Rediscovered Utopias 05.08.11

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A defence of British suburbia celebrates the very traits most would rail against – homogeneity and the mundane

After the urban renaissance, the suburbs take their revenge. In politics, the shift was heralded when the Tories abolished the urban regeneration-sponsoring Regional Development Agencies and lamented the non-existent plague of "garden grabbing"; but the ideological attack on the Urban Task Forces came months before, with Paul Barker's 2009 book, The Freedoms of Suburbia. His argument was that, while architects love order, coherence and the evidence of a guiding hand, the overwhelming majority of people prefer a vaguely homely container they can customise to their heart's content.

Rediscovered Utopias, one of conservation group Save Britain's Heritage's informative "reports", is notable for taking the opposite approach to cheerleading the suburbs. Like Boris Johnson, it criticises the Greater London Authority's London Plan for favouring the inner city, and the burbs are celebrated here for reasons that wouldn't offend Phillip Blond or Michael Gove – for privacy, class differentiation and anti-modernity. But if Barker adores a new porch or a pebbledash driveway, for Save Britain's Heritage this defaces the noble coherence of pre-1945 suburbia.

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This book is a defence of the suburbs that spends much time lambasting the effects of DIY (all that horrid UPVC), that laments the effects of the private car (tarmacked front gardens, clogged roads), and that mostly defends (aesthetic) homogeneity rather than individualism. It does this via profiles of several London suburbs. We begin with grimly Gothick self-help terraces for the deserving poor of Victorian Battersea and strikingly early Georgian-revival houses in late Victorian Newham, but the suburbs are as much a 20th-century phenomenon in Rediscovered Utopias as they are in the social imaginary. The authors pick up on the way the suburbs emerged from complicated alliances of developers, public bodies, mutual societies and co-operatives, and certainly there's a hint of Big Society rhetoric in the discussion of places like Brentham and Ealing, set up by a self-help partnership. Visually, the latter shows the influence of the Garden City ideal – which, here as elsewhere, looks oddly Germanic, with twisted brick towers and freakishly oversized pitched roofs.

Perhaps the most extraordinary of these ordinary places is Gidea Park in Romford; here the large detached houses are designed by a few famous names (Tecton, Clough Williams-Ellis) and much of it predicts postmodernism – houses with "faces", some very broad architectural jokes. Yet the limitations of the book's approach become clear in the profile of a grim 1920s "cottage estate" in Charlton, the kind of straggling, nondescript place the first postwar modernist estates set out to abolish; the authors disapprovingly note the presence of St George's flags. If such standardised, generic and almost architecture-free places as this – or the more upmarket Laing estate they profile in Enfield – are so worthy of preservation, then why not the prefabricated towers of the 1960s? Where's the Save Britain's Heritage guide to Wimpey homes or the Larsen-Nielsen system?

Politically, and sometimes architecturally, there are dubious notions in Rediscovered Utopias. These confused, hidebound places are what inter-war London had instead of utopia, when in Berlin or Brussels the burbs were exemplars of fearless modernity. Obsessive privacy is not utopian. Yet there is a value to this book, and it's in the unashamed valuing of the mundane, the unlisted, the uncelebrated. It might be priggish and pedantic, but it attempts to reveal the unusual ideas and peculiar details in the utterly mundane, the hidden coherence beneath the chaotically individualistic. When everyday buildings are so often the vague backdrop in the renderings of the spectacular signature edifice, it's as refreshing as the smell of a freshly cut hedge.

Rediscovered Utopias: Saving London's Suburbs, by Bridget Cherry and Ann Robey (eds), Save Britain's Heritage, £15.

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Words

Owen Hatherley

quotes story

It might be priggish and pedantic, but it attempts to reveal the unusual ideas and peculiar details in the utterly mundane, the hidden coherence beneath the chaotically individualistic

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