A place of greater safety
Paul Barker salutes the suburbs
I'm thinking of starting a Privet Preservation Society. At its meetings we'd sing hymns of praise to crazy paving and pass around postcards of shopping mall glass-sided crawler lifts. It's time to speak up for suburbia. In any gathering of architects, planners and conservationists, 'suburban' is just a dirty word. All discussion is usually about city centres, with eulogies of loft-living in old warehouses in Shoreditch and high-density flats in new blocks in Southwark. (Talk of Manchester's much-touted urban regeneration always follows identical lines.) Architecture critics are much the same. Recently Jonathan Glancey, the Guardian's critic, complained about the design of some new City of London offices, because they had 'suburban' roofs. A few days later he was at it again. He wrung his hands over the changes that had overtaken the small Oxfordshire town of Didcot. Once, he pointed out, it was "little more than an engine shed and power station" the kind of thing that looks good in up-market architectural journals. Now, dear oh dear, it was "increasingly suburban," and "a sea of low-browed, redbrick houses."
I don't think "low-browed" here was simply a remark about the houses' physical height. It was a cultural point. As always, suburbia was being categorised as beyond the pale, below the salt, somewhere no decent chap would be seen dead in. All this is standard modernist rhetoric, of course. And postmodernism is no better. People must be organised. They must be told what they want. Their own choices are neither here nor there.
Last year, as a curtain-raiser to the annual Stirling Prize award, the government's Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment arranged an opinion poll on what house-styles people would prefer to live in. To the commission's horror, bungalows came top. Its chief executive was dismissive : bungalows were out. (I doubt if the chief executive of Honda would take the same line on customers' preferences.) The Commission is simply the conventional wisdom writ large. It's dominated by commercial developers and architects. It has come out in favour of Renzo Piano's planned 1,016 foot London Bridge Tower, the so-called 'shard of glass', which would, if built, be Europe's tallest building and would open the door to many more. (In April it went to public inquiry.) There's big money in commercial property development, and high architectural prestige in such unmissable constructions.
Architectural writers only approve of those very rare suburbs which are design creations : Bedford Park in west London and Hampstead Garden Suburb, for example; and possibly even Poundbury, Prince Charles's arts-and-crafts suburb of Dorchester, built on Duchy of Cornwall land.
Suburbs, however, are mostly created by low-profile house-building firms. They use designs which are little more than the kind of pattern book that suburban speculative builders down the years have always used.
Such pattern books created almost all the London we know. As Steen Eiler Rasmussen pointed out in London: the Unique City the best book ever written about the capital London is essentially one suburb lain next to another. Cruikshank's famous cartoon, 'The March of Bricks and Mortar', recurrently used ever since in anti-suburbia propaganda, was drawn when he lived in Clerkenwell and was appalled at the construction of the streets of the new suburb of Islington being cranked up through the fields. I notice that the Guardian's weekly listings guide now categorises Islington cinemas under "Central London".
Amusingly, one of these, the Warner Village Islington, is an invasion of older London by a classic outer-suburban upstart, the purpose-built multiplex. The first in Britain was opened in ultra-suburban Milton Keynes. It was clean, had good sound, lots of film choices, plenty of popcorn and room to park. Till then film-going nation-wide had been in an apparent terminal decline for years.
Multiplexes turned the graph round. It was a cheering piece of evidence that present social trends aren't always continued. It was also evidence that much social innovation now springs out of suburbia. In Milton Keynes the first cutprice easyCinema opened in May 2003, on the same site.
The most vilified innovation is the shopping mall. The only people who seem to like the Meadowhalls, Trafford Centres and Bluewaters of our day are the millions who happily use them. Many town centres seem to be afflicted by an urban version of Dutch elm disease. Outer suburbia the terrain the Americans call Edge City flourishes like a red-flowering horse chestnut or a leylandii cypress. Britain's first air-conditioned shopping mall opened in North London, at Brent Cross, in the 1970s. But the later malls were of a different order of size. The pioneer was the MetroCentre at Gateshead, which opened in 1986, on a former power station ash dump.
You have to remember the crumminess of much of what the new malls supposedly destroyed. If your alternatives were to shop in Sunderland's depressing high street, or in the squalid precinct at Peterlee New Town, you too would go to MetroCentre. Peterlee, named after a local miners' leader and politician, was originally laid out by the modernist architect-planner Berthold Lubetkin. The abstract painter Victor Pasmore was also brought in to reinforce the modernist aesthetic punch. None of this helped.
In her great book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities the launch-pad of thousands of civic trusts Jane Jacobs said : "The bedrock attribute of a successful city is that a person must feel personally safe and secure on the street among all these strangers." The city with its wall was invented because life was safer here than outside. Enclosed and video-scrutinised, the mall makes many people, especially women, feel safer.
There are no panhandlers, no alkies, no sad folk peeing in the street. American malls started the fashion for glass lifts not because of the view out but because of the view in. Rape is unlikely in a glass elevator. The malls' suburban success is inseparable from the upsurge in women going out to work and the arrival of the family's second car. It has become ever-harder to manage family life without a car to dash to and from school, job and the one-stop shopping centre.
Suburbs give most people most of what they want most of the time. Not all the time, admittedly. There's a life-cycle factor. How many couples, after helping to push forward the gentrification of, say, Stoke Newington, quietly move off to greener streets and better schools in Richmond or St Albans when their children reach the age of five? There's also a wealth factor. Walk down many neighbourhoods of converted warehouses Wapping High Street, for example and you'll find no one around at the weekend. The urban flat is balanced against the rural second home.
When most people object to suburbia, they're usually thinking of the great flood of semis which rolled out across the countryside between the two world wars. In Coming up for Air, George Orwell wrote about them as if they were the work of the devil.
It was less diabolical than that. Edge City, with its malls, its out-of-town offices and its distribution centres is created by the car, the computer and the fax machine as surely as Liverpool was created by ocean-going ships and Manchester by the railway. Inter-war suburbia was created by rising wages (outside the old industries), cheap land (before green belts put the squeeze on), easy loans (the heyday of the mutual building societies) and public transport (in London especially, with buses linking in to newly built Tubes). There were no streets, only avenues, crescents and closes. The door had its panel of stained glass with an Art Deco sunburst design. The garage was just big enough for an Austin Seven or a Bullnose Morris for weekends. The front garden, behind the privet, was clipped to within an inch of its life, with a single standard rose in the dead centre.
Many square miles of these semis survive. Some are shabby and run-down. Most are almost as Windolened and Hoovered as they ever were.
Suburbia is about greenery. This concept of 'green' can obviously run up against the ecologists' rival concept. But panic about covering the countryside with concrete is misplaced. There is a dilemma, yes. But let's not fall into the hysteria about 'bungaloid growth' which sprang up in the 1930s. It is all too easy to marry the theories of international modernism to good old English bossiness and snobbery : "Find out what those people are doing, and tell them to stop it."
The architectural historian Anthony King argues persuasively that, in the teeth of aesthetic contempt, bungalows are the vernacular design success of the past 150 years. It's an extraordinary post-colonial story. Bungalows were modelled on a local Bengali house-style (hence the name), and run off in thousands for imperial civil servants and engineers. In Croydon, not long ago, I noticed that they were still building them.
In a recent national poll report, the annual British Attitudes Survey said: "Policy makers concerned to keep people in cities need to think more fully about why people do not consider them suitable places for children.... Most urban people, given the choice, would rather live elsewhere." When I go to meetings of professionals about housing policy or architectural design, I find that it's all too often forgotten that other people have preferences of their own, and usually for good reason. These should be respected.
I lived in the East End of London when what was left after the Luftwaffe had done its bit was mostly destroyed by comprehensive planning schemes, masterminded by the LCC, the GLC and the local (Labour-controlled) boroughs. It left me with a deep scepticism about changes imposed on other people "for their own good", which has never faded.
Many enemies of suburbia, I suspect, are in flight from their own childhood, when most of them, I'd guess, grew up in just such a place. We should treat them kindly and humanely, as we would with any other invalid. But we shouldn't treat what they say as gospel. Tablets of pebbledash are as valid as tablets of stone.