On Colin Ward

David Knight

A talk given for The Architecture Foundation at the Garden Museum, February 2016.

‘A goal which is indefinitely remote is not a goal at all, it is a deception… Each epoch, each generation, each life has had, and has, its own experience, and en route new demands grow, new methods.’ 

This was one of Colin Ward’s favourite passages from the writings of Alexander Herzen. Ward shared with Herzen a belief in the politics of the present. His vision for a better society was radical but his means of exploring how to get there were pragmatic. In developing his notion of anarchy as a theory of organisation, Ward used the tools of the historian and the sociologist to gather together examples and case studies from the observable world and from history. He then used the tools of the planner, the activist and the educator to intervene in the present.

When forced to condense Ward’s influence on my practice it is this willingness to marry observation with action that keeps coming back. His work rejects the Utopian anticipation of a revolutionary moment, instead it reminds us again and again that the roots of a better society are present in today’s one, in such things as our lifeboat services, voluntary associations and everyday interactions.

Colin Ward’s work has influenced me in many ways but I think of him most often when teaching. I currently run ADS2, a postgraduate architecture studio at the Royal College of Art School of Architecture. Our aim is to encourage architecture students, however hypothetical their projects, to engage fully and critically with the messy and problematic realities of housing, equality and spatial justice as they stand today in the UK. We want them to use architectural skill as a tool to imagine ways out of current injustices, observing society as it is in order to find or develop for how it might be.

Ward did just this. He looked with clarity at all sorts of contemporary phenomena in building his arguments for a society without coercion, from the fluid and self-organising subcultures of Milton Keynes’ music scene to post-war mass squats and the politics of allotment culture. Of course, he never found perfect models, instead concentrating on the experiments, gained grounds and moments of possibility that seemed to unlock, piecemeal, the potential for a better society. He called these phenomena (people, practices, or places) ‘seeds beneath the snow’.

I’d like to describe two of these places to you now. The first is Bungalow Town, visited by Ward and Dennis Hardy for ‘Arcadia for All’, their landmark study of self-build plotland developments. The second place is the Laindon plotlands and their evolution into Basildon New Town, the central subject of a lecture Ward gave at the ICA in 1976 called the ‘The Do-It-Yourself New Town’. 

Bungalow Town is important to me because it happened in the town where I grew up. It sprang up in the early twentieth century as a collection of bungalows built informally on the shingle beach of Shoreham in Sussex. The bungalows were often made out of retired railway carriages from the nearby Lancing Carriage Works, where my grandfather worked, bought cheap and hauled across the river mouth by horses. The residents of Bungalow Town had a Bohemian reputation as many of them were associated with a natural light film studio built on the beach in 1914.

Over time, the architecture of Bungalow Town grew more ambitious, with many structures, such as a crenelated castle over five storeys, stretching the definition of ‘bungalow’, but at the same time the overall settlement grew increasingly ‘normal’, gaining telephone lines and made roads, perhaps it was even becoming respectable.

By the time Ward and Hardy visited, and when I was growing up down the road, Shoreham Beach was unrecognisable as the eccentric settlement it had been up until World War Two. During wartime, 75% of the beach had been cleared, ostensibly to create a more easily defensible coastline, and even before the outbreak of peace the local council was determined to prevent the old plotland structure from re-appearing. It failed to do so several times, facing an increasingly militant local community across a Whitehall table, until in 1947 the Town and Country Planning Act was passed by national government.

This new act, which created the planning system as we now know it, effectively nationalised the right to build, on the assumption that most significant development would be state-led, and to enable this it allowed local councils to compulsorily purchase any land needed to fulfil their local development plan.

Shoreham Beach was the first place, nationally, to be compulsorily purchased using these new powers, and the first to receive a ‘plan’ for its state-led redevelopment, even though the plan wasn’t even complete when the purchase was undertaken. This process initiated the version of Shoreham Beach we see today, a quiet and pleasant suburb, its many oddnesses mostly ironed out, barring one or two surviving railway carriages.

Bungalow Town’s tradition of alternative living has been exiled from the beach itself, but survives in the form of a long line of house-boats, many of them repurposed military craft, which cling on, just about, to the muddy banks of the Adur. Successors to the railway carriages, in construction and in spirit.

As a child I found this lost, bohemian civilisation fascinating. I began my researches into Bungalow Town at age 12 and have never really stopped, slowly evolving my interest from a fascination with living in trains to a more politicised interest, framed absolutely by Ward & Hardy’s book, in what drove the local authority to stamp it out. I continue to be fascinated by this very particular ‘seed’ of joyful, ‘informal’ settlement and its deliberate snowing under by an embryonic planning system predicated on the superior knowledge of the professional and the professional class.
Indeed this moment has become a fundamental one in my now extremely overdue Phd, also at the RCA, which is called ‘Making Planning Popular’. For me the great tragedy of 20th century planning in the UK is that the moment when it was most popular, most discussed on street corners and in the press, was the very moment when planning took a decisive shift away from the popular gaze and became something solely done for us by the state, an extreme position which is now of course being spectacularly eroded, not by popular activity but by the free market and by the ideology of austerity.
Laindon, in Essex, presents similar themes to Bungalow Town but with a radically different outcome. It emerged as a settlement at roughly the same time, one of several sites along the London to Southend railway line which were a short train ride from East London and where the cost of farm land was affordable thanks to agricultural depression. Aggressively marketed by local estate agents, who would put on sales parties in local hotels and didn’t check too closely the sobriety of the purchaser, the plots were mostly purchased by working class East Londoners, initially as sites for holiday chalets but increasingly hosting permanent homes. 

Laindon offered all the joys and pains of plotland communities everywhere. It allowed a hitherto-urbanised working class access to incredible personal, familial, environmental and constructional freedom, though its residents suffered from both a lack of infrastructure and the disapproval of more established country-dwelling neighbours. Infrastructure was provided by a form of mutual aid, with each plotholder undertaking to provide a single line of concrete pavers at the front edge of their plot, allowing a wheelbarrow of groceries or children to traverse the whole estate no matter how muddy the tracks got.

Laindon’s self-organising character is typical to the plotland phenomenon. What makes the place remarkable though, for Ward and for myself, is that the decision of several thousand working class Londoners to move to the Essex countryside, prompted by a range of socio-economic forces and over a period of several decades, eventually led to the area becoming the only post-war New Town to be actively asked for by its county council.

The post-war New Towns, in tandem with green belt legislation, and forming part of the radical reformation of planning represented by the Town and Country Planning Act, were meant to ‘solve’ London’s sprawling development pattern. London would ‘stop’ at its 1939 limits and would be rationally reorganised, whilst the New Towns would spring into being in orbit around London, beyond the newly-designated Green Belt, and would provide well-organised new settlements instead of an uncontrollably swelling capital. Because this was a big, region-spanning idea, the selection of sites was made nationally, and often paid little attention to local concerns. At Laindon however, Essex County Council recognised the potential of the New Towns programme to address the problems they perceived in the communities at Laindon and to fund the infrastructural improvements that they felt obligated to provide. 

They got their way, and the various plotlands of Laindon were integrated in the formation of a place called Basildon New Town. The Masterplan for Basildon was tasked with stitching together new and old settlements to make something ‘better’ out of the disparate plotlands and scattered historic villages. In some parts of the new town, former plotlands were absorbed into the new development pattern and provided with better infrastructure. Streets would be metalled, services provided, and New-towny architect-designed housing used to fill-in empty plots. 

In other locations, plotlands were not tidied up but tidied away. At Dunton, where several hundred familes lived, the plotland was gradually disassembled and its residents moved away, in order to create a 500-acre nature reserve. Now a single house, appropriately called The Haven, sits in the nature reserve and serves as a museum. The grassy streets retain their grid layout. Anderson shelters, gas ovens, foundations and garden gates can be found in the bushes, and the network of concrete pavers is occasionally visible between grass street and hedgerow. Back garden apple trees have become public assets.

Dunton for me is an incredibly poignant reminder of the possibilities of popular building activity in the interwar period. Its many and varied residents have gone but the romance of the site as a place of freedom is still palpable, still suggests possible futures.

In ‘The Do-It-Yourself New Town’, Ward celebrates Basildon New Town as a momentary triumph of responsiveness rather than determinism in state planning, a moment of spatial justice in which the state far transcended the now well-trodden ideas of participation & engagement and actually followed popular desire and popular building. Ward frames a partial view of a better and more responsive state, of a coercive political model flirting with its own obsolescence. As a parallel narrative to Bungalow Town, its radicalism is clear.

Ward found much to celebrate in the making of Basildon but he was also an advocate of the entire postwar New Towns programme. It is initially hard to reconcile this advocacy with Ward’s clearly stated Anarchism, that is, until we better understand his own particular reading of anarchist theory.
In Ward, there are no abstract Utopias or pure victories. There is instead a permanent state of struggle and negotiation. In his words, 

‘the conflict between authority and liberty is a permanent aspect of the human condition and not something that can be resolved by a vaguely specified social revolution. It recognizes that the choice between libertarian and authoritarian solutions occurs every day and in every way, and the extent to which we choose, or accept, or are fobbed off with, or lack the imagination and inventiveness to discover alternatives to, the authoritarian solutions to small problems is the extent to which we are their powerless victims in big affairs.’

For Ward, the New Towns programme was a sustained period where state ambition, in the form of the evolving Welfare State, formed an alliance with a radical tradition of left libertarianism in reading and producing the built environment, a tradition in which the Garden City was the archetypal urban form and Patrick Geddes & Ebenezer Howard were the key figures. This was a period to be exploited, and as ever, Ward put theory and observation into energetic practice. His ‘Do-It-Yourself New Town’ essay was written not primarily for academic consumption but as a piece of advocacy for a very real but eventually abortive project, to allocate two of Milton Keynes’ emerging grid squares as self-build communities: state-provided self-build. The proposal involved postponing detailed planning approval in order to allow residents’ finances and constructions to happen slowly, as time money and energy became available, and in open-ended ways. Labour would be given time to become capital.

Ward was interested in bringing about a freer society by exploring the state, undertaking what he described as ‘the progressive development of its imperfections.’ He undertook much of this work in the context of a state that was expanding, and the question now, perhaps, is whether these ideas, these searches for seeds beneath the snow, have any relevance now the opposite is happening, a shrinking state and an overwhelming neoliberal project.

For me their relevance is stronger than ever, and I’m sure Ward would have found cause for optimism in today’s groundswell of cooperative, mutual and third sector forms of human association, which despite frosty conditions are a measurably growing influence in our communities, in housing provision, and in emerging forms of design practice. This groundswell is a reassertion of social processes from a time before the sidelining of the libertarian left. The seed is not strong but it is there, and the work of Colin Ward has played, and will continue to play, a central role in its growth.