There’s a strange story that should obsess anyone who cares about the quality of our cities and towns, above all any caring architect: why is it that in the UK we seem totally incapable of producing good quality modern domestic architecture?
Well, modify that just a little: quite a few public housing association schemes, in London and elsewhere, are now showing real flair in fitting modern design into regeneration schemes for old urban areas. And – always excepting the big prestige schemes by signature architects along London’s western riverside reaches – here and there you find privately designed small schemes that deserve moderate applause.
But the vast majority of plans by the volume builders, as well as by their smaller local competitors, are still stuck in an extraordinary time warp. Every Saturday the home supplements in the broadsheets are full of apparently upscale offerings that appear indistinguishable from the Edwardian villa in Ealing where I’m typing this article. My defense for living here is that this house represented the best advanced middle-class taste of 1904: those represent an extraordinary nostalgia for a century-old Imperial past.
You might say that the middle class, the world over, are like that. Doubtless all self-respecting Dutch people would like to live in a 17th-century house on an Amsterdam canal. The difference is that they’re very content to live in a 21st-century house on a canal in Almere outside Amsterdam, or Vathorst outside Amersfoort, or Ypenburg outside the Hague, or in any one of the numberless urban extensions and new towns that the Dutch have been building, these last fifteen years, next to every city and town in the country.
They’re part of an extraordinary program, VINEX, launched by a government report of 1991, which said that the country had a housing shortage and set out a program to deal with it. Deal with it they did: they built 455,000 new homes, of remarkably good quality, in remarkably well-designed new communities.
And these places were not randomly scattered across the Dutch countryside: national guidelines and local masterplans put them next to established cities – with brilliant train or streetcar or bus links that connected them to those cities, and to the jobs and services they offered, in a very few minutes. When the Dutch Railways complained that they were being asked to build a new train station at Vathorst, years in advance of most of the passengers that would use it, the local planner-developers simply came back and said: we’ll pay you to build it now, because we don’t want everyone getting the habit of car dependence. Similarly, in Ypenburg they put in a new streetcar line from the city very early on, and for good measure followed it up with another line connecting in another direction to the university city of Delft.
The difference, compared with the way we’ve been doing things the last thirty years, is that in the Netherlands everything follows everything else in logical sequence. First, develop a nationwide strategy to determine where you’re going to build the new homes – but only in consultation with local authorities, who fully share on the decision process. Then, ensure to build the transportation links and basic facilities like shopping and schools. Then, masterplan neighborhoods to the highest standards, with bikeways far from traffic and with generous open park space everywhere. Then, and only then, invite the developer-builders in. Make deals with them, involving some element of compromise – the Dutch are good at that – but preserving the essential features of the plan. And the builders go along with it, because people like the result and buy their houses.
This isn’t just a Dutch model. Researching a book I’ve just published, Good Cities, Better Lives: How Europe Discovered the Lost Art of Urbanism, I found that with local variations, cities as distant as Stockholm and Malmö, Kassel and Freiburg, were using the same formula. They’re the places that visiting groups of British architects and planners are now visiting in their hundreds and thousands, as they fan out on study tours to look at European – meaning global – best practice.
Go and see Hammarby Sjöstad, a new town-in-town close to the city center in Stockholm, or the very similar Västra Hamnen (Western Harbour) in Malmö, or Vauban and Rieselfeld in Freiburg in southwest Germany: you’ll find the same clever model with the same brilliant results. Not identical, of course: these places are constantly testing and developing their particular local models.
Freiburg pioneered the use of Baugruppen, neighborhood urban development groups in which residents plan their own homes and collective open spaces within an overall framework set by the city masterplan; Malmö borrowed it for the most recent stages of Västra Hamnen. Almere, a 1970s new town that is rapidly grown into the fourth-largest city of the Netherlands, has pioneered self-build housing, also through local building groups. In fact, one of the most conspicuous common features these places share is their enthusiasm for cooperative ways of development.
There are strange historical parallels here. Ed Miliband has joined with David Cameron to enthuse over the Garden City idea – but they may forget that Ebenezer Howard, who invented it in 1898, proposed that they should be built bottom-up style, by cooperatives of ordinary people. Or that Brentham, the garden suburb in west London, was built just that way by a group of working men who met in a pub. Or that the Dutch VINEX approach was precisely the one we used in Milton Keynes in the 1980s, where the Development Corporation drew up masterplans for private developers to implement, and they found the results so marketable that they came back for more. We actually knew, once, how to do it. We can re-learn from our own past as well as from these splendid examples in mainland Europe.
Good Cities, Better Lives: How Europe Discovered the Lost Art of Urbanism is available through Routledge.