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Design Review: Volume 2, Issue 4 (December-January 1949-50)

Letters to Editor

page 83

Letters to Editor

Dear Sir: I promised, when I left New Zealand a year ago, to write to you occasionally as a sort of roving correspondent. If only I had fulfilled my offer in those first exciting weeks in this country, how much easier my task would have been! A few rapid notes of the impact which this new scene made upon my untravelled eye, some sweeping generalisations about English building—the easy claptrap of a more or less literate journeyman-architect—and the conscience, if unwary, would be satisfied.

Now, I'll keep to the things which allow of more accurate description in mere words, to thoughts and trends which have emerged from work over here.

I've been working now for about ten months with a small group of people under Berthold Lubetkin on the design of a New Town in County Durham. Briefly the job is to house thirty thousand people—about the population of Palmerston North—on an oasis of farmland roughly a mile square in the centre of a circle of collieries.

To the Chief Architect-Planner, Lubetkin, the main fact is that here is a piece of land of limited dimension and extremely marked character and the job is to put a town on it. At the moment there are about five farmhouses, one very minor road, a pumping station, and the hallowed but empty site of an ancient village on it.

It is a beautiful piece of land, contained in its low hill ridges and rounded like the palm of a hand. “A pity to build on it,” is the usual bald comment. This comes mostly from local people who may justly claim, as the victims of a century of bad building, a little cynicism as regards the development of land. To them this usually means destruction, and one can only agree in the face of such remarks that to build the usual town on such a site would certainly be nothing short of rape.

But it doesn't follow that this is inevitable. It has not always been so. Having once, from its southern approaches, seen Durham City rising serene in its landscape, one can still believe that a town may be built to grace its setting. For if, in the “outspread hand,” which I have called the site of Peterlee, there is placed a town as compact and precise as Durham, nothing of the present quality of the scene will be lost and a further quality—the contrast of rural and urban forms—will be added.

This is the broad significance of Peterlee as a general architectural event—but in its narrower technical significance this new town seems to mark the end of a conflict within town planning itself. The nature of this conflict is clear enough if the opposing parties are named as, on the one hand, the school which produced the standard written works on the “Art of Town Planning” some thirty years ago, and, on the other, the immensely painstaking and methodical type of present day planner who cares for anything but the “Art of Town Planning,” but is capable of producing three volumes on the anatomy of a given slum at the drop of a hat.

So it seems ironical that when the zealots for the Beautiful New City are dead and their dream, plans embalmed in their original sepia wash, the job they yearned to do has fallen into the hands of a race of planners who prefer to be called urban morphologists and shy like startled ponies at the word “beauty.” Sound training in economics, politics, sanitation and engineering has fitted them to smell out a slum in the best regulated communities. Nothing is more thrilling to them than a thoroughly bad old town lined up on the surgical table.

The danger in this state of affairs is obvious. While the doodlings of a late Victorian academic would hardly yield a town equal to present day conditions, there is now the inverse danger that our own performances may fall just as far short on the other side. Out of the mountain of technical reports, working data and appendices to Acts which “planning” has produced during its recent boom period, may emerge a rather ill-balanced mouse of a town.

This doctrinaire town would have its ring road and its by-pass, it would dispose itself in sequestered, green belted neighbourhoods, each neighbourhood having a calculated number of shops and playing fields, a pub, a nursery school and one and a half churches or whatever the statistics say. In the geometric focus of all these curvaceous bundles of hygienic homes would lie the Town Centre, with its various parts as apparent as on a new born baby. But carefully hidden out of sight would lie the industries, and carefully segregated from everyone the traffic and the drains would no doubt function perfectly, in all a sanitary, economic and eminently practical desert.

At Peterlee I have seen enough of Lubetkin's approach to believe that this will not happen. His preoccupation with formal values has made certain that pure doctrine and data are kept in their place as mere references and working checks.

His attention has been wholly concentrated on the ultimate form of the town, and initially on the prime mover to that end—the nature and shape of the site. The slopes and surrounding crest lines, its incidental bumps and hollows, and the influence of one particular feature—an enormous tree-lined ravine penetrating the site from the south—have all been the subject of minute study.

One result of this is a determination that the physical extent of the town should be decided, completely if possible, by the visual limits imposed by the crest lines. The whole subject of population density is being re-explored in this light. The town is regarded as an essential visual unit from the start and no sprawling perimeter is welcome. Again, once the town is accepted as a unity there seems no reason to believe that its subdivision into neighbourhoods of (say) 10,000 people would improve it, socially or functionally. By the same argument there is no final reason why everything except the domestic functions of eating and sleeping should take place at the centre of the town. Some of its architectural gestures in the way of public buildings may usefully be dispersed to inject formal contrast and social activity into the residential areas around it. Present day text-book planning on the other hand would insulate them at all costs from such forms of life.

Even, it seems, selected industries could with care be admitted into these hallowed areas to intensify and vitalize the deadly dormitory. And for the same reason it is hoped to keep densities equally high over the entire residential area and avoid the usual “tailing-off” in the outer parts.

However, this is merely raising questions about “established principle.” It is page 84 yet too early to see how many of those principles will be reversed in the final Master Plan. One thing is however already clear, that after thirty years or so of rest from self-conscious town-planning for purely formal ends, there seems in Peterlee to be some hope of a fusion of that not unworthy ambition with the stern realism of the slum clearer and super-highway expert.

Peterlee will, it is hoped, function well and be hygienic as a result of the latter's investigations, but it may also recognize once more that anything from a building to a town is first and last a creature of the human brain, and as such inherits all the potentialities of beauty and ugliness which that parenthood implies.

Sir: I agree with what Mr McCormick says in his review of “Here and Now” in your last issue. The magazine does embody prodigious effort, intending to add a ventilating system to the defective machinery of New Zealand democracy; in arrangement and contents it is designed for a large and heterogeneous public. He quite rightly doubts whether the editors have yet succeeded in their design; he quite rightly calls his own review irresponsible.

Where he failed in his review was in what he left unsaid. According to him, “Here and Now” offered a choice for prime minister between a calculating humbug and a political cretin. But in actual fact was the choice so very different? Was Mr Fraser in recent years straightforward and disinterested in his methods? Is Mr Holland a wise and capable political leader?

Mr McCormick knows better, and the question arises how far he and his ilk are responsible for the sorry level to which New Zealand's standards of political morality have declined.

Mr McCormick has a very clear head. He would make an excellent editor for “Here and Now,” and is very welcome to the job, as he knows. Few men are more aware than he of the cumulative effect that independent magazines can have in focussing the activities of writers on social questions (vide his centennial survey “Letters and Art in New Zealand,” pp. 170 et seq.).

Since the strangulation of “Tomorrow” ten years ago we have had no broadly circulating critical press in New Zealand. “John Lee's Weekly” and “The People's Voice” have spoken out plainly and valuably on occasion, but their audience and appeal are clearly limited. “Here and Now” is an attempt to fill the gap; to provide a wide open forum, an opportunity for our trained thinkers, upon whom there rests a strong responsibility to keep a critical eye on our social and political life.

“I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary…,” John Milton would say again if he had known New Zealand's literary activity these last ten years. The founders of “Here and Now” have, at the cost of very great personal effort, provided a forum in which the average intelligent citizen would gladly see the intellectual giants represented by Mr McCormick do battle with the evils of pomposity, humbug and reaction in public life.

But the boys in the ivory tower are slumbering very nicely thank you. Perhaps only when their wages are cut in half will they descend to the dusty arena, to think and write concretely of the evils of bad government.

Sir: I would like to support B. Sutton-Smith in his disagreement with your editorial “What Is Design?” Are you not in danger of overlooking the fact that the emotional urge to design is not enough? It can only manifest itself artistically with the aid of practical skill. The one is as necessary as the other.

Continued on page 87

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