Cambridge has a unique green belt; unique in that it is
actually embedded within the fabric of the city. It is possible ( well almost)
to walk in a circular route through the city centre without straying from green
The sequence of spaces starts at the Fen’s Causeway which
leads onto “The Backs”.
“The Backs” follow the route of the river Cam.
If you wish to vary this route, you can occasionally venture into the city of Cambridge itself
encountering streetscape of incredibly high quality.
The architecture and its detailing is similarly astounding.
View from the Avenue, Trinity College.
St Giles Church at the intersection of Castle Street and
Houses on Short Street.
Unlike Oxford, Cambridge’sscience park is not separated from the city by a strategic “green break”but is located on the north of the city,
within the boundary of the ring road.
It is perhaps for this reason thata proposed satellite town, Northstowe, will
be located five miles to the north-westof Cambridge on a site between the villages
of Oakington and Longstanton. This development is master-planned by Arups and
it will be exciting to see how it turns out.
The landscapes in and around Oxford provide, for me, ample
foodfor thought regarding approaches to
urban design. Take this example, a view from Blenheim Palace, just north of
Oxford. This naturalistic landscape has virtually nothing natural about it and was
created to the designs of Capability Brown. A contrived landscape like this
evokes many picturesque associations. When I see the island on the lake with
its tallCyprus trees , like many I
imagine, I am reminded of the paintingThe Isle of the Dead by Arnold Brocklin. A late Romantic like Arnold Bocklin was simply
referring back to the picturesque tradition, a tradition which predates
Capability Brown himself.
Landscapes like this and similar landscapes like Stowe are
often taken as the pinnacles of British landscape design. Personally, however,
I would rather be in Oxford itself. Surely a city like this provides the
ultimate example ofa garden city, a
city where landscape has been married to architecture to produce perhaps the
most delightful, liveable city in the UK.
The Botanic Gardens, the grounds of Christ Church College,
Port Meadows, the University Parks together with ten of the college gardens are
on the national list of historic parks and gardens. In all, there are 417
gardens and parkswithin the boundary of
the City of Oxford which are usually accessible to the public. 52% of the land
within the city is green land.
As you move through the fabric of Oxford, you become aware
of what seems like a basically urban spectacle.
Only when you get closer to buildings do you become aware of
another dimension. Vistas open out to reveal extraordinary natural landscaping
such as the grounds of Trinity College.
A landscape replete with routes and incidents.
Worcester College incorporates an orchard within its
Cars are almost entirely banned from the centre of Oxford.
This allows streets to be appropriated in the summer for cafes. Park and ride
facilities allow motorists to park at the edge of the city and take public
transport into the centre.
Bike lanes have been provided throughout the city.
The city’s name refers to its origins as a fording place on
a river. The city is sited around the confluence of two rivers, The river
Isis(Thames)and Cherwell. These, together with the Oxford
canal have created ample opportunity to create linear parks.
The Oxford canal on the right with the Isis (Thames) to the left.
The river Cherwell resembles an Indian river in that it
seems to have two river beds. Its flood plain creates a linear park in the
centre of the city.
Privacy is allowed in the college grounds by the simple
device of the railing. This allows views in but prevents straying members of
the public wandering in.
of privacy is created by the simple device of the wall used to enclose the
Large areas of green land has been preserved quite close to
the city centre.A good example of this
would be Christchurch Meadows.
Oxford’s Science Park can be found on the edge of the city.
Its presence is signified by a large black building visible from the A4074. Much
of its layout follows the familiar pavilions-in-the-park type theme.Although such developments have become ubiquitous in Britain in recent
decades, the landscape strategy clearly attempts to respond to the specific as
opposed to generic qualities of the site. Many of the buildings are orientated
towards Littlemore Brook which is provided with a riverside walk.
Most the Science Park’sstreets aredevoid of any
Extraordinary resources have been lavished in
landscapingcar parking spaces.
Although the development has been provided with gymnasium
plus café it is doubtful whether this can be really considered to be a
There has been much discussion over the appropriate form the
next wave of British urban development should take. An approach which I think
has much potential is that of the retrofit. A business park such as this could be
seen as the nucleus of new neighbourhoods as opposed to mono-functional zones.
The thinking behind the business park presumably is that the tranquility necessary
for work is only possible in buildings separate from city centres, surrounded
by countryside. The example of Oxford city centre shows that very private
activities such as teaching facilities, libraries and halls of residence can be
successfully incorporated into a city centre.
An intellectual like Paul Virilio has often argued that settlement
patterns are often determined by transportation patterns. The car-based
convenience of the business park can be contrasted with the transport strategy
of a historic city such asOxford where
visitors usually use park and ridefacilities, leaving their cars on the
outskirts of the city to make their journey into the city centre by bus. The challenge
to urban designersis to produce the
urban environments of the future where the environment is of such high quality that
people will actually be prepared to give up their cars or at least accept a
greatly reduced role for them. Perhaps the business people of the future will
adopt the practice of Oxford students who often cycle to work.
The expansion of a city like Oxford might provide an ideal site
for growth to solve Britain’shousing
shortage. A site such as Oxford Science park could havehousing developments built next to them together with some
retrofitting of the office buildings into more mixed-use functions.
Another strategic criteria for town expansion is the issue
of city size.The Garden City and New Town Movements always proposed that cities
should only be allowed to reach a certain size and that somewhere between
33,000 to 200,000 was the optimum size for a city. Obviously Oxford would fulfil
this criteria. The site is several miles from the city centre, separated by
many “green breaks”.
Lancelot ”Capability”Brown acquired
his nickname through his habit of telling his clients that their sites had great “capabilities.” Surely a site like
Oxford Science Park has the capabilityto provide a starting point for a
mixed-use expansion of Oxford.
( Thanks to Google for aerial view of river Cherwell)
If you haven’t seen this charming little film by the Central
Office of Information on the British Government’s 1948 New Town strategy then
you should have.
If Britain is to experience a wave of New Towns then where
should they be built? Should they be built on virgin green land, retrofitted to
existing low-density sprawl or built on existing brownfield sites? The second two options are worthy of serious
consideration. The wave of New Towns built after the War were not always built
on entirely new green sites but were sometimes expansions of existing towns.
Basingstoke was such a town. The ill-fated Eco Towns were proposed on land which
was often brownfield former- military sites.
I wonder when was the last time the British Government made
an animated film explaining its urban design policies?
If I keep adding posts dealing with The Garden City Movement
I fearI will start repeating myself at
least as far as the writing goes. Nevertheless even a generic form can allow
for fascinating, infinite variations, providing lessons which are
eternally relevant. For this reason I am posting a piece on Bournville,
Birmingham’s great example of The Garden City Movement. This can be seen as a
photo essay with perhaps similar postings to come.
Typical semi-detached housing
Bournville was created by George and RichardCadbury who wished to relocate their chocolate factory
from a cramped, city centre site to a location more amenable to expansion. They
chose a site four miles from the centre of Birmingham well connected by the new
railways and canals, close by the Bourn Brook.
The original move took place in 1879. In 1893, 120 acres of
land was purchased to create a model village. By 1900, 313 cottages and houses
had been built, at which stage ownership passed to the Bournville Village Trust.
Shops with other uses above by the village green
Bournville Rest House
Bournville Primary School
Bournville Center for Visual Arts
A factor of urban design which must always be considered in,
of course, the economics of a creation
of aproposal. We live in an age of
small government whose most overriding concern often seems to be shifting financial responsibility away from
the public to the private. It is heartening to see a business-led development
of such high quality. Businesses should take note that there are a huge number
of benefits entailed when a development like this is undertaken. Firstly,
naming a town after a company’s product generates a massive amount of favourable
publicity for a company. Why, indeed, should the provision of things such as
affordable housing and good schools be left to the government? Businesses with
access to good financial resources should realise that provision for staff goes
way beyond mere wages. Businesses which find it difficult to recruit
high-quality staff could look at Bournville and see what is being offered
here. I hesitate to use a word as repellent
as “lifestyle” and would rather focus on essential matters such as affordable
housing and good schools.
Cadbury Factory with cricket pitch in the foreground
I think it clear that my photos convey what a remarkable
achievement Bournville is. It has, as I never tire of saying, the four
qualities that really make a neighbourhood; access to public transport, a
walkable scale, a mixture of uses and public spaces of real quality.
your divine intelligence and will, Imperator Caesar, were engaged in acquiring
the right to command the world,…..I hardly dared , in view of your serious
employments, to publish my writings and long considered ideas on architecture,
for fear of subjecting myself to your displeasure by an unseasonable
interruption……I began to write this work for you, because I saw that you have
built and are now building extensively, and that in future also you will take
care that our public and private buildings shall be worthy to go down to
posterity by the side of your other splendid achievements. I have drawn up
definite rules to enable you, by observing them, to have personal knowledge of
the quality both of existing buildings and of those which are yet to be
constructed. For in the following books I have disclosed all the principles of
The Ten Books on Architecture: Vitruvius (80-15 BC)
The Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius, the only text on the subject to
have come down to us from ancient Greece and Rome, provides not only a manual
of Classical architecture but also provides a clear insight into the
nature of the politics of the time. The fact that Vitruvius not only dedicated
the book to Caesar but claimed that his book “disclosed all the principles
of the art” provides, for me, also a
certain amount of humour since today, no architectural theorist would claim to
have settled, finally and irrevocably, all theoretical controversies
surrounding architecture. However, while no two architectural theorists can
agree on everything, one British architectural theorist, namely Prince Charles
seems to have acquired a quite remarkable level of certitude in his own
beliefs. Prince Charles first intervention in the debate on architecture
came in the 1980s. This consisted of a television
program and a book, both entitled “A Vision of Britain.” In the
television program he examined a drawing, illustrating the primitive hut
of classical architectural theory, a group of tree trunks which fortuitously
grew close together with branches strewn across the top forming rafters and
From this he seemed to conclude that the Classical style of
architecture, since it derived from nature was therefore eternally
relevant, seemingly appropriate in all times and places. Since that time he
opened the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment and founded the
village of Poundbury. He has also conducted high-profile interventions into
developments such as the Chelsea Barracks site effectively torpedoing the
design by Rogers Stirk & Harbour, insisting his preferred design “relates
Leaving aside the issue that deliberately scuppering an
architectural project does raise very real constitutional issues, he insists he
does not advocate simply a style such as Classicism. In a speech he gave to The
Royal Institute of British Architects in 2009 he stated: “I am sorry if I somehow left the faintest impression that I wished to
kick-start some kind of “style war” between Classicists and Modernists; or that
I somehow wanted to drag the world back to the eighteenth century.”
His approach, it seems deals not with style but with social issues such as
“bottom-up” planning, architecture which deals with problem solving. The
antithesis of this might be seen as those obsessed with form and Prince Charles
admits classicists can be as guilty of this as modernists. He states:
“I propose to speak of “organic” rather than Classical or Traditional
And this, he partly explains is: “one which is informed by traditional practice, and by traditional attitudes
to the natural world”
But here, he seems to have embraced a rather circular form of reasoning. The idea that Classical architecture, self-evidently relates to nature is
rather more contentious than Prince Charles seems to realise. The subject has
been discussed down the ages, especially during the 18th and 19th
Centuries when the subject of the hypothetical origins of classical
architecture in nature became a huge bone of contention between various
architectural theorists. Leaving aside the views of Vitruvius on the origins of
architecture, the primitive classical hut was basically an idea invented by 18th
Century theorists such as Abbe Laugier in France and William Chambers in
Britain. This led to a more rational conception of classical architecture;
Laugier argued that the five classical orders were based on columns and hence
should only be used as freestanding elements and never in relief. In the
19th Century, British architecture turned towards a revival of the
Gothic. This style had never entirely died out, surviving in unlikely quarters
such as 18th Century notions of the picturesque, keeping
the style alive until its 19th Century
re-flowering. Augustus Welby Pugin, architect of the Houses
of Parliament would only countenance a Gothic rather than Classical
approach. Indeed, he believed Classical architecture was flawed from its very
inception. A primitive timber hut may have been the inspiration behind the
Greek Classical Temple. But these forms cannot simply be transposed from timber
to stone. A key example of this were triglyphs. Triglyphs were the
vertical channels on the frieze of a Classical temple which represented the
ends of timber rafters. The features were considered to be representations
since the frieze of a Classical temple was constructed in stone, not
timber. And hence, this motif, when reproduced in stone, indicated that the
architecture no longer truthfully expressed the structure.
“Grecian architecture is essentially wooden in its construction….never did
its professors possess either sufficient imagination or skill to conceive any
departure from the original type… it is extraordinary that when the Greeks
commenced building in stone the properties of this material did not suggest to
them some different and improved mode of construction.”
The other great instigator of the British Gothic revival was John Ruskin who
shared with Pugin a dislike for Classical architecture. Ruskin wrote the book “The Stones of Venice”,
on the Italian city in the shadow of the
Alps, which he regarded, rather strangely as the birthplace of Gothic
architecture. Here, he
describes the kind of architecture he admires in the great chapter “The Nature
of Gothic.” Ruskin makes much of the savageness of the northern climate and the
quickening of energy which must accompany endeavours, qualities which people of
the north expressed in their architecture. Ruskin was a great advocate of
architecture which “relates to nature,” and firmly believed that in the context
of Northern Europe, Classical architecture was incapable of fulfilling this
Ruskin, evokes the British climate and landscape with its heathland, ice,
snow; language which amounts to a sort of word-painting.
“we should err grievously in refusing either to recognize as an essential
character of the existing architecture of the North, or to admit as a desirable
character in that which it yet may be, this wildness of thought, and roughness
of work; this look of mountain brotherhood between the cathedral and the Alps;”
Evidently, he considered Gothic to be a sort of ' organic' architecture. For
instance, he wrote in ' The Seven Lamps of Architecture' the following on piers
in Gothic cathedrals:
'the resemblance in its shafts and ribs to the external relations of stems and
branches.. . . necessarily induces in the mind of the spectator a sense or
belief of a correspondent internal structure; that is to say, of a fibrous and
continuous strength from the root into the limbs... ' .
Taking Pugin’s argument, that classical architecture was an essentially
dishonest imitation of a timber hut, he argued that there could be no beauty in
architecture without truth. In what is arguably the greatest book ever written
about architecture, "The Seven Lamps of Architecture", Ruskin devotes
an entire chapter to "The Lamp of Truth." Here he eloquently condemns
all forms of untruth in architecture. The first is
"The suggestion of a mode of structure or support other
than the true one:”
However, he also states
"The architect is not bound to exhibit structure; nor are we to complain
of him for concealing it, anymore than we should regret that the outer surfaces
of the human frame conceals much of its anatomy; nevertheless , that
building will generally be the noblest, which to an intelligent eye discovers
the great secrets of its structure, as an animal form does, although from a
careless observer they may be concealed".
He also condemns
"The painting of surfaces to represent some other material than that of
which they actually consist (as in the marbling of wood)"
"The use of cast or machine-made ornament of any kind.”
He argues that
"For it is not the material, but the absence of human labour, which makes
the thing worthless:"
He despised the sort of architecture that was being produced all around him by
the industrial revolution. He was employed as a consultant to the architect
Benjamin Woodward who was designing the Museum of Natural History in
Oxford but resigned when he realised that the building would have some
similarities with a Victorian railway station, with stone and brick used
at the front and iron and glass at the back of the building. The Crystal
Palace, built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 may have had a touch of Regency
elegance about it, reminiscent of Nash, but Ruskin viewed it with similar
disapproval. However, I would argue that, as time went on, Ruskin began
to have to have doubts about his rigid architectural conservatism.
In 1859, Ruskin produced essay on the subject of industrial materials, “ The
Work of Iron, in Nature, Art & Policy.” Iron, Ruskin states, can be seen in
the British landscape in the form of ochrerous stains, that is oxidised iron or
rust on hillsides or in streams. A conclusion that might be reasonably drawn
from this is that metal, used as a material in architecture can relate to
“what do you suppose dyes your tiles of cottage roof? You don’t paint them. It
is nature who puts all that lovely vermilion onto the clay for you; and all
that lovely vermilion is this oxide of iron.”
Whether he thought iron could produce appropriate forms for architecture can be
gauged by the following statements. Architectural writers were so pre-occupied
with the academic approach that there was much controversy over whether
buildings realised with iron could be considered to be architecture at
all. Ruskin, capable of almost schizophrenic views on this subject was
able to write the following views in the 'The Seven Lamps of Architecture';
“True architecture does not admit iron as a constructive material.”
“the time is probably near when a new system of architectural laws will be
developed adapted entirely to metallic construction.”
Here, for the first time, Ruskin acknowledges that new technology may
fundamentally alter approaches to architecture. The French architect,
Viollet-le-Duc, spent most of his career restoring his country’s cathedrals. He
also wrote a number of great theoretical treatises on the nature of materials
and embraced with rather more enthusiasm, the potential new technology
"We hear it maintained in the present day, as it was formerly, that iron
cannot be employed in our edifices without dissembling its use, because this
material is not suited to monumental forms. It would be more consistent with
truth and reason to say that the monumental forms adopted, having resulted from
the use of materials possessing qualities other than those of iron,
cannot be adapted to this latter material. The logical inference is that we
should not continue to employ those forms, but should try to discover others
that harmonise with the properties of iron.”
Here we can sense the stirrings of something new in architecture, detectable
even in Ruskin.
The Gothic revival overturned the Classical tradition of axis and the orders
and celebrated qualities such as asymmetry, originality and “truth to
materials”. Once these ideas had been accepted , the floodgates were
opened to a wave of architectural innovation.
Prince Charles may feel that in the Georgian era, there was a sort of universal
benchmark of quality, below which architecture did not seem to drop and that
modern architecture has not achieved this. In many ways I would agree. However,
there is at least one member of the Royal Family who seems to view with favour
the work of at least one eminent modern architect. The Order of Merit is an
award which is the personal gift of the Queen to bestow. In 1997 she gave the
award to Norman Foster.
A version of this article appeared in The Salisbury Review).