Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be

As we see from Poundbury, urban visions can address a utopian past as well as future

By trying to make a perfect world are we always looking towards the future? And what happens when utopias are the product of reactionary, nostalgic or regressive ideologies?

The arrival in 1979 of the first Margaret Thatcher-led government ushered in a rejection of the social democratic project of the post-war era. This radical break from consensus included – perhaps as a compensatory move – a strain of cultural nostalgia for pre-modern social conventions. If the New Towns epitomised the civic-minded modernism of the welfare state, the urbanism of the Thatcher era was a self-consciously historicist counter-reaction.

Few places represent this shift better than South Woodham Ferrers in Essex. Planned in the 1970s by Essex County Council, the town was formally opened in 1981, just a year and a half after Thatcher’s first election victory. SWF could be viewed as the spatial corollary of her particular combination of social conservatism and economic liberalism. And it continued to grow throughout the 1980s, expanding like an urban manifestation of her core demographic.

The planning of SWF relies as much on mythology as hard-headed economics or urban design logic. The principles of its layout grew out of the Essex Design Guide, a hugely influential planning document first published in 1973 that rejected many of the tenets of modernist spatial planning. Instead it favoured loose groupings of houses in arrangements that evoked village settlement patterns. It also encouraged the use of traditional Essex building materials such as weatherboarding, brick and plaster. The result was a new town attempting fairly unsuccessfully to look like a much older one.

The street names in SWF provide a literary underpinning for this merry mythmaking, many of them culled from the work of JRR Tolkien, including Gandalfs Ride and Elronds Rest. While this conceit might feel just about plausible gazing out of your window across the mudflats of the Crouch estuary, it becomes trickier when confronting the commercial reality of the town centre. 

This is predicated around a vast Asda superstore whose car park effectively forms the town’s market square. Meanwhile, the ‘actual’ square – complete with bandstand – is squeezed behind the Asda with the store’s service entrances facing onto it. Asda in fact owns much of the town centre, having bought large chunks of it from Essex County Council. Its dominance is not so much an unfortunate by-product as a fundamental part of SWF’s DNA.

SWF is an important forerunner, but the apotheosis of neo-traditional urban planning in the UK is Poundbury, near Dorchester in Dorset. Poundbury is almost too notorious to write about, a town inevitably described as creepy, sham or dishonest by cultural commentators.

As the love-child of modernist-hating would-be monarch Prince Charles and Albert Speer apologist Leon Krier, it is pretty much guaranteed to get most architects frothing at the mouth with rage

As the love-child of modernist-hating would-be monarch Prince Charles and Albert Speer apologist Leon Krier, it is pretty much guaranteed to get most architects frothing at the mouth with rage. And that’s before you get to its colonnaded branch of Budgens (rebadged as Poundbury General Stores) or vast neo-classical fire station, like a Ledoux building with a garage extension.

Despite this, Poundbury is a remarkably thorough reworking of traditional forms of spatial planning and architectural expression, skilfully planned at an urban level with the kind of full-on conviction that far exceeds the ambitions of your average Berkeley Homes estate. In Poundbury the render has been specified to leach oxides so that it ages more quickly. But even Leon Krier’s commitment to authenticity comes unstuck when confronted with the non-negotiable reality of contemporary highway engineering or a requirement for one-bed flats.

The relationship of architecture to social conditions – the complex exchange between how we organise ourselves and how our architecture embodies that organisation – is broken by attempts to project too far into the future or the past. If homeliness or bucolic yearnings are suitable vehicles of architectural expression then how to deal with transport logistics, part-time employment or a high divorce rate? Is a similar level of fantasy required for the society that lives in such places?

Poundbury is closely linked to similar experiments in the US such as Seaside and Celebration in Florida. Both are the products of New Urbanism, a (presumably) deliberately oxymoronic name for a design movement predicated on pre-modern spatial planning and traditional forms of architecture. Seaside was also the setting for The Truman Show, a satire of media-saturated culture where the entire town is effectively a highly elaborate TV set.

There is a poignant moment at the climax of the film when the central character – played by Jim Carrey – literally bumps into the limits of his world, the edge of the studio complex in which the show is filmed. This domed surface has been painted to resemble a limitless horizon. The moment is revealing because all utopias – nostalgic or not – bump up against ‘reality’ at their edges. Modern life might be rubbish, but it can’t be hidden forever. Which is perhaps where the desire to remake the past might mutate into something altogether more difficult and interesting.