Ideal homes exhibition

<strong>Villages of Vision: a Study of Strange Utopias</strong>

Gillian Darley <em>Five Leaves Pub

In 1961 the educationalist W H G Armytage published a study of English utopian experiments entitled Heavens Below, an engrossing work of scholarship which surveyed, among others, the Diggers, the Moravians, the Chartists, the garden cities, the eugenicists of the Peckham Health Centre and the postwar new towns. As an in ventory of odd ideological programmes, questionable belief systems, nutty cults and barking sects it was usefully comprehensive. It possessed, however, a marked shortcoming: Armytage seemed to have no eye. He ignored the buildings created by his galère of gurus, radicals and revolutionaries - buildings which are, in most cases, the only legacy of long-forgotten essays in putting the world to rights.

Little more than a decade later Gillian Darley rectified that lack. Literary precocity is commonly expressed in verse and fiction. It is seldom associable with architectural history - which makes Villages of Vision all the more remarkable: Darley was in her early twenties when she embarked on it. She cites Armytage in her bibliography and evidently followed him to an extent, but her scope is wider. Notably, she surveys estate villages and factory villages - the pragmatic creations of paternalistic landowners and philanthropic industrialists whose self-interest extended to ensuring that their workers were properly housed.

These well-funded enterprises unsurprisingly outnumber idealistic utopian colonies, which were routinely fraught by financial vicissitudes and were often meanly constructed. The enlightened intentions of Robert Owen at New Lanark are far from apparent in its grimly functional buildings. And the Chartist agrarian settlements established during the 1840s in the rural south Midlands by Fergus O'Connor were characterised as much by a paucity of architectural ima gination as by organisational ineptitude - they failed because the untutored urban refugees who inhabited them didn't know how to farm, assaulted their livestock and had no access to markets to sell the little that they did manage to produce.

The first industrial villages were planned on a rectilinear grid. Two partially completed projects, Buckler's Hard on the Beaulieu River and Tremadog on the edge of Snowdonia, just about hint at what might have been. In neither case is the unmitigatedly urban architecture peculiar to the new kind of place they sought to be. Had they been finished, they would merely have been towns in all but size.

The fashion for bogusly bucolic buildings was hardly new in 1810, but cottages ornés had thitherto existed in isolation. In that year John Nash designed Blaise Hamlet, on the outskirts of Bristol. A dozen or so extravagantly twee dwellings, tile-hung and thatched and resolutely asymmetrical, were grouped around a green. The artificial village had found an idiom that was wholly appropriate to it. From then on such developments became indissolubly linked to the picturesque. As Darley puts it: "Unsuspecting villagers in different corners of England were being herded into pattern-book hamlets to fulfil the aesthetic or philanthropic dreams of their landlords."

Gradually, as the 19th century roared on, this soothingly unchanging, off-the-peg quaintness entered the mainstream of architectural design. It ceased to be an expression of noblesse oblige and mercantile patronage. It became the cynosure of the middle classes escaping to the suburbs. Model villages had indeed provided the model for interbellum expansion, for the fey, make-believe rusticity of the arterial-road suburbs.

Darley's delightful history, shamefully out of print for decades, is equally a seductive vade mecum. Its compendious gazetteer includes many exceptions to the picturesque consensus: several works by the unaccommodating high Victorian S S Teulon; Bata at East Tilbury, which might have been airlifted from the Czech Republic; the formally planned Whiteley Village in Surrey; the modernistic Silver End, built near Braintree by Crittall's, manufacturer of what were popularly known as Daily Mail windows.

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?