Square deal

Imagine an urban grid where everyone gets one – and only one – square each, in which they can do whatever they like

If you were trying to design a city for a more equitable society, the grid is an obvious place to start. Grids imply equality and a non-hierarchical form of spatial planning. In theory every square on the grid is the same and no one place is more important than another.

Grids have often been employed as a planning tool – think of Manhattan in New York and the Eixample of Barcelona – but there are older and more unlikely uses of it closer to home. New Winchelsea in Sussex for example.

The ‘New’ part of the town’s name is misleading, as it dates from the late 13th century. The medieval port of Old Winchelsea was consumed by the sea in 1287, so Richard I commissioned a replacement up on a hill, laid out on a grid system of 39 not-quite-regular squares. The streets remain numbered, rather than named, with individual squares populated by sweet, Sussex vernacular houses, and a vast ruin of a church. There is a tangible spatial difference between New Winchelsea and other English towns and villages. The grid feels different, a strangely contemporary quality at odds with the architecture and what we expect from such places.

Centuries later, the ‘plotland’ communities that grew up in the early part of the 20th century used grids too. This time, the grid represented the most expedient way to carve up cheap agricultural land and sell it to people keen to escape the city and build a house on a small square of paradise. Or at least a small square of Essex, where many of the larger plotland communities were established. The former plotlands of Laindon and Dunton in southeast Essex are now known as Basildon, one of the first of the postwar New Towns. They were described by Patrick Abercrombie, one of the architects of the New Towns, none too positively as a motley collection of ‘shacks, caravans-on-posts, old railway coaches, and static omnibuses… that have a knack of lingering on, patched and botched, into a decrepit and disreputable old age’. 

  • Grids – equality in the square.
    Grids – equality in the square.

And so they were replaced by the civic modernity of Basildon. Some sections of the former community were retained as a public park and the original grid is still evident if you look hard enough. The houses are gone but sections of front steps and garden paths remain, and ghostly fireplaces and brickwork walls lurk in the undergrowth. The plotlands were a ground-up experiment in egalitarianism that would ultimately be curtailed by the Town and Country Planning Act which was designed partly with their end in mind. Later champions of the plotlands, such as the anarchist writer Colin Ward, would celebrate their untidy, rambling landscapes, but by this point it was largely too late.

In the 1960s and 70s, the architectural avant-garde rediscovered the grid, employing it as a spatial corollary to the counter-culture, a continuous ‘field’ that people could inhabit freely like ex-urban nomads – ‘Electric Aborigines’ as Archigram called them. Italian group Superstudio’s extraordinary series of collages for its Continuous Monument proposal was a case in point, an eerie techno-pagan landscape that predicted our networked culture but with more utopian underlying politics.

Some of this thinking would find its way into the last completed New Town of Milton Keynes, a place that elides technocratic futurism with dreams of Arcadian bliss. The naming of roads perfectly captures this dichotomy, employing both a rational numbering system and evocative references to ancient British places, such as Silbery Hill. Milton Keynes is a loose grid, like a field pattern with each square approximately one kilometre across, but accommodating to changes in topography and landscape.

Wandering around New Winchelsea today, the thought occurs that its design could be one of the solutions to our housing crisis; loose grids populated by free-form examples of folk architecture, a mix of state-enabled service infrastructure and neo-plotland self-built nirvana. Conflicting desires for both collective responsibility and private freedom could potentially be reconciled along with a form of cultural and economic levelling. Within your square, you are free to do anything you want, however antisocial, but you can only have one. Micro freedom and macro collectivity in built form. 

Charles Holland is principal of Charles Holland Architects and professor of architecture at the University of Brighton