Contemplating the bother of Suburbia
Festival review

Generations of planners and architects have tried to ‘solve’ the suburbs. They’d have been better off enlisting the locals, the Architecture Foundation’s Doughnut festival heard:

Boris Johnson knew to target it, and the Architecture Foundation thought it worth a day-long festival. The “Doughnut”, or London’s rapidly growing periphery, was the subject of a series of linked events earlier this month that attracted a range of people – and not all of them architects – to gather in Greenwich.

Self-dubbed “20th-century stragglers” Patrick Wright, Gillian Darley and Ken Worpole started by wondering whether the concept of suburbia was useful any more. In some senses this was apposite. For, while the peculiarities and particularities of the exodus from the East End to the greens of the Essex suburbs are compelling, it is difficult to establish what lessons we should be carrying forward.

On the one hand we can envy the utopian vision from “the top” that cleared the slums or created new communities for the poor and drunk. On the other we can justifiably criticise poorly understood or badly applied style guides. We can, if we think that unsophisticated, wrongly motivated or socially disconnected powers-that-be were an issue, look to the Plotlands movement and wistfully wonder if we can self-build our way out of the current housing crisis via the likes of community land trusts.

Whatever colour our spectacles, looking backwards we find an insoluble riddle knotted between top-down urban renewal, uncontrolled speculative building and empowered grass roots movements. This riddle ran as a theme throughout the day.

Suburbia is essentially a story of migration. Essex, it was countered, has a radical, non-conformist, yet conservative mentality because of its inhabitants’ roots in the East End and the process they went through in creating their self-contained “place”. What these places didn’t account for was changing demographics. Towns like Harlow were designed around the family home and the conventions of a domestic life where women stayed at home and men worked. This has clearly had its day. This, the experts thought, accounted for much of the recent return to the city where one can change one’s home as often as one’s car.

A more recent exploration of the relationship between place and community behaviour was discussed in a conversation chaired by AF director Ellis Woodman with the optimistic and upbeat Wouter Vanstiphout and Michelle Provoost of Rotterdam-based Crimson Architectural Historians.

They refuted the notion that city riots are inevitably a product of Parisian banlieues or London council estates, instead linking urban disillusion and civil unrest with a lack of consultation with communities, making them feel like they have no power to shape their own environments.

They similarly used this argument to put a more positive spin on “nimbyism”, where people who feel unheard or unrepresented seize an opportunity to get organised and take some control.

Boring suburban architecture does not necessarily equate to a lack of social or cultural diversity or richness. Projects such as WIMBY (Welcome In My Back Yard) in Hoogvliet and the forthcoming involvement in Thamesmead are based on this belief. In essence if, behind front doors, life is not boring then development should be built on what’s already happening to create wonderful and interesting outcomes. This was contrasted with a constant attempt by authorities to “reset” places with alien and alienating interventions.

So far, so persuasive, but whence – in Will Self’s words – comes optimism for the future in the British context of land banking and old housing stock?

This is a difficult question to answer and comes back to the riddle about power and decision-making. But it seems the periphery, where land values are lower, may be where future experimentation might occur.

Of course suburban stories are about place but also about time. In the last session I attended, Hanif Kureishi and Will Self’s cheerful accounts of the horrors of their suburban childhoods were tales of London (Bromley and Finchley respectively) but also of the 1960s. Racism, patriarchy and a push for class mobility permeated their recollections. A common theme, apart from the availability of good drugs, was the magnetism of the centre and the absolute need to escape the suburbs before life could start. “They hated you if you liked Beethoven”, after all.

Whether the centre retains that creative lure (audience views varied on where the centre was) or whether the periphery has created its own equivalent draw was not concluded. What everyone agreed on was that London is the best city at complaining about itself. Pessimism is endemic.

Perhaps, however, architects must be optimists by definition. Even in the face of all indications to the contrary, we believe in the possibility of the environment being used as a force for good. Perhaps that’s what makes a bunch of Londoners head out to Greenwich on a blustery Saturday to mull over such things.

This article first appeared on bdonline on 28 September 2015