2015 Annual: New Town

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Here’s ADS2’s text from the 2014-15 annual.

ADS2: New Town

How do you build a new town in today’s Britain? What are the political, economic and cultural conditions that would make such a thing possible? Do we, in 2015, have the ambition to propose, deliver and sustain planned settlements?

In a context where the political will for the making of settlements has shifted apparently irrevocably to emerging economies in South America, Asia and the Middle East, the twenty-one New Towns enabled by the 1946 New Towns Act now seem like relics from history; irrevocably associated with the post-war welfare state consensus and representing the ambition and utopianism of a lost political age.

The New Towns of this period were an explicit response to the ‘baby boom’, a dramatic increase in childbirth in the post-war period. Conceived of as a complementary project to the designation of ‘Green Belts’ around the country’s major cities, they were intended to halt the sprawl of our cities and instead provide new satellite towns with their own character and economy.

The Green Belt remains a fundamental concept in British planning policy and culture, and plays an increasingly central role in defining the debate on growth. Meanwhile its twin, the New Town, has drifted off the political agenda and now seems aesthetically and politically obsolete. Last year, ADS2 explored the Metropolitan Green Belt, and made proposals that challenged and speculated upon its future. This year we have explored the idea of ‘New Towns’ in the same spirit, with the aim of reasserting their propositional character as a counterpart to the preventative character of the Green Belt.

In the face of an on-going and increasingly volatile housing crisis, politicians of all parties have paid lip service to planned settlements in their statements and manifestos; a rhetorical high point came when Nick Clegg optimistically promised ‘ten Garden Cities’ would be built if the Liberal Democrats were to remain in coalition or government beyond 2015. But these promises and name-checks have not, in recent history, translated into meaningful or sustainable new settlements. ‘Garden Cities’, with their friendly connotations of lush vegetation and unthreatening suburban architecture, are invoked with the same easy positivism as Garden Bridges, but the developments that are being delivered in their name represent exactly the cookie-cutter suburbanism that the radicals of the original Garden City and New Town movements set out to challenge. Our politicians may talk about Garden Cities and New Towns, but what we get are monocultural, ‘sub-standardised’ housing estates.

ADS2 has been working to address this failure of ambition, and to tackle the fundamental question of how, in the immediate or near future, we might recover an ability to create new settlements rather than just trying to manage the piecemeal growth of our existing ones. Each graduating student in the studio, shown in this annual, has been challenged to propose a New Town in its entirety, whilst our first years took on the extension of existing planned settlements across the UK, recovering or critiquing the processes and cultures that led to their creation.

We began the year by working collectively to survey existing new towns throughout the UK, looking back at a history of planned settlements that includes Garden Cities, philanthropic industrial villages, utopian experiments and picturesque planned villages. Film was used to explore not only the ‘birth’ and founding intentions of these settlements but also their subsequent lives and the societies they have shaped and been shaped by. Along the way, we took a sleeper train from the Soviet Science Cities surrounding Moscow to the 18th Century New Town of St. Petersburg, and went on a road trip that took in Letchworth Garden City and Milton Keynes, tracing the lineage of ideas that connects the ‘sandal-wearing pioneers’ of Garden City mythology to the planners, policy makers and designers who occupied the political mainstream of the post-war age.

Students then began to develop ‘founding myths’ for their new towns, to imagine the cultural, economic and social conditions necessary for ambitious acts of design and planning to take place, and to translate these myths into objects, rituals or souvenirs. From these myths and objects developed fifteen proposals for making or expanding new towns, each of which was exhibited at the ‘Work in Progress’ show in January.

In focussing on these conditions and using them as springboards for new towns, projects have emerged which engage with the messy and compromised reality of contemporary development. We have resisted the attractions of either utopia or dystopia, instead situating projects in the here and now and aiming to construct visions for imaginable futures with a critical, opportunistic attitude to the present. These are new towns that exploit emerging trends and economies; that turn contingent political situations into regenerative forces; that provide decent settlements for complex, contradictory and marginalised populations; that channel corporation tax into new forms of company town. We enjoy these visions because they bring the notion of ‘new towns’ closer to today’s Britain than we can normally imagine, and offer a rich variety of escape strategies from today’s developmental stalemate.

Last year, alongside the various design projects, ADS2 produced pioneering mapping of London’s Metropolitan Green Belt, understanding it on its own terms for the first time since its creation. This mapping was recently published by the London Society, original advocates of the Green Belt, to accompany their position paper on how it might be reconceived today, and was cited in ‘Is it time to rethink Britain’s Green Belt?’, a major article in The Observer (19.10.2015). ADS2 is interested in producing architectural research and design that is of public use beyond academia but which also exploits the potential of studio research to challenge the world in which architects must work. We encourage projects which are unconstrained in design and political ambition and which have critical relevance to, and impact upon, the issues and forces at play in development and in society.

Charles Holland, David Knight & Finn Williams