Colin Ward – Life, Times and Thought 15.05.14

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Images: Daniel Poynor (Ed), Autonomy: The Cover Designs of Anarchy, 1961-1970, Hyphen Press

Owen Hatherley is intrigued by the contradictions in the British architect and town planner Colin Ward's practical anarchism

The writer, historian and architect Colin Ward, who died in 2010, was that most apparently contradictory of things – a practical anarchist. He first came to prominence as one of the defendants in the wartime trial of the editors of an anti-war anarchist magazine; he worked as an architect, and at the Town and Country Planning Association, and alongside, was one of the editors of the anarchist magazines Freedom and Anarchy; but he was best known for his many books, applying anarchist ideas to the design of schools, to public transport, cathedrals, post-war new towns, and in his best-known book The Child in the City (1978), the ways in which children use urban spaces.

This biographical anthology is, surprisingly, the only book on both the man and his works, with thematic essays forming together a collective portrait of one of 20th-century Britain's most strangely successful thinkers of urban space and society.

In Ward's anarchism, "There is not a final struggle, only a series of partisan struggles on a variety of fronts." The forms these partisan struggles might take could be surprising. Allotments, squats, caravan parks, the "plotlands" settlements that emerged when working-class Londoners built themselves houses on cheap sites in Ward's native Essex, all these were experiments in anarchy, collective ways of living that emerged without the need for states or political parties.

"I am not waiting for the revolution," Ward wrote in his notebooks when he was a conscript in 1944 – "for I myself am the revolution". It's an insurgent version of the commonplace that you should "be the change you want to see in the world". It's easily mocked – how absurd, to put holiday camps against the entire vast system of capitalism! – but Ward's was also a wonderfully liberating way of looking at the world. After reading him you can see the seeds of a new society everywhere, in all kinds of everyday activities.

As an architect himself – his day job was as a designer for the modernist firm of Peter Shepheard – Ward was always very interested in how these possibilities pertained to the built environment, and his enthusiasm has often been reciprocated – for a certain kind of post-1968 architect or academic, his books – most often, The Child in the City – sit neatly on the shelf next to Banham or Jacobs.

The architectures Ward enthused over ranged from the local modernism of Giancarlo de Carlo, the Peckham Health Centre, the aforementioned plotlands where on one street every house is different – even new towns like Letchworth or Milton Keynes. These are all small-scale, reflecting a man who argued that "the only real politics are the politics of the parish pump". Lovers of the metropolis, look elsewhere.

Life, Times and Thought, with its academic, cautious, sometimes point-scoring tone, reflects little of the anything-is-possible ethos that its contributors argue for. Amazingly, given that Ward wrote so much, the same quotes recur – "If you want to build a free society, the parts are all at hand", or the comparison between the names of state welfare institutions and the organisations of working class self-help – "On the one side the Poor Law Infirmary ... on the other the Friendly Society". There is little if any critical reflection. In Carissa Honeywell's essay on Ward's critique of the welfare state, the defence of the Right to Buy and attack on the "municipal landlordism" of council housing could be transferred almost verbatim into a speech by Iain Duncan Smith.

Ward was determined to see anarchism in the world, but that determination to see anti-capitalist, anti-power forms of living in unlikely places can also lead to, say, radical architects' love for shantytowns and the cult of self-build in the middle of a massive housing crisis. Ward's critique of state welfare has today transformed into welfare administered as charity by volunteers – from friendly societies we end up with food banks.

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Owen Hatherley

Colin Ward – Life, Times and Thought, edited by Carl Levy Lawrence and Wishart, £12.99

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Life, Times and Thought reflects little of the anything-is-possible ethos that its contributors argue for

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