Venice of the East Warwickshire Coalfield

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Steve Gale digs out an old magazine with ideas about wellbeing from 45 years ago!

In 1971, after more than 40 years at the head of the Architectural Review, its Editor – with the baroque name of Hubert de Cronin Hastings (often known as H de C) – delivered an 80-page rant, which took on the failings, as he saw it, of modern town planning. His bottom line was that, for people’s wellbeing, cities are good, suburbs are bad.

The piece was called Civilia: the End of Sub Urban Man and was based on an imagined development of a run-down area immediately Northwest of Nuneaton, where spoil heaps break the skyline and a redundant canal weaves through the disused mine-heads. It is a showcase for modernist ideals, a crystallisation of H de C’s vision of ‘township’ expressed in an almost comical post-Edwardian stream of consciousness.

“…paved courts and alleys that glow in the wild poetry of neon”

Hastings, writing under his pen-name, Ivor de Wolfe, exposed his deeply romantic desire to protect citizens from blandness or ‘the most boring life-style ever dreamt up by man’ – the suburbs permitted and even promoted by town planners. The whole issue is a manifesto for wellbeing at a regional scale, a rage against dreary low rise and wasted space. The centrepiece is the idea of town and country being like sleep and exercise – ‘the harder the exercise, the deeper the sleep’.

Nobody wants to be half awake or half asleep. Nobody should be asked to suffer the horrors of the  suburbs.

Civilia image

Buried in the purple prose is a convincing aspiration for people to have interest, charm, scale and entertainment in their lives. He uses expressions like ‘humanising the void’ and ‘arrangements desirable to social man’ and describes the town as a backdrop for ‘the plotting of special events’. If Civilia had been followed through I have no doubt that it would have proved a stimulating place to live.

Low density is heartily rejected, compressed city living robustly defended and described in terms of opportunities for relationships, community, employment, excitement and health, both physical and mental. In hilariously dated language he gives us ‘space for the healthy young ruffian’, ‘a ribbon of boscage’, ‘lyrical garden incidents’ and ‘paved courts and alleys that glow in the wild poetry of neon’. This is heady stuff but his belief in architecture as a force for good shines through the hyperbole.

The argument has the credibility of everyday experience, delivered in a flowery but unscientific essay. The ideas are not hard to grasp, but offered as a plea for more humane design and the deliberate creation of space to promote health and happiness. There is in equal amounts the demonisation of lazy planning, and synthetic proposals for edifying and engaging townscape.

The champions of garden cities – Lewis Mumford, Ebenezer Howard and Frederic Osborn – really get it in the neck, while the thinkers that inspire H de C’s finds are Marshall McCluhan (‘global village’ and ‘the medium is the message’) and futurists like Paolo Soleri,  who were committed to mainly fictional dense urban architecture. Civilia is a hymn to the possibilities of modernists by someone who actually wrote little but studied a lot and employed other eminent critics and authors to make the AR (Architectural Review) a campaigning vehicle. He recruited, amongst others, Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, Sacheverell Sitwell, P. Morton Shand and John Betjeman. This rare piece by Hastings (with contributions by others) was a high point in AR polemics.

Modernism is not considered obviously romantic, its foundations are functional, but in Civilia we get the human side. We hear a clamour for variety and stimulation in an environment for wellbeing at a very fundamental level, with frequent references to the needs of society and individuals ‘…on the principle that he who lives in a crowd should have special opportunities of differentiation, meaning in this context unique surroundings that restore his sense of identity. No more dictatorship from the suburban street with its terrifying uniformity, repetition, bathos and iron grip on endless square miles of territory.’ The ideas still resonate for designers and planners at all scales. Civilia is a utopia of education and fun, a font of health and happiness, the ‘Venice of the East Warwickshire Coalfield’.