Since the end of World War Two, Britain’s towns and cities have been transformed for the benefit of local councils and commerce. Grievous damage was done by Luftwaffe bombs, but the Nazis were outdone in gratuitous destruction by postwar urban planners.
After the war, a sense of shame at our past and achievements became widespread amongst the intelligentsia, and led to an ineluctable weakening of our national identity. Our elites began wittingly or unwittingly to dismantle the very idea of England. Social engineering started to be used in architecture and planning as much as in education and entertainment. Its aim was to change the physical and mental environment, and thereby change people, who were seen as plastic and malleable. The theory was that planned council estates could change people for the better.
Marxism was fashionable and in 1938, Leeds City Council built Quarry Hill Flats to commemorate the Marxist insurrection against the government in Karl Mark Hof, Vienna in 1934. It was the largest housing scheme in the country and used the latest ideas and techniques. The flats had solid fuel ranges, electric lighting, the latest refuse disposal system and communal facilities. (However, the steel frame and concrete clad construction was faulty, and the flats had to be demolished in 1978.)
Park Hill in Sheffield was another Marxist utopian development. These flats were opened in 1962 and are now listed. They are representative of the “Streets in the Sky” fad. The idea was that of artificial “streets” built outside the front doors of tower block flats. It was envisaged that milk floats would go up in service lifts and on to the ‘streets’, make their deliveries and go back into the service lift and on up to the next floor. (Deliveries were stopped when a child was knocked over and killed by a float.)
In most of these schemes, there was great emphasis on pedestrian movement, as envisaged in Corbusier’s theoretic “Radiant City”or his “Unite” development in Marseilles. The new town of Skelmersdale was designed to separate vehicles from pedestrians with a system of courtyard layouts and cul-de-sacs emerging off spine streets, which led to disproportionate costs in street cleaning, refuse collection, ground and street furniture maintenance and, particularly, policing. It was built on an old coalfield and around a series of deep clefts in the moor side that go down into the middle of the town, which means that extensive ground remediation and stabilisation was and is required for any construction.
It was built using innovative and experimental techniques – but these were deeply flawed, requiring expensive remedies. Many houses had central heating outlets in the ceiling. The fact that heat rises was ignored, so the bedrooms were heated moderately well but not the downstairs rooms. And it is possible to punch a hand through walls because the houses’ metal frames are corroded and the concrete slabs have collapsed.
Local communities were dispossessed for such gimcrack schemes. The theory was from the Corbusian model of “uniformity in the part, variety in the whole,” which was necessary to produce the “house machine” or “A machine for living in”? This phrase says it all: treating people as machines.
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