  
Anonymous Edith said...

hmmmm - in 1969 we had a choice, we could afford, an about-to-be-slum-cleared Victorian terrace in East Greenwich (plus my disapproving mother) - or New Ash Green.
My impression is, from those among my friends and relations who chose New Ash Green, that wife-swapping and/or boredom were the main life-style choices - whereas, while East Greenwich may have its critics, there is usually someone to talk to.

3:11 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Oh, don't get me wrong - I wouldn't exchange even my flat above a shop in East Greenwich for a house in New Ash Green. I think it's a very interesting place, though, a bad idea done very, very well.

4:31 pm  
Blogger GCGM said...

Am I right in assuming that Span were the forerunners of the schizoid fascia look that informed many of the UK's housing developments of the '60s & '70s, i.e. flat (or wedge) roof plus timber or tile cladding? There's certainly plenty of it in Northampton.

Interesting to note too that many of the Span estates have their own residents' websites that take great pride in the designs of their houses and neighbourhoods, though I guess that's due to the private/public housing angle.

Must get my hands on that RIBA book. Smashing post.

7:45 pm  
Anonymous Jamie said...

Talking of Gregory's Girl, I went to see the Tunnock's factory in Uddingston a while a back, and that was very reminiscent of the same film, lots of concrete and houses that looked (to my untrained eye at least) quite a lot like the ones in this post. Similarly it too didn't fit the stereotype of concrete=violent and scary, as there were loads of teenagers around while I was there who weren't remotely threatening - admittedly I was only in the town for a few hours on a weekday afternoon, but it really seemed like a nice place. I wouldn't for a minute suggest that factory work leads to an even-headed temperament but I couldn't help thinking the atmosphere was something to do with the fact that there was lots of regular work nearby.

10:42 pm  
Blogger Chris Matthews said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:18 pm  
Blogger Chris Matthews said...

Oooh good post. I asked for the SPAN/RIBA book for Crimbo - how sad am I.

Wasn't one of Lyons main interests in 'landscaping' - hence the careful planting of birch trees etc. Speaking of landscape, I recommend picking up a nice old Pelican copy of WG Hoskins 'Making of the English Landscape'. Has its faults but is very informative and avoids any 'countryside' cliche. Don't forget: as well as the urban/countryside antagonism, towns and cities are in part a product of their surrounding geology and landscape.

I think GCGM has a point there about SPAN informing many of the UK's builds in the 60s and 70s. In my small experience I know that there are some stylistic links with Nottingham's public sector CLASP builds. Selfish link to own post here --> http://internetcurtains.blogspot.com/2009/08/clasp-nottingham-intro.html

To needlessly rabbit on further: The 1970s Meadows social housing redevelopment is another such project though the end result was very disappointing when compared to SPAN. Not entirely sure why, maybe the common story of a watered down design due to a lack of funds or greedy builders taking advantage of system builds. It was of course in a very working class area which suffered the unemployment troubles of the 1980s and got the cliche headlines ' a rabbit warren of crime':

https://www.hpacde.org.uk/picturethepast/jpgh_nottingham/NTGM000228.jpg

I bumped into another mixed use a few miles away at Candle Meadow in Colwick - which has both good and bad moments of Lyons inspired work.

https://www.hpacde.org.uk/picturethepast/jpgh_nottingham/NTGM000018.jpg

Politically I also likened it to a kind of moderate and democratic socialism; one where perhaps polling day is closely fought. Perhaps this is why system builds were more prevalent than Brutalist concrete in post war Nottingham - though it's hard to say. My instinct says that it's more complex than that equation alone.

Oh, and isn't SPAN similar to those Centre Parks villas?

2:19 pm  
Blogger Kosmograd said...

Have you been to The Ryde in Hatfield, which seemed to start with a similar design concept as the Span houses?

I think as suburban archetypes go it works pretty well, infinitely better than the fakery of new urbanism.

More information here: http://www.bdonline.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=3138295

It would be almost inconceivable for something like this to be built in the UK today.

(And call me puerile, but I love the fact that the community building was called Club 69.)

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