One of my readers reminded me, after the previous post about corrugated-iron garages and roadside petrol pumps, that such structures were widely disliked and criticised when they appeared back in the 1930s and 1940s, much as we might appreciate them now. He is of course quite right. These makeshift structures are a good example of the way attitudes and fashions and the ways in which we see things change, sometimes radically, over time.
In the 1930s there were frequent protests about the unchecked rise of shacks, garages, and other unplanned buildings. These structures were often seen as unpleasant to look at, badly built, and part of the inexorable ribbon development that threatened to swamp the countryside around Britain’s towns and cities, joining settlements together so that no countryside would remain at all. Quite a few people wrote about this, attacking plotlands, garages, and ribbon development as part of the same problem. Take Sheila Kaye-Smith, for example, writing in the 1937 collection Britain and the Beast, edited by Clough Williams-Ellis. Here she compares modern buildings with the much-loved traditional buildings of Kent:
Compare [Kent’s traditional buildings] with the modern villa set up stiffly like a match-box on end, with the bungalow coloured a pink that can be seen nowhere else save in boiled crustaceans, with the garage of corrugated iron, the catsellated shop-front, and then address yourself to time, in your hopes no longer the preserver but the destroyer.
J B Priestley also had a go at such things in his book English Journey and the CPRE even suggested that motorists should boycott garages made of corrugated iron or sporting “garish, multi-coloured petrol pumps”. A whole world of sorry roadside development was captured in an illustration in another book by Clough-Williams-Ellis, The Adventure of Building, which I reproduce above: as well as corrugated iron, ubiquitous overhead wires and intrusive advertising posters are also part of the view.
Even back then, the objections were inspired by all kinds of motivations. For many, it was a genuine anxiety about the countryside and about the way our settlements were being planned – or not planned, but just thrown up, willy nilly along the highways. For others, it was snobbery about low-status building materials, discontent with structures that could be erected by unskilled labour, or a dislike of untidiness.
As far as corrugated-iron garages went, they got their way in the end – most have long vanished. Ribbon development, too, has been controlled by the planning system, as have, by and large, big advertising hoardings. And now, encouraged by writers like Jonathan Meades and Iain Sinclair, we are more likely to find something to admire or interest us in old garages, plotlands, and sheds. it might be the ingenious bricolage practised by their amateur builders; it might be the layers of history the represent. It might be – and this is where I come in – their contribution to, and absorption in, the character and life of specific places: a plotland bungalow softened by cow parsley or surrounded by shingle, a corrugated-iron roof turned over to nature, a barn rusting in the summer sun. Such things encourage us to look, and think, unearth stories about the past, and reassess what is still there in the present.