Monday, December 8, 2014
Mind your planguage
Jones the Planner (Adrian Jones & Chris Matthews), Towns in Britain
Published by Five Leaves Publications
Jones the Planner is one of the best blogs about building, planning, and the state of towns in Britain. I’ve been enjoying its thoughtful and well informed perambulations of towns for some years now, and admiring the way it gets the essence of a place. I remember, having followed the blog around Nottingham and Northampton, and read what it had to say about the great cities of Scotland and South Wales, that I began to hope they’d tackle some of my favourites. It was not too long before Adrian Jones and Chris Matthews visited Lincoln, to the sound of cheering from this quarter at least. Other favourites such as Bristol and Exeter followed. Now Adrian Jones and Chris Matthews have turned their extended perambulations into a book, making this reader at least, very pleased indeed.
The portraits of cities in this book are lively, sometimes witty, and the fruit of actual visits. They are informed by an experienced planner’s eye, but don’t degenerate into jargon: most of the time, they watch their planguage. The result is first of all a collection of very readable portraits. Coventry, for example, is seen as underrated, and Jones helps us to understand the virtues of its postwar planning (albeit compromised by later changes), as well as pointing out the striking buildings (the circular market building and Godiva Restaurant), the outstanding murals, and the greatness of the cathedral. I think the book is spot on about the way in which Spence’s design complements the ruins of the medieval cathedral. The virtues of Leicester (Clarendon Park, ‘Jacobean deco’ factories: hoorah!) are highlighted without denying the ‘silly show-off attention-seeking shininess’ of much of the city’s recent architecture. Glasgow is a fine city – one of our very greatest: true – its ‘American’ planning and scale, its staggering early iron-framed buildings, and its brooding tenements are magnificent. But Jones does not lose sight of the city’s problems, from the poor traffic planning to the lacklustre new transport museum; nor does he fight shy of suggesting solutions – he is Jones the Planner after all.
The urban parade continues via Cardiff (some terrific aspects but Cardiff Bay is poor and there is some depressing gated development by the Taff); Bristol (a great city that could do even better); and Southampton (some impressive assets like the old walls and the water, but the city needs to capitalise on them, not just give in to development). The smaller cities are given their due too: Exeter has a lot going for it, Lincoln has done much that is right.
There are several chapters on London. The approach to the capital is via various routes – the importance, and depletion, of the public realm, the vitality of traditional vibrant streetscapes, housing (flats in the Elephant advertised in the Gulf States while hardly any social housing is being built to replace what has been taken away from the area), contrasts of scale (city squares v the Shard), and so on.
Any book on towns has to work on both macro and micro scales, adumbrating the overall effect and specific details, and embracing both planning and architecture. Towns in Britain manages this, time and again. The book lays out clearly the phases of the development of a major city such as Birmingham while also zooming in on specific buildings. And although it’s often at pains to show the reasons why 1960s architecture is the way it is, to justify the ways of Brutalists to man as it were (Jones has time for John Madin’s threatened Central Library), it’s also open to more recent building when it works (Jones also respects the brand new library by Mecanoo).
This book is made up of pithy, arresting accounts of major towns, well illustrated with helpful photographs that are briefly and pointedly captioned. It avoids pat judgements about ‘crap towns’ or ‘concrete monstrosities’, drawing attention to how places actually work. It points to the virtues of planning, and the dangers of laissez-faire development (while also acknowledging that freedom to develop was one of the things that made Victorian cities great). The essays are appreciative of the good aspects (especially of underrated places), sharply critical of the bad, and, above all, alert to the specific character of each place. And this is the point: city authorities need to be sensitive to local character and build on it, and to resist the temptation to bow to the fat cheques and shiny facades of rampant capitalism on the one hand, or to the regurgitated nostrums and generalized principles of big-shot master planners on the other. Jones the Planner, in revealing so much about our towns’ positive qualities and their importance, makes it clear why this is vital.