Tuesday, October 14, 2014

On the arterial road...

…pumpery revisited

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.


Helena said...

I've also noticed occasionally what look like Art Decco garages, many of which have become redundant in the last 10 years as supermarket petrol stations result in independent petrol stations closing. I'm assuming from their style that they were built in the 1930s and 40s; were they commented on favourably at the time, or were they also regarded as part of the nuisance ribbon development?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Helena: Many thanks for your comment. Yes, there are still Art Deco garages around, though as you say many have closed because of competition. My impression is that many of these were condemned by commentators (like the Art Deco factories on major roads out of London) because they were seen as part of ribbon development. Also, in the 1930s, a lot of architects and architectural writers saw Modernism as the only true way for architecture, and criticized Art Deco buildings as frivolous.

Peter Ashley said...

There was also a call for enamel advertising on buildings and fences to be restricted, such was the plethora of tin that cascaded down in the period. Shell lead the way in curtailing it, moving their advertising on to the famous lorry bills.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: Yes. I'd forgotten that the lorry bills were a way of getting the advertising off the roadside. They were a lovely example of turning a problem into an opportunity.

Eileen Wright said...

Interestingly, because of the objections to unsightly buildings, Devon county council adopted a standard for garages. One such is still at Colyford, and until the last couple of years housed a motoring museum. It was also once used in a Levi's television advert. Unfortunately the owner gave up the museum collection due to failing health, but the old pumps are still outside. Oh, and it was also the garage where T. E. Lawrence regularly filled up his motorbike on the way home, including the fateful journey when he died after a road accident. Amazing, the amount of history some of these unassuming little places hold.