Living in Cities

The latest book I read that inspired me…

Living in Cities – Ralph Tubbs

Issued at a time of vast post-war building progammes across the country, this pamphlet seems to try and guide, advise and allay an anxious public. It explains the requirement for good City Planning, while expressing the clear sentiment that the Cities will be changing and growing for sustainability and success.

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One of the reasons I found this book so interesting is because I love post-war architecture. My own City, Coventry, was rebuilt in these years, but since the original bold vision, design and construction the iconic City has been left to fall into disrepair. I was told a few years ago ‘the planners after the war did a better job of destroying the City than the bombers’. However, I believe the original concept worked, it’s the years of neglect that have since made it fail.

“Cities are the visible expression of collective life. If the life of the community is unsound, cities will portray this unsoundness. Civilisation, if it is not now to collapse, must regain new vitality and new balance”.

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Written in 1942, prior to the mass development that would inevitably take place after wartime destruction, it’s extremely interesting that the approach Tubbs suggested toward the rebuilding programme wasn’t haphazard, there is a clear theme of consideration expressed throughout this guide; “Without planning, without love of either the City or the surrounding country, the estate developer has carried the formless City further afield. The centre of the City is a jungle of commercial blocks, neo classic or pseudo modern, through which congested traffic creeps in a dense haze of petrol fumes; in the underdeveloped quarters the slums linger on, while around the town spreads unending suburbia, the result of everyone trying to escape the unpleasantness of the modern town, and defeating their purpose by destroying more and more country”. Remind you of anywhere today?

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This was a time of opportunity, where planning could really have a complete vision and make a difference. Unfortunately the initial buzz was lost with struggling councils, and we have been left with decaying City Centres, unloved because the style of design and architecture is not seen as desirable. Probably because the paint is peeling, the concrete is cracking and they have been surrounded by a bizarre collection of revivalist styles and a desire to knock it all down and start again “In despair, people look back to the days when the City had meaning. They wonder if we should return to the manner of the past, not realising that there is no ‘turning back’, that a revival is merely a lie’.

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I find it inspiring that at a time where the attitude could have been one of quick, unthinking reaction development, there was clearly an aspiration to try and create something that worked. This may have involved new ideas and risks, but surely that is what life is about. Growing and learning. Without this spark, surely design and architecture become stagnant, never improving, just playing safe, becoming lazy, bored and depressed.

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I would love for this style of design to be more respected. In Coventry we have a cafe that looks like a space ship, an innovative precinct layout that has been all but lost to new development, a round market with a car park on the roof, common themes and materials running throughout (dark wood, concrete, verdigris roofing among many others). No, it isn’t the old City that was lost, and yes, it was a great shame. But what is wrong with a little pride and love for a place that had the determination and drive to run with something new & different, rather than just a fake, shallow attempt to re-create the past? A facade of Georgian Pillars or Mock Tudor effect does not make a building work. It just makes it boring and easy.

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Take time to look up the Jerde proposal for Coventry City Centre http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/coventry_warwickshire/7637096.stm with the hateful talk of it repairing the ‘vandalism’ of the architect Donald Gibson ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Gibson_(architect).

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I understand that some elements of City planning of this era and onwards didn’t work. However, I do believe this type of iconic civic development is extremely important, and although I love the style, I know others hate it. The same as I dislike the red brick box 90’s throw ups across the country – it’s personal taste. However, it is essential to hold on to these forward thinking ideas and concepts, and use the parts that worked for future change & development.

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I hope you enjoyed my discovery as much as I did, the book certainly got me thinking about City planning, new development and civic pride, thank you Mr Ralph Tubbs!

A sequel to the exhibition ‘Living in Cities’ which the author designed for the 1940 council & the British Institute of Education, circulated by the Council for the encouragement of Music & the Arts, discovered at a tabletop booksale on Coventry Market. They sell every item for 50p, go and have a rummage, you never know what you might discover.

http://www.historiccoventry.co.uk/main/main.php – a great website about Coventry should you want to read more.

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