Important developments in the New Town
Important Developments in Harlow New Town
Chippingfield: The First Housing Estate
Frederick Gibber’s Master Plan for Harlow was approved by the Minister of Town and Country Planning on 15 March 1949. The Development Corporation was anxious to get houses started 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 ‘chep’, the Saxon word for market, because it is believed the original Harlow market was held here.
Contemporary photographs of Chippingfield and Mark Hall North, the second residential neighbourhood, provide a stark reminder of the enormity of the task that faced the builders of new towns. Everything had to be built ‘from scratch’. This had profound implications for the first residents, especially the women who had been cut off from their old local networks of kinfolk and friends and shops. The new shops were almost certainly farther away than they had been in their previous locations, trees were either small or non-existent, and roads were unpaved. The stress of moving to what must have seemed like a foreign land was exacerbated by the fact that even the house designs were unfamiliar.
In the 1950s, house designers, male and female, British and American, imbued with modernist theories, advocating putting the kitchen, which was assumed to be the sole domain of the wife’s, 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 between the parlour and the front of the house. Post-war designers favoured ‘rational’ principles and wanted to do away with what they considered the social pretension of the parlour which was traditionally used only on special occasions, although its window draperies and proudly-displayed ornaments were important status symbols. The obvious solution was to do away with the parlour altogether
Many new town homes were based on the open-plan principle. Removing the wall separating the front room from the kitchen helped eliminate what was considered the undesirable spatial divisions that separated life into compartments. The house was then turned 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. 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 by the peculiar decision to place the back (service) door beside the front door on the public façade. (Attfield, 1989).
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).
Mark Hall North was home to a major innovation in design and living. The nine-storey block of flats called The Lawn has been characterized as ‘first post-war tower block in the U.K.’ and won a Festival of Britain Award in 1953. Gibberd had wanted it to be four or five storeys higher but scaled it back, anticipating that there would be opposition to a building of this type. He was correct. The idea of a block of flats was strongly opposed by senior civil servants in the Ministry of Town and Country Planning. They felt that building flats in the countryside was an ‘absurd extravagance’. It says a great deal about the challenges faced by the new town designers that Gibberd needed Gibberd the personal intervention of the Minister before he could proceed with the construction. It was an important victory for him, and for the town. His first architectural commission, in 1934, was Pullman Court, a block of flats in Streatham Hill, London. Then in 1937 co-authored the The Modern Flat. The ideas he espoused, in both the building and the book, were those in vogue among modernists who were more attuned to Le Corbusier’s ville radieuse than garden cities. But the crux of the issue was the question of whether the government would permit new town administrations the freedom to develop their own design concepts. The Lawn was an important victory.
Gibberd was adamant that Harlow should be an ‘urban’ place, with a good mixture of densities and housing plans. Outwardly, most of the houses built in Harlow were traditional terraced ‘cottages’. Gibberd was impatient at the reluctance of Ministry officials to depart from these familiar designs. He believed that tenants would happily accept other forms of accommodation if they were of high standard. He also saw The Lawn as an important symbol. The building is visible the A414 and Gibberd hoped that motorists, travelling along this arterial road and seeing the building, would realize that Harlow was a town and not just an overgrown housing estate. Furthermore, to meet the objective of creating a town with socio-economic balance, he knew it would be necessary to provide accommodation for young, single people. He 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 didn’t just add some high-density housing – its design made it a mecca for architects for years to come. Although it isn’t evident from the ground, the building is butterfly-shaped with the happy result that the sitting room of every flat has a southern view.
Despite the fact that Gibberd thought tower blocks were essential for the success of the design, there were only nine in the original plan. One of the things that a Canadian visitor quickly realizes is that Harlow is a ground-hugging tow, reflecting the general antipathy which the English feel about them.
Through the 1960s Gibberd’s freedom to experiment with new forms of housing design and building materials continued to be hampered by the 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. And new policies such as limitations on 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 as he began to develop Great Parndon neighbourhood. Clarkhill involved the experimental use of industrialized building methods and Bishopsfield required modifications in building by-laws to permit an unusual house form.
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. Located on the south side of Southern Way, it was a rigidly rectangular development of 200 dwelling constructed of pre-fabricated concrete panels. They were erected in part by semi-skilled workmen as an experiment to see if this would reduce costs. This is may have done, but the experiment was not to be repeated. From the beginning the development was plagued with leaks and condensation problems, the experiment deemed a failure, and it was demolished.
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 government's demand that residential densities be increased but also mitigated some of the more common disadvantages of higher density. 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.
In 2008 it was estimated that an investment of £50,000 per flat would be required 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.
In 1963 a British housing mission visited Canada to study timber balloon-frame building methods. To alleviate a persistent housing shortage the British government wanted to expand and modernize the house-building industry so that it could be completing 500,000 new dwelling units per year by 1970. The Canadian government wanted to get a piece of this market for its exports of CLS (Canadian Lumber Standards-sized) lumber and Douglas 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 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 similar to traditional English house designs. This was a disappointment to some observers. A lead article in the October 1967 issue of House Beautiful For Young Homemakers, 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 the article was generally complimentary about the project, it concluded ‘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 that 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 take a mortgage on them because they were considered a bad risk and 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 (and) 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.
Gibberd’s plan for the principal shopping complex incorporated
not only a variety of sizes and types of retail outlets but also office accommodation, the bus terminal, a large office block (Terminus House) with integral parking garage, the police station and magistrate’s court, library, a church and the Playhouse Theatre. He located The High on top of Dad’s Wood hill between two river valleys: the Stort to the north and Todd Brook to the south, and at the intersection of Second and Third Avenues and the green wedges through which they ran.
The High was centred on the first pedestrianized shopping precinct in the UK. It is difficult nowadays to realize how radical a concept this was in 1952. The original concept was that two parallel malls would join the market square on the north with the Town Hall and Civic Centre on the south. The composition was closed by the Water Gardens that looked out over the green wedge containing Second and Third Avenues so they would link the dense, highly ‘urban’ town centre with the surrounding landscape.
Car parking was provided by lots on the north, east and west of the central core. Against Gibberd’s advice, a parking lot was built south of the Water Gardens in 1966. Increasing population and affluence have led to much higher levels of car ownership than were anticipated in the 1950s. The English landscape been seriously degraded by the need to accommodate more cars and the ubiquitous ‘wheelie bin’ and the despoliation of the original view from the Water Gardens southwards toward Rye Hill and Epping is one example.
Major stores were located in Broadwalk, the major north-south corridor and smaller shops in Little Walk. Currently (2017) under renovation, it had recently begun to reflect the changing ethnic composition of Harlow.
Gibberd intended the Market Place to be the principal space at the north end of the Town Centre because of his love for what he called ‘the oldest form of English shopping’. The first market was held in Stone Cross on 19th May 1956. Originally planned as a Tuesday and Saturday market it quickly became so popular that a Friday market was added in 1964 and a Thursday market in 1976. It continues to operate today although the type of merchandise offered by the traders has changed over the years.
The Harvey Centre, begun in 1979, represented another significant innovation. Enclosed, air-conditioned shopping malls were common in North America by this time, but were still a rarity in England. It took Gibberd some time to convince the local authorities that this would be a successful addition to The High. But he hated the flat ceilings that were typical of enclosed malls. So he designed the central court of the Harvey Centre with a high, tent-like ceiling modelled on the design of his own living room. The Centre is named after Ben Hyde Harvey who was General Manager of the Harlow Development Corporation and Chairman of the Memorial University Harlow Campus Trust from 1977 to 1999.
The Town Hall overlooking the Water Gardens was supposed to be 14 storeys high but when built in 1958 it only had nine so it was a less impressive focal point than Gibberd had intended. In any case it was demolished in 2006 and the site incorporated into a whole new shopping area that incorporates some large chain stores, including ASDA (part of the Walmart empire), T.k. Maxx and Matalan.
Plans to demolish the Water Gardens were thwarted but they are now surrounded by commercial development that was never envisaged in Gibberd’s original plan. The upper layer of the Water Gardens has 7 small fountains in a 250 yard long canal. The water flows out seven stylized lion’s heads into a second, lower canal and then flows into three lily ponds on the lowest level where Gibberd also placed small parterre gardens enclosed by yew hedges. The complex is considered a masterpiece of 20th century garden design and is listed Grade II on the English Heritage Statutory List and Grade II* on the Register of Parks and Gardens. This is a fitting tribute to Gibberd who was a life-long proponent of the value of gardens and sculpture in public spaces. Two features of Harlow, the Water Gardens and the Gibberd Garden on the site of his former home in Marsh Lane, are local examples of his dedication to the art of landscape gardening.
The High has struggled to adapt to the competition from an explosion of Big Box stores along Edinburgh Way and in other towns. The original anchor tenants in The High were Woolworth’s, Boots, Sainsbury, W.H. Smith and the London Cooperative Store. The LCS first traded in Broadwalk, and then built a Superstore in the Harvey Centre. After that closed, the site was subsequently occupied by British Home Stores. That store was one of the 164 BHS stores that closed in June 2016 when the chain went into receivership, and the space remains vacant at the time of writing (March 2017). The original Coop store in Broadwalk became, and remains, Fish Bros. pawnbrokers. Marks and Spencer opened a store in Broadwalk in 1966 but it was a casualty of the M and S chain’s falling profits and closed in 2015. The company applied for permission to convert the store to a Simply Food operation, but Harlow Council rejected the application. The site is currently being renovated into smaller shops. Sainsbury the grocery chain originally traded in Broadwalk, then moved into a much larger space in the Harvey Centre before abandoning The High in the mid-1990s when moving to a new superstore built on the former Gilbey’s site, just north of The High. Wilkinson’s now trades out of the former Sainsbury space.
The Neighbourhood Centres
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 rent 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 pedestrianized.
The South Square, centred on a group of trees that had previously graced the grounds of Mark Hall Manor, contained the Library, the Community Centre, a dance hall and café. 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 1951 ‘Review of the Year’ The Architect’s Journal praised The Stow, as ‘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 of the original plan to include 50 small shops. There was concern about this at the time of construction, and it was decided that the last nine shops should be converted to offices. As the trend in retailing moved to fewer and larger outlets, it has had a hard time competing with the Town Centre and the ‘big box’ outlets in Edinburgh Way.
The first phase of Bush Fair opened in 1958 in the Tye Green quadrant, and benefitted from the experience gained during construction of The Stow. It, too, has a Z-shaped plan, but was designed from the outset to be entirely pedestrianized. 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.
Staple Tye built in 1967, is the third of the neighbourhood centres. It was an experiment, designed as an integrated three-level reinforced concrete. Parking and service areas were located on the ground floor, thirty 30 shops on the first level and flats on the second. The flats bridged the shopping precinct and the stairwells that gave 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 and the flats were demolished.
In his retrospective evaluation of the town plan Gibberd arguesd that these three neighbourhood centres demonstrate the evolution of the shopping function in Harlow. The Stow was designed originally as a traditional shopping street, Bush Fair as an open, pedestrianised complex, and Staple Tye was an innovative ‘decked centre’. Finally, when the Harvey Centre was completed in The High, or Town Centre, Harlow had its first enclosed mall.
Seventeen small ‘Hatches’, which are groups of shops providing basic necessities are scattered throughout the residential neighbourhoods of Harlow. In the early days of the New Town most of them had a newsagent and a greengrocer and two or three other shops such as a café or restaurant, a barber shop, a small grocers, or a bookmaker. Most of the specialist shops have been replaced with larger convenience stores. The one thing that has not changed is the proximity of a pub – almost all of which are named after an Essex butterfly.
Clifton Hatch is in the Latton Bush neighbourhood on the southern edge of Harlow. The shops located there in 1977 were typical of the time: V.A. Cooper Newsagents; Bamboo Fish Bar; Philip Water Greengrocer and Fruiterer and Food Fayre. These have all gone, replaced by a Spar convenience store and Harlow Kebabs. Burgoyne Hatch in the Mark Hall North neighbourhood has Clippers Barbers, B & U Clonvenience and Wing's Garden Chinese Takeaway as well as the Purple Emperor pub. In 1994, Ward Hatch in Mark Hall South was occupied by W.H. News and Off Licence; a Mini Market and Off Licence; Harlow Quality Fish and Chicken Bar; and The White Admiral. The pub remains, but the other businesses have been replaced by Jad's Convenience (offering Groceries, Newsagent, Off License and Lottery) and Eat Well Chinese Takeaway.
Many planners and architects have judged the English New Towns to be a generally successful, but never-to-be-repeated experiment in regional planning and social engineering. However they have been severely criticized by many of those who lived in, or close to them as unnecessarily ugly and inhospitable. 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 opportunity to move out of a home shared with parents and in-laws in the overcrowded inner city was a blessed relief. The collective will of residents to make them work gave the early new towns a communicate spirit impossible to understand today. 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.
One of the explicit goals of The New Towns Programme was to improve the housing conditions faced by working-class residents of inner cities, especially London. Another was to assist economically depressed rural areas through managed relocation of industry and workers. An implicit goal was to help rebuild the war-shattered economy, encourage and facilitate the transformation of British industry and, by so doing, promote a positive image of the country abroad. All these goals were met to some extent.
But critics have focussed on the unintended, unforeseen and to some extent unpredictable shortcomings of the New Jerusalem. The New Town programme, and indeed the development of post-war planning in general, was based on the notion that urban problems could, and would be solved by the application of rational, scientific reasoning. The Central Government be worried that the huge financial investment would not produce a commensurate return, and that attempts to solve existing urban 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 by the end of the Seventies times had changed to the point that shutting down the development corporations was seen as the best option. The plug was pulled in 1981 partly because Ebenezer Howard’s original intention of allowing an independent entity to control a whole town was anathema to the sensibilities of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government which came to power in 1979. But the legacy of the brave pioneers lives on. The towns, no longer ‘new’, continue to provide housing, social services, jobs, parks and recreation facilities – just as they were supposed to. Geographer, historian and planner Sir Peter Hall provides a fitting epitaph:
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.
Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century (1988): 173.