Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The British Garden City Movement: Hampstead Garden Suburb

When trying to describe a specifically British type of urban design, some people fall into the error of recommending the British Garden City Movement justifying their argument on the reason that suburbia, they say,  is basically what British people want. The British Garden City Movement was one of the most remarkable urban design movements this country has ever produced. But it had nothing whatsoever to do with suburbia.

In order to justify that statement, I have chosen to look at an example of the Garden City Movement from 1909, Hampstead Garden Suburb. It is true that the typology of the house with garden is still relevant. However, I would argue that there at least three basic ideas that distinguish a Garden City from conventional suburbia:

Firstly, although both contain houses with gardens, A Garden City will also contain places for work, education, worship, shopping etc. In short, although a Garden City will try to create quieter, residential areas, it will also try to embrace the principle of mixed-use. It is worth remembering that the Garden City movement took place at time before mass-car ownership ( although it did take place during the age of the railways; all of the original garden cities have railway stations at the centre i.e. Letchworth, Welwyn, Hampstead and Bedford Park.) Modern development which includes out-of-town shopping centres plus suburbia cannot be considered an equivalent because a genuine garden city would contain shops within walking distances of residential buildings.

Secondly, in order to maintain a balance between built-up space and green space, a balance vital for health  and happiness,  a Garden City can only be allowed to reach a certain size, at which point a new Garden City must be started elsewhere. The ideal size  is based on a module of a neighbourhood or pedestrian-shed. One such module is a village really; how many such modules can be allowed to accumulate before a new city must be founded? Ebenezaar Howard  considered that the population of a garden city should be 32,000. According to the Rogers-led Urban Task Force the number of people necessary to support a hub of local services is 7500. So according to Ebenezar Howard’s approach, a garden city will contain about 4 neighbourhoods or pedestrian sheds. The illustrations to “Garden Cities of tomorrow”  don’t seem to bear this out but these  were only meant to be diagramatic.

The third principle is green belts, which define the edge of the city, maintaining a proper relationship between town and country. Strong planning controls would be necessary to prevent people building on them. Ebenezer Howard’s original proposals  allowed various activities on the green belt such as convalescent homes and agriculture; he envisaged them as growing their own food. A public transport infrastructure was provided though these were the days before mass car ownership and its attendant congestion had become a real problem.

This vision was realised at Hampstead Garden Suburb and indeed a host of other lessons can be drawn from this example as well. If one was going to learn lessons from this, one might as well be honest and admit that the some of the original principals have  been eradicated. Features such as a green belt and finite size were part of the original design but  are no longer there. The relentless growth of London meant this satellite was absorbed into Greater London.

One key  quality has been conspicuously retained, that of a mixed-use neighbourhood. Within a walkable-scaled area you will find housing, shopping, education and places of worship. What other qualities have been achieved? As a way of answering that question, perhaps the best method would be to walk the reader through a sequence of spaces, starting with what was conceived as the gateway to the entire project, the following buildings at the North of the site, at the junction of Finchley Road and Bridge Lane/ Temple Fortune Lane.

One of the eternal rules of good urban design seems to be that density can be increased where there is access to good public transport. Strangely, this rule is broken here. The high density part of the development is placed at the opposite end to that where the tube station is, Golders Green tube station.  These buildings are consciously modelled on medieval examples but can be seen as exemplars of what is now taken as a commonplace of good urban design; mixed-use. These buildings contain shops at ground floor and flats above. One might contrast this with single storey shopping buildings, without a different use above, which might be taken as a leitmotiv of bad urban design. As well as a failure to adopt the mixed-use approach, another fault of this type of building is the lack of height and hence a failure to create a sense of enclosure in the external spaces.

Several types of external space have been created. The first might be taken as a busy road with activities for pedestrians at the bases of the buildings.

Quieter residential streets have been created.

One of the great types of space created in this example of the Garden City Movement, and indeed in most of them is the green set in the close. Here they vary:

From closes surrounded by large detached houses.

To those enclosed by smaller, it would seem terraced houses.

This type of housing is also found at the Central Square which forms the centre of the whole community. 

The main public  buildings here  are by Lutyens. Whilst many agree that neighbourhoods need a centre, opinions differ as to what this should consist of. Whilst some would like to see all types of communal buildings at the neighbourhood centre, others take a  different view. Some take the view that whilst communal buildings such as schools should be placed at the centre, shops should be placed on  arterial road on the neighbourhood periphery, where they can attract passing traffic. This does seem to be the approach taken at Hampstead where Henrietta Barnet, the client for the whole project,  took many of the strategic decisions. With true Victorian zeal, believed that alcoholic drinks were a form of wickedness. She would not allow pubs or even shops around the main town square. The result is  a square occupied by two churches and the Henrietta Barnett School for Girls.

This has recently been subject to an interesting extension by  Hopkins Architects.

Streets are aligned to frame the views of the main public buildings

Hampstead garden Suburb has lost its character as a village separate from London though part of its green belt was preserved as an extension to Hampstead Heath. It remains as  a good example of a neighbourhood. I would argue the generic neighbourhood has four qualities: mixed-use, pedestrian scale, access to public transport and public spaces of real quality. Hampstead Garden Suburb has these in spades.

( Thanks to HGS Trust for the map of Hampstead Garden Suburb and Simon Kennedy, architecturalphotographer, for the photo of the extension to Henrietta Barnett School © Simon Kennedy 2011).


Anonymous said...

Any thoughts on the lessons to be learned from the New Towns? They didn't all look like garden cities but they have something about them. Interesting that there does not appear to be any current political appetite to build whole new towns in that way. PS Jonathan Meades on Letchworth Garden City is worth watching.

Kieran Gallagher said...

Well, the New Towns had much I common with the Garden City Movement. In my piece on Hampstead I state that the Garden City Movement was based on three principles and that a neighbourhood has four qualities. Keeping this in mind, the rule of three plus four, I would argue the following.
The New Towns actually produced a style of architecture very different to the Garden City Movement but the principles of urban planning were basically the same.
The two most important principles of the Garden City Movement were limiting a city’s size and green belts. These were direct inspirations for the New Town Movement. The authorship of the new Town Movement could be ascribed to several people but Patrick Abercrombie could probably be nominated as the prime instigator. He produced a Greater London Plan ( 1944). This influential document basically launched the New Town Movement. The idea of a green belt around London went hand in hand with the idea of eight satellite town where growth would be directed towards.
The early designs for new Towns were in some ways more sustainable than the designs which were actually built. Milton Keynes was envisioned to be supplied with a tram system/ monorail. There was to be a rail stop in each neighbourhood. Each neighbourhood was envisioned as a village, sort of like Hampstead Garden Suburb. Instead they got a grid road system to enclose the polycentric city.

The best form of retrospective urban design we might pursue would be converting out-of-town shopping centres into mixed-use villages.
I may write a few postings on the New Towns if people show enough interest.