Friday, March 2, 2018

In the end, the visionaries were undone by the unmanageable scale of their own ambitions.

From The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain by Bill Bryson. Page 63.
“What is perhaps most extraordinary is how very nearly so much of it was lost. In the 1950s, Britain became obsessed with the idea that it needed to modernize, and that the way to do so was to tear down most of what the Germans hadn’t bombed and cover what remained under steel and concrete.

One after another through the 1950s and ’60s grand plans were unveiled to bulldoze and rebuild great chunks of London. Piccadilly Circus, Covent Garden, Oxford Street, the Strand, Whitehall and much of Soho all were proposed for redevelopment. Sloane Square was to be replaced with a shopping centre and twenty-six-storey apartment block. The area from Westminster Abbey to Trafalgar Square would become a new government district, ‘a British Stalingrad of concrete and glass slabs’, in the words of Simon Jenkins. Four hundred miles of new motorways were to sweep through London and a thousand miles of existing roads, including Tottenham Court Road and the Strand, were to be widened and made faster – essentially turned into dual carriageways – to tear through the heart of the city. Throughout central London pedestrians wishing to cross busy roads would be directed into tunnels or up on “to metal or concrete footbridges. Walking through London would be like endlessly changing platforms at a mainline railway station.

It all seems a kind of madness now, but there was remarkably little opposition. Colin Buchanan, Britain’s most influential planner, promised that sweeping away the accumulated clutter of centuries and building gleaming new cities of concrete and steel would ‘touch a chord of pride in the British people and help to give them that economic and spiritual lift of which they stand in need’. When a developer named Jack Cotton proposed to clear out most of Piccadilly Circus and build a 172-foot-high tower that looked like a cross between a transistor radio and a workman’s toolbox, the proposal received the blessing of the Royal Fine Art Commission. It was passed without dissent at a secret meeting of the Westminster Planning Department. Under Cotton’s plan, the statue of Eros was to be raised up to a new pedestrian platform and integrated with a network of walkways and footbridges to keep people safely segregated from the speeding traffic below.

In 1973, the year I first settled in Britain, the most sweeping plan of all was unveiled: the Greater London Development Plan. This elaborated on all the earlier proposals and called for building a series of four orbital motorways, which would encircle the city like ripples on a pond, with twelve radial expressways bringing all the capital’s motorways – M1, M3, M4, M11 and M23 – into the heart of the city. Freeways, mostly elevated, would slice through Hammersmith, Fulham, Chelsea, Earls Court, Battersea, Barnes, Chiswick, Clapham, Lambeth, Islington, Camden Town, Hampstead, Belsize Park, Poplar, Hackney, Deptford, Wimbledon, Blackheath, Greenwich – nearly everywhere. A hundred thousand people would lose their homes. Almost nowhere would be spared the roar of speeding traffic. Remarkably, many people couldn’t wait for this to happen. A writer for the Illustrated London News insisted that people ‘enjoyed being close to busy traffic’ and cited the new Spaghetti Junction interchange in Birmingham as a place made lively and colourful by its infusion of speeding vehicles. He noted also the propensity of British people to picnic in laybys, which he interpreted as a fondness for ‘noise and bustle’, rather than the fact that they were just insane.

The Greater London Development Plan would have cost a then-colossal £2 billion, making it the biggest public investment ever made in Britain. That was its salvation. Britain couldn’t afford it. In the end, the visionaries were undone by the unmanageable scale of their own ambitions.

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