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Bryan Appleyard: in defence of the British suburbs

Bashing the ’burbs has been a common currency of artists and the intelligentsia, the right and the left, for over 150 years. But they are now undergoing a quiet renaissance.

The ’hood is cool – listen to Wu-Tang Clan, Boyz n Da Hood, JAY Z and just about every other black rapper. The ’burb is uncool – see Arcade Fire, Blur, Nirvana, even the Beatles, and probably a hundred other white rockers. To be young and/or hip almost always means you hate the suburbs and love the neighbourhoods.

’Burb loathing is not just a matter of age and race; it’s also politics. When seeking the most damning possible phrase to describe Margaret Thatcher, Jonathan Miller alighted on “odious suburban gentility”. The implication was that the lives of suburban dwellers were constricted, small, secretive and spiritually shrivelled. “The future,” J G Ballard wrote, “is just going to be a vast conforming suburb of the soul.”

Confronted by suburban “Metroland” development in the 1930s – mostly semi-detached houses, often with dubious glued-on antique detailing – Graham Greene spoke of “something worse than the meanness of poverty, the meanness of spirit”. And the cartoonist Osbert Lancaster waved aside the style he called “bypass variegated”.

In Coming Up for Air in 1939, George Orwell was revolted by the same “long, long rows of little semi-detached houses . . . The stucco front, the creosoted gate, the privet hedge, the green front door. The Laurels, the Myrtles, the Hawthorns, Mon Abri, Mon Repos, Belle Vue.” From the right, the poet Hilaire Belloc went even further – “Miserable sheds of painted tin/Gaunt villas, planted round with stunted trees/And, God! The dreadful things that dwell within.”

The British suburb, it was clear, had become an equal opportunity victim, available for kicking by the right and the left, the up and the down. Such sentiments have been a common currency of artists and the intelligentsia for 150 years. John Ruskin was appalled by the first signs of spec-built urban sprawl – the rather modest Victorian houses we later came to love. Suburbs, by drawing attention away from city centres, were thought to undermine civic pride.

In the mid-20th century this theme in particular was taken up by progressive urbanists. The movement of people from the inner city to suburban estates was seen as the destruction of communal values by a cold individualism. In 1955 in an article entitled “Outrage”, Ian Nairn, the architectural critic, wrote of “the creeping mildew that already circumscribes all of our towns. This death by slow decay is called subtopia . . . the world of universal low-density mess.” Nairn favoured the civic grandeur of city-centre developments such as the Bull Ring in Birmingham.

Mention of the Bull Ring, however, alerts the contemporary imagination to the problem with all of this. Civic pride and communal values are no longer associated with the destruction of old city centres and their replacement by all too rapidly spalling concrete blocks. In the cities now we sometimes look in vain for the unplanned, riot­ous warmth of the ’hood. The ’burbs, meanwhile, have been undergoing a quiet renaissance.

In his book Suburban Century (2003), the historian Mark Clapson aimed “to rescue suburbia from the enormous condescension of the rich, young, and trendy”. He wrote of the variety, rather than the uniformity, of the suburbs and defended them against both the feminist charge that they favoured men because they isolated their wives at home and the view that they were alienated places – in fact, suburbanites are enthusiastic joiners. In The Thirties (2010) Juliet Gardiner, another historian, even defends Metroland as a liberation for the lower middle classes: the housing boom between 1919 and 1939 produced four million new homes, of which three million were for private sale rather than council rent.

This form of defence of suburbs is not entirely new; it is rooted in some of the more nuanced Victorian reactions to urbanisation. In Garden Cities of To-morrow, first published in 1898, Ebenezer Howard created a bridge between the urban and the rural, softening the noise and crowds of the former with the greenery of the latter. Howard’s catchphrase has, in fact, just been given a new lease of life – Policy Network has advocated building garden cities to alleviate Britain’s perpetual housing cycle of bubble and bust, and the government has taken up the idea.

But the suburb itself found salvation in one place – Chiswick. There, just north of Turnham Green Station, in 1875, a developer named Jonathan Carr bought 24 acres of land on which he established Bedford Park. John Betjeman described this in 1960 as “the most significant suburb built in the last century, probably the most significant in the western world”. It had also been endorsed by the German architect Hermann Muthesius, who has come to be known as one of the great prophets of modernism.

“There was at the time,” Muthesius wrote in 1904, “virtually no development that could compare in artistic charm with Bedford Park, least of all had the small house found anything like so satisfactory an artistic and economic solution as here. And herein lies the immense importance of Bedford Park in the history of the English house. It signifies neither more nor less than the starting point of the smaller modern house, which immediately spread from there over the whole country.”

With its “Queen Anne” styling and picturesque “dendritic” – root-like – planning, Bedford Park influenced and continues to influence suburban design. Todd Kuchta, an American historian of the British empire, has argued that our suburbia replaced empire, using imperially exotic and nostalgic imagery. Maybe that is true of Bedford Park, a little paradise of British aspiration at home as well as abroad.

But, most importantly, it was a rural-urban compromise, deliberately designed to offset the stress and dirt of the city with the calm green of the country. Indeed, Carr advertised his housing development with the claim that this was “the healthiest place in the world (annual death rate under six per thousand)”.

Bedford Park was built among green fields, although it has since been enfolded by London. This raises the question of whether it is now, technically, a ’hood rather than a ’burb. It seems to matter because of a stylistic and cultural prejudice imported from America. Most British suburbs have been organic outgrowths of cities, spreading slowly and awkwardly out into the limited tracts of available land, held back by planning restrictions, nimbyism and the sheer expense of acquiring land in such a small and densely populated country. American suburbs have none of these restrictions. Land is in effect limitless and cheap.

In the US, suburbs were genuinely built outwards into wilderness. They were settler communities, and the buildings were almost certainly the first on the sites. The cities spread outwards into nothingness. Americans were more or less forced to live there by cheap cars, cheap fuel and assorted financial incentives. The American dream of the 1950s was of a big house, a huge yard, a garage and a slick car in the drive. The ’burbs were good and, for a time, untroubled by social prejudice – the British could never give a car the name “Suburban” but that is what Chevrolet called one of its giant SUVs. The typical city became a clump of downtown towers surrounded by vast concentric rings of urban development.

There were dissenting voices, of course. Malvina Reynolds’s song “Little Boxes”, immortalised by Pete Seeger, trashed the endless, empty uniformity of suburban homes: “Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,/Little boxes on the hillside,/Little boxes all the same.” The Beats and the folkies who colonised New York in the 1950s and 1960s were all on the run from the anonymous hell of the suburbs.

But it was the very extremity of these US developments that was to start a new anti-suburb movement. They had gone too far. “No other country,” writes Leigh Gallagher with evident distaste in The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving, “has such an enormous percentage of its middle class living at such low densities across such massive amounts of land.”

The ’burbs, it became clear, were not green. They ate up land; they increased commuting distances – between 1969 and 2009 the average mileage of a household in the US jumped 60 per cent. That, combined with the higher fuel costs of houses rather than flats, made the ’burbs especially bad for the planet. Also, the argument ran, suburbanites tend not to mingle; in this way, they lose the face-to-face contact that makes urbanites so cool and creative. And as the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser argued in his book Triumph of the City, if you want to save the planet, then you should move at once from the ’burb to the ’hood and stop destroying ever more wilderness with your bungalows, gardens and golf courses.

At the end of this litany of complaints, the financial crash of 2007 was a particular catastrophe for the American suburbs. Sub-prime lending had sold suburban houses to people who could not afford to repay and who simply abandoned their homes, leaving vast tracts of empty properties across the nation. Now much of suburbia has become an embarrassment.

In 2010, Gallagher says, suburban growth stopped, prices started falling and numbers in the cities started rising. The Millennials – those born between 1977 and 1995 – seem to hate the ’burbs and, according to a 2011 US study, 77 per cent say they want to live in urban areas. As a result, there is forecast to be a surplus of 40 million “large lot” homes in the US by 2020.

The further counter-intuitive argument for the ’hoods and against the ’burbs is that they are more natural. As the sociologist and architectural critic Lewis Mumford observed, neighbourhoods tend to form organically around human societies and their needs. There is no “theoretical preoccupation or political direction”; they grow like forests or meadows, acquiring newsagents, dry-cleaners, chemists, Indian restaurants and so on.

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You want to be sure, if you’re moving back to the city, that the place you choose is, indeed, a ’hood. You don’t want to go back to dwell in urban anonymity, you want to belong there, you want a proper ’hood. Dumbo – it stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass – is a chic little part of Brooklyn and it is where the suburban developers Toll Brothers decided to build an apartment block (prices up to $2m) using cracked concrete and carefully preserved graffiti. It was a follow-up to the “graffiti fence” that the architects Herzog & de Meuron had put up at 40 Bond Street – a Manhattan block with prices up to $27m. The fence consisted of cast aluminium made to look like graffiti. That’s the cool thing about the city – it looks lived-in, a bit wrecked, a bit dangerous.

This, of course, is inauthenticity, bad faith, rap style without the oppression. But it’s a lot more fun than London’s mindless destruction of neighbourhoods with dark, armoured buildings for the very rich, such as One Hyde Park in Knightsbridge.

There is also a reverse process going on for those still stuck in the ’burbs or having to move back there because of expanding families. Suddenly suburbs are being urbanised. This creates a new category of settlement that the New York Times called “hipsturbia”. “Here,” wrote Alex Williams, “beside the grey-suited salarymen and four-door minivans, it is no longer unusual to see a heritage-
clad novelist type with ironic mutton chops sipping shade-grown coffee at the patisserie . . .” Hipsturbia has happened in Britain, too, with bearded hipsters infesting coffee houses in every suburban centre.

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Fashion, for the moment, seems to be supporting the environmentalist view that cities are greener than the countryside, as well as the prophetic vision of a future of densely populated hi-tech cities around which the wilderness is allowed to return.

Well, maybe in America. It is a mistake to conflate US and British conceptions of suburbs. We simply don’t have real wilderness on which to build and neither is our conception of home so closely associated with size – American ’burbies competed with the size of their home and their cars. Our suburbs are usually marked by a variety of styles and sizes, usually because they have been built over longer periods. The difference between a neighbourhood and a suburb is also much more ambiguous because the gradations between city centre and outlying areas are not so rigid. So, moving out in south-west London, Fulham is neither city centre nor suburb, Putney feels like an almost suburb and Wimbledon is 100 per cent suburban. But the lines are never quite clear and I don’t doubt that the Millennials in each of these places yearn for the authenticity of the true city-centre ’hood.

Furthermore, our suburbs are not places condemned for ever to be the same rigid developments lost in the vast open spaces. Britain’s suburbs were never imposed upon the wilderness. Many were once towns in their own right – think of Epsom, or Chiswick. They were simply annexed by the cities nearby that were expanding, not into nothingness, but into land that already had a human history.

There is also, in spite of the distaste of the intelligentsia for the ’burbs, a distinct suburban intellectual and artistic tradition. Hampstead dwellers might not think of themselves as suburban but, in shape and form, the place is much more a ’burb than a ’hood. Its name became, in the 1950s and 1960s, a label for a distinctive left-wing, dissident view of the world.

But Hampstead was nothing compared to Bedford Park for the simple reason that the latter was born and flourished at a time of unprecedented (and never-to-be-repeated)greatness in British cultural life. From 1914, we ceded our global status to the Americans and the world would no longer feel it had to read English literature and learn of our ways. But, just before that moment, we were the cultural centre of the world, spawning and importing genius. Henry James, W B Yeats, Ezra Pound, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Edward Thomas, Stephen Crane, D H Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, H G Wells, Edward Elgar, Camille Pissarro, George Bernard Shaw, G K Chesterton and many, many more passed through or settled here. A fair number of them passed through Bedford Park. It even had its own pet revolutionary and murderer in “Stepniak” – Sergey Mikhailovich Kravchinsky – who had killed the chief of Russia’s secret police in St Petersburg in 1878.

As with Hampstead, its intellectual pretensions were often comical. Chesterton gently made the point at the opening of his 1908 novel The Man Who Was Thursday, set in Saffron Park, a lightly disguised version of Bedford Park. As he wrote, “It was described with some justice as an artistic colony, though it never in any definable way produced any art. But although its pretensions to be an intellectual centre were a little vague, its pretensions to be a pleasant place were quite indisputable.”

After 1918 Bedford Park went into decline and, by the start of the Second World War, it was known as a profoundly impoverished place. Postwar, this all began to change and its buildings are now fiercely protected by statute and local passion – new homeowners are given a handsome green logbook with the complete history of their house in order to make them feel suitably pious and proud. The area should, in my view, be a Unesco World Heritage Site. Its design is beautiful and globally unique and it is associated with genius. What more could they ask?

The point about the place was that it was built as both a ’burb and a ’hood and that is what it still is. It unites what we have come to think of as opposites and, in doing so, Bedford Park created a distinctly British solution to the problems of the city. It is now a pricey place – not least because the City people it was originally built to serve have actually moved in. But it retains that feeling that Chesterton detected, of being a well-meaning little paradise, a kindly and fantastical backdrop for the living of the urban life.

Bryan Appleyard’s novel “Bedford Park” is newly published by Phoenix (£8.99)

This article appears in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain