Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Utopia: Experiments in Perfection

Fabian Hiscock (Department of History, School of Humanities, University of Hertfordshire) reports on Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities Research Institute (SSAHRI) conference, Spirella Building, Letchworth Garden City, 12th November 2015

I attended the “Utopia” as a research student in the History Department looking at early nineteenth century Hertfordshire: not much relationship there with “experiments in perfection”. But it was good to be there. SSAHRI has a remarkable breadth in a single Institute, and part of the fun is exploring some of that breadth. The historians were well represented, certainly, and part of a pretty eclectic mix. And it was with anticipation that we gathered in the notable Spirella Building (an education in itself), took tea (and coffee), and sat back. 

Alan Powers' Keynote, Spirella Ballroom. Photo by Grace Lees-Maffei.
The keynote address was by Professor Alan Powers. He raised the age-old question, now of course of increasing relevance: “Where are the people to go?” New towns were (are) planned on the basis that the old ones have failed, and he offered Milton Keynes as an example: but then reminded us that one can’t really have a night out in Milton Keynes (I’ve never tried, but we got the point – you don’t build a “style” just by erecting buildings). He drew on the demolition of Manchester and London terraces, and of the tower blocks that followed them, the rise of smaller and more open developments. There is no agreement on which is better, but there is a constant striving towards improvment by the well-meaning.

Advertising Welwyn Garden City. Photo by Grace Lees-Maffei.
It was at this point that I realised that a refresher on the original Utopia by Thomas More (1512) would have been handy: where did the term come from that we were discussing, and what did it actually mean? But most of those present will have known well enough. With Alan Powers we were in the “pop” era of the 60s and 70s, and one of the themes that he offered was the (wholly imaginary) outline of 'Civilia', drawn by 'Ivor de Wolfe' on the remains of Judkins Quarry near Bedworth, Nuneaton. This 1960s and 70s resistance to the perceived refusal of architecture to consider the needs of the people reflected the view that 'the city had become too big, and without thought for the people who live in it.' De Wolfe also offered the 'Italian Townscape' as a desirable setting for urban life, and Powers took us through both that and the utterly contrasting 'Potteries Thinkbelt' concept of Cedric Price.

Cedric Price, Potteries Thinkbelt as a peripatetic educational model. Photo by Katrina Navickas.
And so we came to the Garden City. It was no coincidence that we were in Letchworth Garden City, a concept of Ebenezer Howard made real in 1903. Its layout consciously provided the workplaces vital to sustainable growth outside the inhabited centre and the city was walkable for all. The role of social visionaries, following John Ruskin and William Morris, in promoting the whole concept of the Garden City to the point of realising ‘Utopia’, (with greater or lesser success) was acknowledged. David Ames of Letchworth Heritage Foundation followed up on Garden City Utopias and Letchworth in particular. 

Planning the first Garden Cities. Photo by Grace Lees-Maffei.

We went on to look at the current work of architects, planners and designers on both micro and macro scales. Dr Daniel Marques Sampaio of the School of Creative Arts revealed the story of Canary Wharf and the impact of post-1980 capitalism on the original concept for redeveloping the declining docklands and Greenwich opposite. We heard an analysis by Dr Pual Cureton (Creative Arts) of the use of space in Welwyn using a GIS tool, which emphasised to me the sheer richness of the techniques now available. We were given a strong reminder by Dr Susan Parham of the Centre for Sustainable Communities of the importance of food production and supply in the success of any settlement, especially when trying to achieve ‘Utopia’, Finally, we had a highly personal account by Dr Ian Waites, of the University of Lincoln, of his early experiences when his family moved from a Gainsborough terrace to a new council estate just outside; ‘Utopia’ depends on the viewpoint of the observer, and if you’re living ‘the concept’ you don’t necessarily share the jaundiced view of the commentator.

Dr Susan Parham, Centre for Sustainable Communities, University of Hertfordshire. Photographs by Grace Lees-Maffei.

We then got to the concepts, in a session entitled ‘Health, place, work, gender and beyond’. I’d never heard of Peter Kropotkin, a contemporary of Lenin, but his influence on the development of Letchworth was presented by Dr Pat Simpson (Creative Arts). Dr Steve Shelley of Hertfordshire Business School took us to Eigg in the Inner Hebrides, via the zero-carbon working environment, giving us a reminder along the way that there is no consensus on a ‘perfect way of living’. This fact was reinforced by Dr Marta Rabikowska (Creative Arts) in her examination of the huge diversity in many communities and the potential of 'participatory arts' in building community relations in a context far removed from the ‘Garden City, a quite different model of Utopia. She was talking about (and showing a film from) Plumstead, and she brought a copy of the book Utopia, signed by members of the Utopia Society, which she invited us to sign also to signify commitment at least to the concept.

Title woodcut for Utopia written by Thomas More. Wikipedia: Public Domain.

Dr Chamu Kuppuswamy (Law School) introduced the very challenging concept of “the Common Heritage of Mankind”, of which the ocean floor is the classic example as captured by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Now it happens that I spent a lot of my career on or in the ocean, but I hadn’t recognised UNCLOS in this context: but if we recognise the concept (which intuitively we probably do), how do we preserve the Common Heritage? And what, indeed, does it require us to include?

Rick Guidice's Utopian illustrations for NASA, in a presentation by Dr Neil Maycroft. Photo by Katrina Navickas.

The wholly-imaginary Utopia’ featured also, or, more exactly, the ‘dystopia’ of the Dune science fiction series by Frank Herbert, in a talk by Alex Anthony-Lewczuk of the University of Lincoln while his colleague from Lincoln, Dr Neil Maycroft, delivered the amusingly-titled ‘Never mind my jet-pack, where’s my four-legged chicken?’ which reviewed a number of visions of the future from the past, and examined the role of design and technology in envisioning and materialising Utopia. The discussion that followed was as wide ranging in scope as the day had been, and tended to confirm the inevitable conclusion: there is no consensus on what constitutes Utopia, only that it can remains a concept, one to be striven for, but not to be achieved.

Prof Carenza Lewis. Photo by Katrina Navickas.

In the closing keynote presentation, ‘Brave new world or toil and trouble? The long view of new towns’, Professor Carenza Lewis suggests that New Towns can be best understood by recognising that they are not, in fact, new.  She drew parallels between New Town developments and features common to earlier placemaking activities. Lewis pointed out that while New Towns care very carefully planned for specific purposes, spontaneous developments can often be successful too, although less secure. New Towns 'materialise the Zeitgeist', she suggested, in their preoccupation with issues such as defence, nation building, feudalism and capitalism.  

Delegates at Utopia: Experiments in Perfection. Photo by Katrina Navickas.
Was it worthwhile? For me, as a newcomer in the field, ‘Yes, absolutely’. The day provided me with an opportunity to gain insight into what goes on in our Institute and indeed our University, and the University of Lincoln. Some of the material presented was highly specialist, some highly technical, and some - to me, at least - impenetrable. But I’d be very surprised if anyone came away with nothing new. And as it happens, I learned a great deal more than that…

Fabian Hiscock, Department of History, School of Humanities, University of Hertfordshire.

Lighting, Spirella Ballroom. Photo by Grace Lees-Maffei.

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