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Stopping Traffic

Osbert Lancaster

“Traffic Modernism” means European architecture is stuck in a cul-de-sac

One hundred years ago, traumatised by war, fleeing the heavy burdens of the past and bedazzled by the opportunities of the new, European architects made a mistake of historic proportions.

You can hardly blame them. All around were smoke-begrimed cities, “seared with trade” and smeared with the filth of the age of coal. Smog hid the sun. Children coughed up the filth of sitting room fires or city-centre coal power stations. Thousands were ill-housed after the deprivations of World War I. Nor were modernism’s high priests well men. Like many in their generation, both Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe probably had post-traumatic stress disorder after military service in the German army. Gropius’s war was particularly unpleasant. He was seriously wounded and survived a plane flight in which the pilot was shot dead. Perhaps it is no surprise that when he came to design his own home 20 years later, he essentially designed a concrete pillbox on a hill with a commanding field of fire “complete with flat roof, hidden door and slit windows, the better to shoot from.” His personal office had a front window with a sill more than four feet off the floor. Like a trench, no one could see in and you could only see out when standing up.

Similarly, according to recent studies Le Corbusier was probably autistic. Biographers and psychiatrists have chronicled his impaired social communications, repetitive behaviours, abnormal fixations and apparent absence of interest in others and concluded: “His fervent faith in his own way of seeing blinded him to the wish of people to retain what they most cherish (including traditional buildings) in their everyday lives.” This matters because, as the American architect Ann Sussman has argued, people with autistic spectrum disorder “often struggle not only with social relations but with exhausting visual overload referred to as hyper-arousal.” He literally could not process or appreciate the rich diversity of facades and detail in historic streets. Most people find them pleasing, conducive to walking, talking, relaxing. He could not. “The street,” he wrote, “wears us out; it is altogether disgusting. Why, then, does it still exist?”

Too many Europeans lead lives polluted by ugliness or in which it is more difficult than it should be to lead happy, meaningful and connected lives as part of a community.

Le Corbusier and Gropius built little. Mies van der Rohe is only known for a handful of buildings. That they are no historic curiosity, a forgotten cul-de-sac in the complex diversity of global architecture, is due to the fact they were in the right place at the right time. In parallel with their rejection of all lived experience came two seismic technological changes. Firstly, it became possible to build huge featureless constructions very cheaply in a way that had simply not been technically possible before. The world’s first iron-framed building, Ditherington Flax Mill - “the grandfather of skyscrapers” - is an object of beauty. What amounts to a metal shed - whether Amazon processing plant or high architecture - is not.

We also invented the motor car and then, hypnotised by the joy of driving on empty 1930s roads, became fundamentally confused about the role that cars should play in towns and inner cities. Cars are great at getting from town to town but not for moving within them. The gospel of “traffic modernism” sought to replace urban streets and squares with flyovers, walkways and city centre motorways. However, it is hard to make for liveable neighbourhoods where people know and interact meaningfully with their fellow citizens if there are too many metal boxes hurtling past at fifty miles per hour. Several studies have shown that the more traffic on a street the fewer neighbours we know. And the air is filthy.

The consequence on what we have built for most of a century has been catastrophic. Houses as machines not homes. Streetscape as austere simplicity not a complex or ornamented pattern of walkability and meaning. “Outside” as an unenclosed space to nourish our solitude not a square or piazza in which to engage, meet and trade.

Mid-century functionality - the conception of a house as “une machine-à-habiter” as Osbert Lancaster put it - presupposes a barrenness of spirit to which, despite every indication of its ultimate achievement, we have not yet quite attained. If the virus of “traffic modernism” started in Europe, it reached its nadir in America. Happily, the cure found its first physical expression in the US as well. Thirty years ago some brave thinkers started dreaming of a better way to create communities and argued for what they termed ‘new urbanism’, a network of coherent, walkable blocks, plots and streets in which human needs for shelter, work, education and play could be seamlessly mingled. The first “new urbanist” development was the new town of Seaside in Florida. It has beautiful walkable streets in vernacular American architecture. Pedestrians are prioritised over cars. It was initially widely derided but people love it so much that an apparent architectural eccentricity has turned into a runaway commercial success. Lots sold for $15,000 in 1982. Recently, a one-bedroom cottage sold for $1.5m. In fact, so great are Seaside prices that the development is now criticised for a lack of diversity which is due to its success and rarity. Seaside’s founders took a long-term approach and have observed that they have done “much better overall than if we had sold the land earlier.”

Java Island in Holland in which the purchasers of narrow plots were able to create their own designs within careful constraints of height, width and material. The result is excellent – like someone speaking a language you know in a strange accent.

Money talks and Seaside’s unarguable success has led to many imitations across America; beautiful walkable new towns which feel very much like beautiful walkable old towns. What chance of the revolution coming home to Europe?

A glance at most architectural criticism is not hopeful. It is inward-looking, disinterested in public opinion and typified by an incongruous interest in both elitist design and hard left-wing politics. However, on the ground the signs are gently more reassuring. Across Europe a growing number of local councils, landowners and architects are striving to create new neighbourhoods or manage existing towns so as to rediscover the ancient complexity of urban lives lived with a jumble of homes, offices, shops and schools muddled up into agreeable and walkable neighbourhoods rather than being zoned miles apart. Capital cities like Copenhagen, Paris or Ljubljana and seemingly every city in Holland have been revolutionising how people get about with streets increasingly prioritised for bicycles or trams. And the evidence is clear. People are healthier and happier in such places.

But it’s not just a question of managing the beautiful streets of Amsterdam or the Île-de-France. What new settlements are we building? A growing number of developers and designers are risking the ignominy of their peers and creating traditional networks of streets and squares with front doors, symmetry, colour, variety in a pattern, conventional urban blocks and the coherent complexity of ornament and windows which, in every poll or pricing study, people prefer. A few of these are “modernist” in their conceit. The best is Java Island in Holland in which the purchasers of narrow plots were able to create their own designs within careful constraints of height, width and material. The result is excellent – like someone speaking a language you know in a strange accent.

Other developments that move from being “housing estates” full of “units” to becoming real places with homes are in what might be termed “polite modern vernacular” with similar forms and patterns to historic streets though simpler and less ornamented. The best of these, by far, is Roussillon Park in Chichester by Ben Pentreath. So popular was it that nearby housing developments delayed sales until Roussillon Park’s sales were complete. They could not compete.

There are smaller similar creations of houses and blocks in “polite modern vernacular” in Marmalade Lane in Cambridge and Goldsmith Street in Norwich. Goldsmith Street, particularly, despite being nothing more than a street with front doors and small front gardens, has proved very popular with British Architects who awarded it their 2019 Stirling Prize. (It was the street’s status as council housing built to high energy efficiency that most appealed.)

New urban developments which engage even more actively with vernacular traditions of architecture are popular with the public across Europe. Near Paris, some landowners have realised that they can make far more money by building traditional neighbourhoods not distended suburbia or dystopian banlieues. Le Plessis-Robinson and Val d’Europe are attractive networks of streets and squares largely in the French classical vernacular with a major role played by non-French architects such as the Italian Pier Carlo Bontempi, American firms and the London-based architects Alireza Sagharchi and Demetri Porphyrios. One of the developers is Disney, experts at understanding what people like and owners of the neighbouring Disneyland Paris - a fact which has abetted architectural criticism of such aesthetic vulgarities. One critic called it “the stupidest project of the year.” The public does not agree.

Money talks and Seaside’s unarguable success has led to many imitations across America; beautiful walkable new towns which feel very much like beautiful walkable old towns. What chance of the revolution coming home to Europe?

The best new urban extension in Holland is Brandevoort. The sales values of this traditional Dutch vernacular development of tall high terraced streets and canals has been extensively studied by academics. Carefully controlling for other factors, houses in Brandevoort sell at a 15 per cent premium.

Jakriborg in southern Sweden is an intricate web of alleys, streets and small squares with whimsy, colour and detail. Its small size seems to have made life hard for small businesses but it has real pride. Most new housing developments are so ashamed of themselves that they hide from the landscape. Not Jakriborg.

Other similar developments include Heulebrug in Belgium, Borgo Città Nuova in Italy, Pont Royal, Hardelot and Port Grimaud in France and both Poundbury and Nansledan in England – these last two both led by the Prince of Wales. In Germany the focus has been on trying to mend some of the enormous harm done to German cities in World War II. It has been an, at times, difficult debate with shades of German history unpleasantly infecting the discussion. Nevertheless, firms such as Patzschke & Partners have managed to do lovely work gently mending the streets destroyed by Allied bombs or by ill-conceived post-war construction.

To widespread popular acclaim there have been major successes in Berlin, Frankfurt, Potsdam and Dresden in recent years as streets, churches and squares begin, at last, to be reconstructed. The rebirth of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, arguably the finest baroque building north of the Alps, was funded by thousands of individual donors and is inspiring.

Too many Europeans lead lives polluted by ugliness or in which it is more difficult than it should be to lead happy, meaningful and connected lives as part of a community. There are many reasons for this. But one of them is that we have simply stopped creating the sorts of buildings and walkable places which are good for our bodies and good for our souls. That should change.