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Important Developments in Harlow New Town

Harlow Development Corporation Promotional Brochure, 1961

Chippingfield: The First Residential Neighbourhood

The Master Plan was approved by the Minister on 15 March, 1949. The Development Corporation was anxious to get something on the ground as quickly as possible but their options were limited by the lack of roads and drainage. A small site in Hart Road provided enough space for the erection of four pre-fabricated homes and the keys for the first two were handed over to their tenants on 4 August, 1949. Many more houses than this would be necessary to house the first great influx of building tradesmen and a site was found for 120 of them south of the village of Harlow. The estate retained the mediaeval name Chippingfield, from the Saxon ‘chep’ meaning market. It is thought that this was the location of Harlow’s original market. By the 13th century the land was being rented and worked by ‘mole men’, smallholders who paid rent, unlike villeins who paid in labour or goods.

Subsequent housing estates were constructed west of what is now the A414 on the grounds of the Mark Hall estate, and were named to perpetuate its memory. Contemporary photographs of Chippingfield and Mark Hall North provide a stark reminder of the enormity of the task that was undertaken in this, and the other new towns. Everything had to be built ‘from scratch’ and this had profound implications for the first residents, especially the women who had been cut off from their network of kin and friends and shops. Now shops were most likely farther away than they had been in their previous locations, trees were either small or non-existent, roads were unmade, and even the house designs were unfamiliar.

Chippingfield, 1950 Chippingfield, ca. 1951 Chippingfield, ca. 1952
Mark Hall, 1950 Mark Hall North, 1951 Aerial view of Mark Hall North and The Lawn, early 1950s.

In the 1950s design experts, both male and female, both in Britain and North America, were advocating turning the traditional house back to front, i.e. putting the kitchen, which was assumed to be the wife’s working area , at the front of the house ‘so that the women could join, however indirectly, in the life of the neighbourhood’. This revolutionary idea broke the traditional correlation of ‘front’ with the parlour, saved only for special occasions, and its window draperies and ornaments a display of status, on show to the street. Post-war designers favoured ‘rational’ principles and wanted to do away with what they considered the social pretension focused on the parlour. One way to solve that was to do away with the parlour altogether. Many new town homes were based on the open-plan principle. This eliminated the divisions that separated life into compartments by removing the wall separating the front room from the kitchen, and then turning them back to front. Modernists saw nothing problematic about a captive housewife marooned in her kitchen, passively catching glimpses of an outside world in which she was unable to participate actively. As one early Harlow resident put it: ‘when I used to look out of the window I couldn’t see a thing … I thought I was the only person on earth’. The sense of dislocation was reinforced in Chippingfield where rather strangely, the ‘back’ (service) door was positioned beside the ‘front’ door on the public façade at the front. (Attfield, 1989).

Chippingfield:  Side-by-side front and back doors, and a display of net curtains (sheers) Chippingfield:  A small-scale example of the marriage between city and country.

In trying to domesticate their new dwellings, many women immediately put up net curtains and other window treatments. For this they were excoriated by architects and designers, who felt that the women simply didn’t understand the necessity of embracing new ideas. On the other hand ‘the architects had not anticipated, and clearly had no understanding of the importance that privacy, pride of ownership and tradition played in these womens’ lives. New Town women saw no contradictions in what were seen by the architects, steeped in modernist ideology, as tasteless compromises’. They were determined not to succumb to the minimalist, functional requirements of the modern style (Sparke, 1995). ‘Harlowitis’, the local form of the ‘New Town Blues’ refers to the very real depression suffered by many women because of their initial inability to deal effectively with the multitude of new aspects of life in a pioneer town. There is no doubt that the enthusiasm of well-intentioned design professionals to try out their new ideas on other people’s lives made the consequences of dislocation more severe, no matter how happy the majority of people were with their new houses. It is worth remembering that ‘urban development is about the fears and fantasies of citizens as much as it is about the dreams of planners’ (Hubbard, 2010: 414).

The Lawn

The Lawn, 2011Mark Hall North was home to another major innovation in design and living – a nine-storey block of flats, commonly referred to as the ‘first post-war tower block in the U.K.’ and which was the recipient of a Festival of Britain Award in 1953. Gibberd wanted it to be four or five storeys higher, but was afraid of opposition and scaled it back. But opposition came anyway. The idea was strongly opposed by senior civil servants in the Ministry of Town and Country Planning. It says a great deal about the challenges faced by the new town designers that permission to proceed with the building required the personal intervention of the Minister. Gibberd, having designed Pullman court in Streatham Hill, London as his first commission in 1934, and co-authored the 1937 book The Modern Flat, wanted to try out some of his ideas – ideas which were also in vogue among the modernists who were more attuned to Le Corbusier’s ville radieuse than garden cities. But the real issue was whether the government was going to permit new town administrations the freedom to develop their own design concepts. The Ministry officials were affronted by the projected cost but, more importantly, were against the ‘absurd extravagance’ of building flats in the countryside.

But Gibberd was adamant that Harlow should be an ‘urban’ place, with a good mixture of densities and housing plans. Much of the housing built in Harlow was quite traditional in its design, based on the terraced house or cottage. Gibberd chafed at the reluctance to depart from these familiar designs, believing that tenants would happily accept other forms of accommodation as long as they were of high standard. The site of The Lawn can be seen from the A414 arterial road and Gibberd hoped that passing motorists, seeing the building, would realize that Harlow was a town and not just an overgrown housing estate. He wanted to provide accommodation for young, single people and believed that the only economical way to do so was by building flats. He also wanted to preserve as much as possible of the surviving natural landscape. The site he chose for this development was surrounded by 7 huge oak trees which he argued could be preserved if a tower block was inserted inside them, as indeed they have been, but not if traditional cottages were built on the site.

The Lawn under construction, 1950 The Lawn and a couple of the oak trees, 1951

The block doesn’t just add some high-density housing – its design made it a mecca for architects for years to come. It isn’t evident from the ground, but the building is butterfly-shaped with the happy result that the sitting room of every flat has a southern view.

No matter how important Gibberd thought tower blocks were for the success of the design, there were only nine in the original plan. One of the things that a Canadian visitor eventually realizes is that Harlow is a ground-hugging town. This, or course, reflects the general antipathy which the English feel about them.

Bishopsfield and Clarkhill

By the mid 1960s the ability of Gibberd to experiment with new forms of housing design and building materials was increasingly hampered by restrictions imposed by local and central government. Unfamiliar ideas were opposed on the grounds that tenants might not like them. Rising building costs and stricter cost controls ruled out the use of traditional building materials like slate or clay pantiles for roofs. New policies which, for example limited the distance a dustbin could be carried, were developed and rigorously applied. However Gibberd was able to get permission to proceed with what the Architects Review (1966) called ‘two prongs of attack’ on mediocrity of design at the outset of development in Great Parndon. Clarkhill involved the experimental use of industrialized building methods and Bishopsfield required modifications in building by-laws to permit an unusual house form.

Clarkhill, 1977 Clarkhill, 1977 Clarkhill, 1977
  Clarkhill, 1977  

From the outset of the New Town programme the Ministry had required a certain percentage of ‘non traditional’ houses which used new materials and methods of construction and the Clarkhill estate satisfied this requirement. It was a rigidly rectangular development south of Southern Way, had 200 dwellings all constructed of the same material – which led to it being tagged with the sobriquet ‘concrete jungle’. From the beginning it was plagued with leaks and condensation problems and was eventually demolished.

Across from Clarkhill, north of Southern Way, is Bishopsfield. The Board of the Development Corporation agreed to hold an open competition in 1961 for the first housing development in the Great Parndon/Passmores quadrant. The winning entry, chosen from among 60 contenders, was submitted by 24 year old Michael Neylan. His concept was of a platform on top of the hill that provided garaging and its roof a pedestrian concourse intended as the central point of the scheme. A ring of flats surrounds the concourse or piazza, with their front doors leading off it, and an outer ring of courtyard houses stepping down the

Bishopsfield, 1966   Bishopsfield, aerial view, 1966
Bishopsfield, The Piazza, 1977 Bishopsfield, The Piazza, 2003 Bishopsfield, pedestrian land, 1977

 

hill with pedestrian lanes running between them. The blank walls of the lanes, relieved only by the small windows of the kitchens gave it a somewhat North African appearance, and the development was soon nicknamed "The Casbah". In an effort to reduce the distinction between flats and houses, almost every dwelling was given a private open space large enough to be useful for domestic activities. The ground-level dwellings had gardens, those above had terraces. And as many flats as possible were given their own front door opening directly to the open air. The development would have been impossible without some relaxation of cost limits because ‘man-made ground’ like the piazza is very expensive. Furthermore, these houses were radically different from any that had previously been built in Harlow, and their construction required some relaxation of building by-laws.

The L-shaped Bishopsfield houses satisfied the contemporary pressure by government to raise residential densities. The key to the plan was the arrangement of living rooms and bedrooms to face into a small rectangular courtyard. The design gives almost total privacy since all rooms except the kitchen face inwards to the patio. The houses are single-storied so the gardens all get some sunshine, and most are not overlooked, making it possible for houses to be packed very tightly together with no loss of privacy. The open plan of these houses was deemed so unusual that the first residents were given a booklet called ‘Living in Bishopsfield’. This not only gave advice on transport links and so on, but also on living in the new houses.

A sitting room in Bishopsfield Bishopsfield.  The garden of a patio house.

A 2008 consultant’s report estimated that it would require an investment of £50,000 per flat to bring the 40 year-old units up to ‘decent homes’ standard. Consequently there was talk of demolishing the estate. Fortunately it has survived, perhaps because recent surveys show that 92% of residents liked their homes and 82% liked the estate. It isn’t only the residents who like the place – in 2009 the Twentieth Century Society recommended that it be awarded a Grade II heritage listing.

The Maples

In 1963 a British housing mission visited Canada to study Canadian timber frame building methods. The British housing programme called for the expansion of the house-building industry so that it would be completing 500,000 units of new housing per year by 1970. The Canadian government was hopeful of getting a piece of this market for its exports of CLS (Canadian Lumber Standards-sized) lumber and The MaplesDouglas fir plywood. The British mission found that Canadian methods were highly efficient in terms of cost, on-site labour and value for money and decided that a pilot project should be developed in the UK. The 173 houses in The Maples, tucked into the far south-west corner of Harlow are the result. The unique feature of this estate is not its density – at 12 houses per acre it is a far cry from the 20 dwellings per acre in Bishopsfield – but the fact that these are houses with all the features typical of those in any Canadian city. They have gyprock walls hung on load-bearing wooden stud walls, which allowed for the installation of rock wool insulation batts in both the walls and ceiling. They also have gas-fired forced-air central heating and hot water supply, insulated walls and roofs, heated bathrooms and built-in wardrobes. Eighty-two of them have attached garages. The exterior finish consists of some Western Red Cedar clapboard, which is not so very different from traditional Essex weatherboarding (although that is most commonly used on barns), and brick veneer, so that in appearance they are not so very dissimilar to more traditional English house designs. And this was a disappointment to some observers. A lead article in House Beautiful For Young Homemakers (October, 1967) entitled ‘Factory Fresh’ began: ‘Fed up with queuing for a home? … Considering the state of Britain’s building industry – universally recognise as the most inefficient in the country – it is surprising that the mud-and-wattle method of construction was ever abandoned. Therefore any attempt to build houses cheaper and faster deserves an enthusiastic welcome as a step towards fulfilling the basic human need of every family – a home’. Although generally complimentary about the project, the author noted ‘it is a pity that such an unconventional house from a construction point of view should look so much like most other new houses being built in Britain today’.

The residents have always been very happy with the houses which are much easier and cheaper to heat than more traditional masonry houses. But they were all built for sale, and were not well received by lenders. In the beginning none of the Building Societies would give a mortgage on them because they were considered a bad risk and so the Development Corporation had to provide the financing. In spite of the hope that construction of these houses, which were ‘grown in the rolling forests of British Columbia might provide the key that will quickly and cheaply unlock the door to a home for thousands of British families in the next few years’ the experiment was not repeated, and the hopes of CMHC and the Canadian government for a toehold in the British house-building industry were dashed.

The Neighbourhood Centres

The Stow, which opened in1952, was the first of three neighbourhood shopping and service centres. It was deliberately designed to be ‘urban’, with a shopping parade at ground level and flats above to ensure that the precinct stayed alive after the shops shut. The shop fronts were designed to be continuous – like a village shopping street – with no ‘dead areas’ like banks. The shop fronts were either recessed or provided with a canopy so that there would be some protection from the rain, and also a clear break with the residential architecture above. To make the complex feel more enclosed and comfortable its three separate areas, two squares and the shopping street, were laid out in a Z-plan so that it was impossible to see from one end to the other. To Gibberd’s dismay, the Board insisted that the shopping street be open to traffic. He argued that it wasn’t necessary to be able to park right in front of the shops, but there was a fear that if this wasn’t possible it might be difficult to let the shops, and the income from them was an essential part of the business plan for the New Town. In time the wisdom of Gibberd’s position was realized, and the area was pedestrianised. The South Square which contained the Library, the Community Centre, a dance hall and café was centred on a group of trees that had previously graced the grounds of Mark Hall Manor. The centre had to have a pub, of course, and like all the others in the new town was named after a local butterfly, the Essex Skipper in this case. As an experiment, a successful one as it turned out, a small group of service industry buildings were erected adjacent to the centre. In its ‘Review of the Year’ for 1951 The Architect’s Journal praised The Stow, saying it was ‘a rare exception to the criticism, justly made of New Towns generally, that they lack urbanity’. The centre has struggled over the years, perhaps because it was planned for too many small shops, 50 in the beginning, and as the trend in retailing moved to fewer and larger outlets, it had a hard time competing with the Town Centre and an even tougher time with the ‘big box’ outlets in Edinburgh Way. The new trend became evident before The Stow was completely developed, and the final 9 shops were converted to office space before completion.

The Stow, 1950 The Stow, 1953

The first phase of Bush Fair opened in 1958 in the Tye Green quadrant, and benefitted from the successes and failures at The Stow. It, too, had a Z-shaped plan, but was designed from the outset to be entirely pedestrianised. It had all the same sorts of facilities: flats, shops, a library and a pub, as well as an adjoining area of small factories and workshops. Although it sounds paternalistic today, it is worth noting that Gibberd wanted these here to provide local employment, especially for women who ‘were tied to the immediate vicinity’ of their homes. It may not seem like much of an accomplishment now, but the juxtaposition of services and light industry with retailing was a major in an era when planning orthodoxy required rigidly demarcated land-use planning. It was another one of Gibberd’s small, but important contributions to the development of the town.

The third of the neighourhood centres was Staple Tye, dating from 1967. This was designed as an architectural comcept – a complete and homogeneous reinforced concrete building on three levels. Parking and service areas were located on the ground floor and 30 shops on the first level. Flats bridged the shopping precinct, but access to them, and the ventilator shafts from the service areas below disrupted the continuity of the shopping precinct. In the 1990’s it was ‘regenerated’ into a single-level centre with about 20 shops (Blockbuster Video being the most obvious). The flats disappeared at the same time.

Staple Tye, 1977 Staple Tye:  The Maisonnettes over the shopping parade. 1977 Staple Tye:  The shopping parade.  1977

In Gibberd’s retrospective evaluation of the town’s plan he argues that these three centres demonstrate the evolution of the shopping function in Harlow. The Stow was designed originally as a traditional shopping street, Bush Fair was an open, pedestrianised complex, Staple Tye was an innovative ‘decked centre’ and then The High, when the Harvey Centre was completed, was an enclosed mall.

Conclusion

For historians of planning, and architects, particularly those who didn’t live in them, New Towns were a generally successful, never-to-be-repeated experiment in regional planning and social engineering. Many of those who lived in them, or close to them, have a different view. But it is unfair to judge them from the perspective of the 21st century. What it felt like to move to a New Town must be understood in the context of the circumstances their inhabitants left behind. For most new arrivals, the majority of them newly-married couples, the reality was that moving out of a home shared with parents and in-laws in the overcrowded inner city was a blessed relief. What gave the New Towns spirit was the collective will of residents to make them work. Despite indifference from the central government and the public at large, the New Towns ultimately succeeded because their residents wanted them to work. (Alexander, 2009, 104). New towns could succeed only if people had faith that they would. And in the heady days of post-war optimism, many did.

The New Towns Programme always had the explicit goal of relieving the poor housing conditions faced by working-class residents of inner cities, especially London, and of assisting economically depressed rural areas through managed relocation of industry as well as workers. An implicit goal was to assist British industry and to rebuild the war-shattered economy and, by so doing, promote a positive image of the country abroad. Both of these goals were met to some extent.

But the pay-off time for huge, daring experiments such as this is long gone. In time the unintended, unforeseen and to some extent unpredictable shortcomings of the New Jerusalem, based as it was on the notion that urban problems could, and would be solved by the application of rational, scientific reasoning, became the focus of critics. Government began to worry that the money invested would not produce a commensurate return, and that attempts to solve problems would lead to further unintended side-effects. Many of the observed problems were more the fault of global-scale economic transformations than anything local, but times had changed and shutting down the development corporations was seen as the best option. The plug was pulled in 1981 because Ebenezer’s original intention of allowing an independent entity to control a whole town was anathema to the sensibilities of the right-wing government which came to power in the late 1970s. But the legacy of the brave pioneers lives on, and the towns, no longer ‘new’, continue to provide housing, social services, jobs, parks and recreation facilities – just as they were supposed to. In the words of urban historian and planner Sir Peter Hall; " They do exist in harmony with the surrounding countryside, and the sheer mindless ugliness of the worst of the old sprawl has been eliminated. But is not quite as rich and worthy and high-minded as had been hoped: a good life, but not a new civilization. Perhaps the place was wrong: the English, those archetypically cosy people of low expectations, were the last people to achieve something different."

 

Table of Contents
Harlow's History and Geography
Introduction & The Origins of Harlow The Structure of Harlow Industry

Second World War Airfields
Walks Around Harlow
Market Street & St. John's Walk Fore Street, Park Hill, London & Station Roads High Street
Churchgate Street
Harlow New Town
The Origins of the New Town Programme Important Developments in Harlow New Town
References & Acknowledgements
Photo Gallery
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