In the Reith lectures, Richard Rogers set out his vision of the ideal metropolis, where microcommunities would live in a green environment that would be both functional and beautiful, and of a London reborn. Here, three writers give their responses
Jonathan Glancey Suburban Britons dream of flight from, not to, the city Richard Rogers dreams of the day when miasmic British cities go continental, when they develop traffic-free, ecologically sustainable, caf-society centres. His vision is of the city resplendent, a dclass, densely packed citadel brimming with intelligent enterprise and cultural energy.
Imagine London with all its best features enhanced - its unrivalled parks, the Thames, its stock brick and stucco "villages", the vivid imagination of its artists and designers, musicians and performers squeezed into a glittering ball. Think of our inner-city housing brought up to date and as well kempt as the middle-class villas of Kensington and Canonbury.
Yes, Rogersville would be more than a match for Paris or Barcelona. And, I have to admit - because I have argued for many of the same things over the past decade - that this shining city would be a wonderful place to live.
Ah, but dreams ... in dreams lovely things happen that waking life spikes. For all Richard Rogers had to say in his lectures, London (Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester too) is very unlikely to become as richly packed as Paris and Barcelona.
Why? Because London has no government, because, with rare exceptions, the English do not like to plan their cities, because, at heart, we are a suburban nation and because of the Blitz.
Unlike Paris, promiscuously hailed as the near-perfect European city, London was battered by Heinkels and Dorniers, Doodlebugs and V2s. Other British cities suffered savage destruction. As, of course, did Lubeck, Rostock, Dresden and Berlin. But the centre of Paris remained untouched because the French surrendered to the Nazis.
After the war, Marshall Aid pump-primed Paris and Berlin, but Britain did not benefit from American munificence. Truman even axed the Lease- Lend lifeline that had kept the British economy afloat from Dunkirk to VE-Day. Smart new restaurants had opened in Paris during the occupation while Coco Chanel developed her New Look: it was springtime for Paris in 1945, but winter for London and Liverpool.
Poor Liverpool. Just as the beginnings of real prosperity came to much of Britain in the Fifties, so her traditional industries collapsed. Great liners no longer berthed along Pier Head. Fewer ships were built across the Mersey in Birkenhead. Merseybeat and the Fab Four were, in historical terms, sparky diversions from the true plight of a city in economic peril (significantly, when the Beatles struck rich, they Cuban-heeled it down to London where, like stockbrokers, John, George and Ringo bought big houses in the Surrey suburbs; only Paul chose to live in town).
Ironically, it was in Liverpool that contemporary planning principles were applied with almost incomparable rigour.
Sadly, these plans were based almost exclusively on road building. By 1995, Liverpudlians would all be wealthy, motorised and commuting by elevated dual-carriageway. The roads were designed to take people out of the city centre, the very opposite of the ideal of European planning. And wherever they went, they destroyed elegant tracts of Georgian and Regency city. Post-war urban planning in England was, as Liverpool proved, fundamentally anti-urban.
Only in Scotland, in the examples of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, can cities of a Barcelona bent be experienced in these islands. All enjoy compact, vital centres; ships still sail from the ports of the old Hanseatic League right into the granite heart of Aberdeen.
These cities have suffered (especially Glasgow) from the cupidities of road-engineers, the ambitions of local politicians, the folly of contemporary dogma (Glasgow's bus service, for example, is a disgrace). Yet they are essentially European in spirit (or even a little American: witness the grid-iron of Glasgow's austerely planned, yet rollicking centre) and, beneath a veneer of privatisation and free-marketeering remain civic- minded. Their long-term future will be very different from Liverpool's.
When London was rebuilt after the years of austerity in the "You've never had it so good" Fifties and Sixties, property speculators were given a virtually free rein to reshape it. Since then, London has never really been planned.
In fact, from 1979, the idea has been anathema: the Greater London Council was abolished in 1986 as an act of political spite, the red buses deregulated and every attempt at citywide co-ordination undermined.
Such dogmatic and unprecedented interference by national government astounds the current mayors of Paris and Barcelona (the latter bombed, but not gutted, by Franco, Mussolini and the Luftwaffe's Condor Legion during the Spanish Civil War). It would have astounded Lord Reith too, who lived in a London run by the progressive London County Council which believed in encouraging and, when necessary, providing integrated metropolitan services.
Rogersville is stillborn, too, because of the suburban mindset of the British governing and enterprising classes.
When men and women become wealthy, they retreat to the country, imagining themselves as country squires and distancing themselves from Norrisian Man (those "dreadful human beings" with whom they may be forced to share buses and Tube trains). Their children might "rough it" in the city in their twenties, but always with one eye on settling in the country 10 years down the line. The less prosperous settle, in descending order, for edge-of-town executive cul-de-sacs, suburban semis and, most humbling of all, flats above shops in city centres - which, of course, the professional classes of Paris, Berlin and Barcelona find chic.
Most of the underprivileged who live above shops in English city centres dream of living in a house in a leafy suburb. The shops they appear to want are the vast superstores that continue to gobble up and despoil acres or what was once countryside, or land that could have been used for something of more lasting value. Rogersville will always be impossible to build if the people of this country want to shop in these retail juggernauts. Doubtless blondes with clipboards working for Machiavellian market research firms will have proved over and again that driving out to superstores to load up with the week's shopping is what we want. But if we really want this, then we have sounded the death knell for our old city centre shopping streets. Of course shops selling expensive clothes and gewgaws will continue to thrive in city centre, but they are part of the leisure industry; they are not essential. Rogersville is hoisted by the petard of our apparent wants and desires that conflict with the creation and viability of city centres ripe for living in.
Richard Rogers is right to fight, fight and fight again for the city he loves. But he is battling against a recurring English dream - expressed by, among others, John Major - of an England of warm beer, leather on willow, midwives on bicycles and thatched eaves loaded and blessed with autumnal fruit.
Yet once we stop dreaming of the city resplendent, the whole urban enterprise implodes. It is easy to carp and cavil, but if we want our cities to prosper (and, for better or worse, they remain the engines of our wealth) and to glisten like Paris and Barcelona, what Richard Rogers said needs repeating until something happens.
European recipes are alien to the British mind
What struck me about the lectures was that the written medium doesn't really suit Rogers. And there's a gap between what he preaches - conventional, sober, socially conscentious modernist theory - and what he designs, what his buildings are actually about. He's a consumate artist: go to the top of the Lloyd's building and it's flamboyant. He's a kind of Gothic architect. His buildings have a fairground quality.
It's an odd assumption, isn't it, that an architect is supposed to be a visionary - why? - and a macro-planner, though, of course, what Rogers says he's presenting is a series of micro-solutions: the idea that we can turn the clock back to micro-communities, to cobblers living above their shops, although the separation between workplace and home happened hundreds of years ago; that we should have small shops instead of supermarkets, even though the retail set-up favours supermarkets. What should we do with the retail set-up then? But the micro-solutions add up to a macro- solution.
The lectures were in the tradition of the modernist movement, and the point about modernist architecture is that although to some extent it is a visual style, it also carries the baggage of social engineering, determinism and the assumption that the world could be perfected by an improved environment, that man is susceptible to nuture by concrete.
There was a marked swing against this school of thought in the late Seventies and Eighties. In the Eighties what we had was the idea that mankind was flawed, that man's primitive instincts should come to the fore. It was the time of government-sanctioned greed, when building housing for those who needed it simply stopped. It was sheer materialism.
Rogers's lectures are a reaction against that. He belongs to an older cultural tradition; he's a humanist. We should also remember that he's half Italian, though he fits, in a strange and unique way, into the pattern of all things English. But he's European in his assumptions that architecture should be government-sponsored, and I don't just mean Mitterrand's vanities. Most European countries do sponsor architecture, but Britain just gave up. What Rogers argues would actually be normal in any other European country. It wouldn't excite comment. It's only abnormal here: we don't do large-scale, interventionist, government-prompted projects to improve the environment.
I sort of approve of Rogers's ideals: rather the idea of architecture making people better than leaving them to the terrible mercy of market forces. His heart - and his head - are in the right place. But the European recipes can't be applied to the English, and perhaps neither can modernist theories - that the right architecture means people won't throw litter, that having chunks of art and lumps of sculpture and large paintings around the place will be morally improving. In some ways this isn't surprising: modernist ideals were current when Rogers was a student and ideas taken on at that age, even very orthodox modernist ideas, sometimes can't be left behind. They colour every suggestion, no matter how impractical, such as Rogers's fetish for open-air cafs. He indulges in wishful thinking; we don't have the climate for them or people enough to populate them. People are travelling back to Sidham and Pinner after work, not going out to open-air cafs.
You have to ask why Rogers's beliefs - Utopia UK - went wrong in the Sixties and Seventies. Partly because architects were testing technologies as well as theories and because the English have an antipathy to living close to other people, to verticality (he should work with the Scottish, who like cities). And modernists are primarily concerned with the setting up of systems, which is then left to the people to manage, which means, in Britain, it is not managed. Rogers's approach doesn't touch upon the gulf between expectation and assumption.
He doesn't understand that the British ideal is not urban but suburban - which is why huge tracts of land are constantly eaten up by Barratt homes. The ideal is surburban, harking back to the countryside, or pseudo- countryside; surburban architecture pretends to be rustic, it alludes to the countryside: leaded lights, hanging tiles - pretend countryside. Perhaps that's because we industrialised before anyone else and have a longing to return to the greenery. Or perhaps not.
Rogers isn't apprised of these aspirations. He's an urban creature. I doubt if he knows much about life for people outside the smart metropolitan milieu, the set that he moves in. He wants London to be like Paris and Rome, where the quality of life is higher. But UK cities are unique in the way that they have been centralised. The metropolitan isn't the thing here. The very rich prefer to live outside the cities, the towns, in villages. The mark of making it is moving out to the countryside. It would take more than Rogers's ideas to make the bourgeoisie move back.
The writer is a critic and television presenter.
The past was zoned and specialised. Both planning and the profit motive produced single-use spaces and single-use buildings - cities segregated by activity and by social group.
The geographies of cities express and influence the society in which we live. Single-use spaces, ghettoes and exclusive suburbs reflect - and reinforce - both the compartmentalisation of our lives and the separation of social groups. There are particular designated spaces for work, for leisure, for domestic relations. It has been called a geography of rejection. But fragmented and specialised geographies like these recognise neither the complexity of our lives nor the potential for interaction between social groups which is one of the promises of the city.
Richard Rogers argues, and I agree, that this must change. We must resist the domination by market forces of city design. We have to set aside public spaces. Some changes are already happening. Rogers talks of the dissolution of the boundary between office and home. He explains (wonderfully) the technical possibility of permeable buildings where the worlds of "inside" and "outside" may mingle.
It is a great vision - a future of interconnection. City design which mirrors the theories of interrelation from both natural and social sciences.
In order for that link between urban design and the social life of the city to be made a reality, however, other issues must be explored. I have one query and one reservation about Rogers's vision of the future.
In the middle of all this integration and mixing, the city will be organised, he says, into "communities". What does this mean? Mixed-use and focused neighbourhoods must be better than endless housing estates, but the word "community" carries something more than this. Rogers's lectures appeared just when Amitai Etzioni's ideas of communitarianism were being feted here, and at the very mention of the word my antennae were alerted. For "communities" can be precisely the building-blocks of geographies of rejection. How do we redefine "community" to mean something other than social exclusion and internal conformity: the kind of repressiveness that seems inherent in Etzioni's vision?
Rogers writes of communities which have distinctive characters and of "a social structure which focuses communities around neighbourhoods" How do we stop this simply replicating the "diversity" between Hampstead and Brixton? And how do we relate the changed social geography of our lives to the physical geography of the built city? Many communities simply cannot be maintained over time: people change jobs, children move away. "Community" is a weasel concept: to be used with care.
My reservation concerns power. The mixing and blurring of boundaries that Rogers advocates will not take place on equal terms. Work is certainly invading home (for some), but there is less evidence that home is invading work. The powers of the two spheres, of home and work, and the economic and gender relations they express, are profoundly unequal.
Rogers rightly emphasises the corrosive effect of market-forces, but there are also other means by which we claim spaces, wall them off, make them inhospitable to "others". Thus ethnic groups are held apart, through exclusion by the powerful or out of defensiveness on the part of the vulnerable. Thus spaces are produced where women may not easily venture. Few places are fully public in the sense that absolutely every social group feels equally at home there.
This should not make us give up. The point is rather that we should recognise these things and address them. During the Eighties, the social concerns of city planners were ridiculed. Architects and urban designers took the lead (and, thank heavens, we have some like Richard Rogers). It is time that they and the social sciences teamed up again.
The writer is Professor of Geography at the Open University.Reuse content