Friday, October 21, 2011


from Architectural Review, June 1978

Eighty years ago Ebenezer Howard published his visionary essay Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898). In 1902 Letchworth, the first garden city, was founded. The 75th anniversary of the first twentieth century British new town provides the occasion for the publication of five articles exploring the creative impact of garden city thinking in four countries: Germany, France, Russia and Britain.
Editors frequently strain credulity by insisting that all of their contributions-despite appearances to the contrary-are in fact saying the same thing. In this case no such claim is made. However, one unifying factor may well prove to be that most of the contributions will raise the eyebrows of right-thinking garden city partisans. The notion that Ernst May's Frankfurt housing (long claimed for the Modern Movement), the flattened blocks of the Paris satellite towns and Greater Moscow, or the estates built during the Great War to house British munitions workers could be presented as products-even by-products-of the garden city may well be regarded as provocative. Whatever may be said about the need to modify Howard's ideas to the requirements of public housing schemes at home and abroad, we shall almost certainly be accused of chronicling the misapplication and misunderstanding of his prospectus.
Howard's vision of the garden city projected a view of a total environment and a new urban society. The garden city was to be limited in size to 6000 acres; the city itself to occupy 1 000 acres, the rest of the land being given over to industry and agriculture. The population was to be limited to 32 000 inhabitants. Intended to compensate the, squalor and social alienation of the big city as well as the deficiencies of rural life, the garden city was to be autonomous and would incorporate all types and conditions of people. Industry would be located on the periphery of the built-up area, encircled by a 'green girdle' of farm land. The residential areas would be, sub-divided into six wards, or neighbourhoods. Land was to be owned, developed and controlled on a communal basis. [Toward thus saw the garden city in social, economic and political, terms 'social city' as he termed it-and perhaps for the first time articulated a direct link between all of these factors and the physical environment. Individually, each component of Howard's , proposal had its precedent in a tradition of utopian literature that extended to the Renaissance, and beyond. Howard selected from this tradition to compose what he himself called a 'unique combination of proposals'.
The idea was propagated and exploited by a unique combination of sponsors: social reformers, industrialists, philanthropists, politicians, literati, architects, do-gooders, temperance campaigners and all manner of faddist. Given the heterogeneous nature of its membership, it was remarkable that the garden city movement adhered as closely as it did to Howard's proposals. Letchworth, despite a slow start and chronic under-capitalisation, eventually vindicated the founder's belief in the practicability of a socially-mixed residential and working community founded on cooperative (later municipal) enterprise. But later developments had progressively less revolutionary objectives. At Hampstead there was no attempt to provide a commercial, still less an industrial base. The project was planned as a multi-class residential suburb, but never achieved social balance.
Letworth Garden City, by skenmy

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