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Urban Planning and 19th Century Essay

For many within the modern movement, the marriage between town and country represented the means of achieving an ideal form of settlement. Discuss the 19th century origins of this concept and how it was interpreted in different ways by modernist architects and urbanists in the 20th century. If architecture could change a person’s wellbeing; an architectural movement could create an ideal society. The modernists were not original in seeking an urban utopia. Architects of the 1800s had designed their ideal settlements to improve workers lives through the built environment. Modernism implies historical discontinuity, a rejecting of history and tradition, yet these 19th century projects, unknowingly, influenced the urban proposals of the ‘International style’. Through this century of proposals from 1830-1940s, lies a recurring theme of ‘utopia’; a rational, clean city with massive green areas, where both the convenience of the town and beauty of the countryside unite.

The beginning of the convergence between ‘town’ and ‘countryside’ is due to the socialist thinkers of the 19th century, with their belief that one’s environment affects one’s character. The concept of architecture changing a person was explored dramatically by the socialist and radical thinker, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). The totalitarian design of his ‘Panoptikon’ was to “grind rogues honest”. It was built as a cylindrical prison and could be applied to schools and hospitals. The principle behind this machine-like institute was that the incarcerated would believe they are under constant surveillance, thus minimising chances of misbehaviour. This perceived scrutiny would allow the inhabitants to become better citizens.

Due to rapid industrialisation in the 19th century, larger city populations exploded, and squalor was rampant. Many of the old cities had seen their populations double. Around 1800 about one fifth of Britain’s population lived in the countryside, but by 1851 half the population of the country was housed in London. This lead to uncontrolled housing developments, where the private sector responded to the population boom by building poor quality, high density housing for workers. The thinkers of the 19th century, like the modernists of the 1930s believed a planned urban form could solve these social problems. In its earliest form, the marriage between town and country is subtle; placing of private gardens or greenbelts, yet this soon grows into an entire ‘Garden City’ movement.

Like Bentham, industrialist Robert Owen (1771-1858) believed that a person’s morale was affected by their surroundings. However, he believed less in the social engineering of Bentham and more on socialism, striving for better conditions for the working class. His mill at New Lanark, Scotland, was to become “the most important experiment for the happiness of the human race that has yet been instituted in any part of the world.” Owen’s humane regime was a stark contrast to the slums present in cities. At his mill, he built communal buildings and gardens for leisure and exercise, a “complete ideological systems for small communities”, where the workers children were also educated.

This new high standard of living encouraged workers’ productivity. His New Lanark model encouraged him to build this environment of mutual co-operation at a larger scale. Owen devised a ‘Plan for an Ideal Village’, an area with specific size and population, of between 500 to 1500. This plan was similar to structures of towns found in ancient Greece; there was a geometric layout and a focus on agriculture to become self-sufficient. This theory became a development called ‘New Harmony’, which was to be situated in the US, with an estimate population for five thousand designed as a quadrangle with sides of thousand feet. The design was never realised.

Owen was called a ‘Utopian socialist’ by the revolutionary communist Karl Marx, and Owen shared this title with Charles Fourier (1772-1837). Fourier believed that co-operation was key to have a successful community, and to achieve this ‘phalanxes’ should be established. This ‘phalanstery’ would “1) Discover and organize a system of industry; (2) Guarantee to every individual the equivalent of their natural rights; and (3) Associate the interests of rich and poor.” These ‘natural rights’ included the ‘gathering of natural products’ and fishing, and these communal hotel-like settlements facilitated this with laid-out gardens and grounds for exercise.

Jean-Baptiste Godin (1817-1888) modelled his iron foundry at Guise on the Oise on one of Fourier’s ‘phalanxes’, with prevalent communal values. The residential buildings at the foundry were ‘familistiere’. The merge of buildings and landscape was similar to the ideal Palladian relationship between the inside space and the exterior. Living standards of workers vastly improved, and by combining industry and nature the ‘familistiere’ provided its inhabitants with “les équivalents de la richesse “(the equivalent of wealth).

Figure 2-E.Howard’s Three Magnets

Though Owen, Fourier and Godin believed in the ‘ideal settlement’, all projects were too small a scale to eliminate urban hardship. The Public Health Act of 1875 was the first legal action to resolve the appalling living conditions and preventing the spread of cholera in cities. The expanding sprawl of the city had pushed the countryside further away from workers in city centres. In 1898, Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928) wrote the “Garden Cities of Tomorrow”, which was the first realistic sign of a marriage between town and country to form an urban utopia. His “Three Magnets” diagram, showed the pull of the idyllic fresh air and low rent of the countryside, merged with the opportunities and convenience of the city into one ‘Garden City’.

This utopian settlement noted the economic independence of the factory towns of Owen; each city would have its own industries and farms as to be self-sufficient. The settlements would have an optimum 32,000 inhabitants on 2,000 hectacres. It had a circular periphery enclosing a population of 30,000, the remaining would live on the agriculture belt which was ran only electrified industry. Six principal streets ran to the centre, where the main public offices were surrounded by four one-acre parks. In all, this ‘Garden City’ seemed “to blend, by rational means, the various demands of an expanding capitalist society and the nostalgia for communities on a human scale.” Howard believed these garden cities could be built on the peripheries of a central city and be connected by rail; he was opposed to the idea of these being identified as ‘garden suburbs’.

After the success of the “Garden Cities of Tomorrow”, Howard founded the ‘Garden City Association’ in 1899. His first project was for a town 80 miles from London called Letchworth, with architects Barry Parker (1867 – 1947) and Raymond Unwin (1863 – 1940). In 1904, the town was realised. Unwin and Parker were associated with the ‘Arts and Craft movement’ of J.Ruskin and W.Morris, which opposed machine-like design and opted for picturesque ornament rooted in tradition. Letchworth was a family orientated settlement, where “the monotony of street fronts was broken by the turning of houses on their lots so each could command the sunniest and pleasantest view.” With an amicable architecture, a high-quality street system, it had ample space with “twelve houses to the acre.” The basic model by Howard had a centre of parkland and a lacked a commercial centre of a city. This design was developed by Unwin, who saw the ‘Garden City’ as a proposal for satellite towns of major cities. He based his first design on the city of London, and with Parker developed Hampstead Garden Suburb (1905), later to be followed by Welwyn (1920).

Howard’s model inspired builders in Sweden, the US and Australia, where the layout of the capital Canberra was influenced by this ‘Garden City’ movement. It is in post-World War I that we see the 19th century ideas of Howard influence on European city planners.

In mainland Europe socialist reform through housing was taking place. With a shortage of living space in the liberal city of Amsterdam, and the election of the SDAP (Socialist Democratic Worker’s Party), the State took control of all municipal building. The Woningwet Housing Act (1902) had been a result of “investigations into the living conditions of workers, the first hygienic regulations, and the interventions of scientific and philanthropic associations”.

The most notable developments in Amsterdam are apartments built for two socialist housing societies, Eigen Haard and De Daagard. They were both designed by Michel de Klerk (1884-1923), who had studied under H.P. Berlage (1856 – 1934), and who was influenced by Bruno Taut (1880-1936). De Klerk is seen as a link between the Traditionalists and the Modernists and had been interested by Unwin’s model. He was a member of the ‘Amsterdam school’, a team who built a garden suburb project in Rotterdam. He became one of the leading Dutch architects in the Expressionism movement “which reached for a romantic, soulful symbolization of reality”.

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