Fifty years ago this month a new word entered the language. It first appeared in “Outrage”, an Architectural Review special written mostly by an angry young critic called Ian Nairn. The word was “subtopia”, a conflation of “suburb” with “utopia”, which he defined as “making an ideal of suburbia . . . the universalisation and idealisation of our town fringes”. In “Outrage” Nairn recounted a drive he had made from Southampton to Carlisle, mainly on the A34, and complained that the edges between town and country were being blurred by a nondescript landscape of hideous street furniture, soulless concrete roads and bog-standard housing estates.
“Outrage” was a hit, winning rave notices everywhere from the Manchester Guardian to the Daily Mail. By describing a generic, everyday landscape that everyone recognised, but which had not yet been categorised, it caught a mood. But what exactly is subtopia? And has Nairn’s “prophecy of doom”, that by the end of the 20th century Britain would be enveloped by the “gaseous pink marshmallow” of suburbia, come to pass?
The handy thing about “subtopia” is that it means whatever you want; it is journalistic shorthand for all the ugly paraphernalia of an uncaring and philistine society. Depending on your politics, it can be blamed on voracious developers or bungling planners. For Nairn, it was not just a physical reality but a state of mind, a mass psychosis grounded in the fatalistic acceptance of mediocrity. We were “wrecking the environment so that man can everywhere see the projection and image of his own humdrum Suburban life – mild lusts, mild fears, mild everything – a herbaceous border”.
Even in 1955 this attempt to connect the ugliness of suburbia with the dreariness of its inhabitants was part of a long tradition. E M Forster complained that in the suburbs “nothing had to be striven for, and success was indistinguishable from failure”. Cyril Connolly argued that, while urban slums might breed crime, the suburbs were “incubators of apathy and delirium”.
Newcomers to suburbia have always been blamed for destroying what they came for. As Thomas Sharp wrote in the 1940 bestseller Town Planning: “The more they strive to embrace the object of their desire, the more it escapes them; the more they try to make the best of both worlds, the more they make the worst.” By searching for rural bliss while clinging to urban amenities, they were only pushing the countryside further away, the fools!
Yet Britain never did become a vast suburban housing estate. Following the nationalisation of land-use rights in the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, there was no repetition of the chaotic interwar ribbon developments seen along roads such as the A34. Instead, there has been a long struggle between advocates of controlled dispersal into suburbs and new towns, and proponents of high-density urban development. In the 1950s, the former were in the ascendant; now the latter have the upper hand.
The most dramatic change since the publication of “Outrage” has been in the public image of housebuilding. In the 1950s and 1960s, politicians competed to set higher national housing targets and exploited every sod-turning photo opportunity on offer. Housing completions were big news stories for the same reason that mortgage interest rates are today: they translated into votes.
In the 1980s, Thatcherism did not produce a housing revolution in the way that, for example, large-scale tract developments transformed American suburbia. Tory ministers were often torn between support for the private enterprise of the housebuilders and sympathy for the preservationist residents of the shires. One of the era’s iconic images was the Barratt starter home in the edge-of-town estate, a symbol of suburban tedium or the democratisation of homeownership, depending on your view. A more representative image might be the thousand well-heeled protesters who marched against a proposed housing development at Foxley Wood in Hampshire in 1989, tearing up their Conservative Party membership cards and burning an effigy of the then environment secretary, Nicholas Ridley, the man who did much to popularise the term “nimby”.
Housebuilding has scarcely been mentioned in recent election campaigns, despite general agreement that there is a shortage of houses. New Labour prefers brownfield to greenfield sites and has raised density thresholds to squeeze more homes into each plot. John Prescott announced in 2000 that he was “declaring war on the wasteful use of land” in the “Brookside-style” estate, with its detached houses, front lawns and driveways. No one likes new-build houses, those tasteless Noddy boxes that sophisticated metropolitans would not dream of living in. But aesthetic orthodoxies change. The “Stockbroker Tudor” houses of interwar metroland, criticised for their dull homogeneity when they were built, are now prized possessions in the housing market.
The housing shortage is largely being addressed by the leverage of private finance to fund public building, and piecemeal infilling in towns and villages in dispersed locations. It is no longer a heroic endeavour but a delicate game of politics between the housing haves and have-nots. That is why you don’t see smiling ministers cutting ribbons on suburban estates these days.
The true descendants of Nairn’s subtopia are not the commuter estates but the high-tech edge cities, reminiscent of New Jersey, which have sprung up around major roads since the planning deregulation of the mid-1980s. Margaret Thatcher’s insistence that “nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of the great car economy” led to a proliferation of office parks, retail sheds, shopping malls and no-frills hotels on the outskirts of our towns.
Why is there no modern-day Ian Nairn to stir up outrage about the expansion of the Ikea belt? From the 1960s onwards, his war against the uglification of public space was redirected into a narrower conservationist agenda whose best-known advocate was John Betjeman. Betjeman led protests against pylons in picturesque areas and “lamp-posts like concrete gibbets with corpse lights dangling off them” in country towns. In recent years, the campaign against subtopian clutter has been taken up by bodies such as English Heritage and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which concentrate on scenic landscapes and picturesque towns, leaving the urban fringes to fend for themselves.
Nairn was no conservationist. He railed against the “muni-cipal rustic” of ornamental rockeries and beautified roundabouts. He embraced modernity in its “proper”, urban setting, writing paeans to Birmingham’s Bull Ring and London’s Westway. He would have loathed the neo-vernacular heritage aesthetic of modern urban regeneration, with its cast-iron bollards, replica Victorian streetlamps and York stone paving. He believed that everyone should have access to well-designed public spaces, which is why he worried about the whole country being swamped by a uniform subtopia. In fact, the opposite has happened: public space has fragmented and diversified. Some landscapes have got even uglier, but the well- off have managed to protect their own areas and they avoid the rest, unless they have to drive through them.
In his recent film Three Hours From Here, Andrew Cross retraced part of Nairn’s “Outrage” journey, travelling in a lorry cab from Southampton to Manchester, mostly on motorways (you can’t go all the way on the A34 any more). Watching this almost silent film, you are struck by how much the roadside landscape of freight depots, distribution warehouses and logistics parks is a world unto itself, built to service the other parts of the country where we prefer to spend our time. “We may not like the motorways,” says Cross, “but we still insist on having the services and the lifestyles that we desire – we have to have our organic avocados or whatever it is that we want in the shops. We don’t think about how they got there.” Subtopia’s ugliness is the result not of collective moral failure, as Nairn would have argued, but of the personal and political choices we’ve made in the past few decades.
In his 1972 poem “Going, Going”, Philip Larkin lamented the creeping growth of subtopia: “And that will be England gone,/ . . . all that remains/For us will be concrete and tyres.” But Larkin’s ideal England of unspoilt dales, meadows and quiet lanes survives – if you can afford the property prices. If you can’t, you might well be stuck in a slumber colony out in the sticks, in between a retail park and an airport runway. Suburbia is an increasingly diverse environment, and its rewards and limitations are distributed unequally. Fifty years on, we need some more words to describe these different manifestations of “subtopia”.
Joe Moran lectures at Liverpool John Moores University