Thomas Sharp planned to manage Oxford’s future traffic with destructive levels of urban development, but even that wasn’t enough
When many of my school friends were getting into drugs, I developed an affection for town plans, in particular Oxford Replanned, Thomas Sharp’s detailed 1948 proposal for the reconstruction of the city where I spent my formative years. My parents had a copy of Sharp’s vision, possibly out of local interest, possibly because it was a very attractive object, a fat Oxford-blue hardcover full of interesting diagrams and pretty fold-out maps. It is a document designed to impress and convince, with proposals presented as delicious watercolours.
And what proposals! Though not bombed, Sharp wanted to demolish a vast area of the inner city to allow for an elaborate new road system. In the open spaces created by this tree-lined motor network would rise a new city of spacious stone-clad civic modernism. He presented this drastic redevelopment as life-saving surgery, essential if the city was to survive in the latter half of the 20th century.
The placidity of the plan’s graceful renderings and the ferocity of some of the language made an intriguing contrast. Many Victorian districts were summarily dismissed as beyond saving. A tangle of streets known as St Ebbes was duly swept away to make room for an inner bypass, the only part of Sharp’s road layout that was realised. The nearby inner suburb of Jericho was meant to follow – today it is one of the city’s most desirable addresses. We lived in a Victorian house on the Iffley Road, near Magdalen Bridge. Sitting in this pleasant and convenient place, I enjoyed the fact that it was the target of Sharp’s sharpest barbs. ‘Vile beyond hope of redemption,’ he called it. Coming over the bridge was ‘a trip from the Renaissance to the New Dark Age’.
The insults were funny, but the praise was a delight. Sharp’s description of the city, and his analysis of the parts he regarded as beautiful and successful, were unusually insightful. He was obviously earnest in seeing himself as saving a treasure from blight and chaos, and replacing its failing parts with new precincts worthy of the ancient area to be preserved.
I became a Sharp fan. The Oxford plan is the most detailed and ambitious of four produced in the 1940s, all for ancient and beautiful places: Exeter, Durham, Salisbury and Chichester. None was realised. Besides these, he also wrote extensively on towns and planning in general. English Panorama (1936) and Town Planning (1940) are eager, hopeful books that speculate how to combine modernist architecture and convenience without sweeping away the familiar scale and patterns of English places. ‘The aerial roads … topless towers and all the rest of the rather nightmarish properties of Corbusierean [sic] fantasy may yet materialise some day,’ he wrote in English Panorama. ‘But they are some time distant yet, even for the great metropolitan cities: and we can safely leave them outside our anticipations for the ordinary town of tomorrow.’
By the time of Town and Townscape, published in 1968, the tone was more rueful. The scale of much modern construction was not to his taste, but the fundamental problem was traffic. Sharp imagined his 1940s plans to be future-proofing towns for the motor car. By 1968, it was already obvious that even the most destructive interventions were inadequate.
Sharp’s writing on towns, though often dated, is still hugely readable today. And his plans contain a valuable lesson. Here was a brilliant mind trying to accommodate the looming problem of traffic with boldness, but without sacrificing urbanity. The results are sometimes horrible, but less horrible than what many cities actually did. Within a generation, Sharp had realised that traffic simply could not be accommodated, even if urbanity was sacrificed, if the boldness bordered on fanaticism. The only solution was to restrain the car. Astonishingly, more than 50 years later, this is a lesson many still struggle with.
Will Wiles is an author
THIN END OF WEDGES
Oxford was the largest city to get the Sharp treatment, but Town Planning contains his proposal for London: no green belt but green wedges of parkland separating radiating corridors of development built around railway lines. Even Sharp recognised that the level of destruction required was prohibitive, but the outline would later be adapted into the echt-modernist MARS plan for the city.