Friday, 1 April 2011

'I Wasn't Sure What to Expect, but I was Pleasently Surprised'

A winter afternoon in New Ash Green



Span Developments Ltd was the other side of post-war mass housing to the one I normally write about. Founded by Eric Lyons, an occasional architect to Southampton and Hackney councils but mostly a private practitioner, it was both a profit-making business and an attempt to design spaces which were, at least implicitly, Social Democratic - this BBC article quotes their approach as 'community as the goal; shared landscape as the means; modern, controlled design as the expression'. Impeccably Butskellite, then, only with the emphasis on Mr But rather than Mr Skell.


I've written a bit about their estates in Blackheath before, and was recently amused by a comment from a moderately successful youngish architect that 'Span is interesting because it works'. I fail to see how what Span were doing - car-free, pedestrianised public spaces, low-rise, plenty of landscaping, a Scandinavian softening of Modernism - was any different in design terms from what Sheffield City Council did at Gleadless Valley, which 'doesn't work'. Span works for one main reason - it was designed, and designed very well, for (often upper-)middle class clients, so the spaces are looked after, the designs are scrupulously cohesive, and the inhabitants have invariably chosen to live there. It's not mysterious, and it's nothing to do with design.


Anyway - they are very lovely things. As an experiment, to see the bit of Span that might not work so well as those that are in Ham Common, Cambridge and Blackheath, and as an attempt to convert me fully to Social Democracy, Matthew Tempest convinced me to go out to New Ash Green, for which I am thankful. This place is not so much a New Town as a New Village which Span had designed in north Kent, so ambitious that it basically bankrupted the company, and the last few pieces of the scheme were entrusted to the somewhat less socially idealistic Bovis, who were chaired by Keith Joseph, who as government minister had tried to stop the place being built in the first place. Apparently Bovis still has its head office in the Village, which might explain some of the place's continued affluence.


It's properly rural, this is, although I say this with the proviso that I don't understand or know anything whatsoever about the countryside, generally considering it an ideological phantom wielded as a weapon against towns and cities, inducing them to surrender any true civic life to dreams of homes-as-castles-and-investments, as opposed to a real place, which I suppose it must be, for some. You can reach it only via car, or a tortuous public transport route - the nearest largish town, Dartford, is reached via a bus which seems to be either hourly or two-hourly depending on how bad a mood the bus driver is in. New Ash Green stops abruptly at one point, where rolling fields start.


Yet although it's essentially one of the Milton Keynes grids with all its surrounding infrastructure taken away, it's far more urban in design terms than most of what has been built for the last thirty years, albeit if the urb in question is in the outer reaches of the Stockholm Metro system. The houses, for all their wood and brick, are still deeply Modernist, almost futuristic at times, an impression reinforced by the signage, which seems to have escaped fully-formed from the head of Julian House - pseudo-rustic names spelled out in science-fiction letters.


Even the streetlamps have something decidedly Dr Who about them, furnishings that could beam you somewhere else entirely.


The landscape - nature under strict control - is the truly impressive thing here, something which even the drabber Bovis parts of the estate manage to retain - a sense that everything is public, and everything is permeable, except of course for the houses themselves - Span seem to have assumed that a largeish, well-designed house with big windows and a garden was all anyone needed for private space, with CCTV and driveways strikingly absent. Lyons and Span had evidently not read Defensible Space or the Essex Design Guide, and New Ash Green breaks every one of their nasty little rules, by placing what now seems like enormous trust in the place's inhabitants. If, as Alice Coleman and her ilk suggested, certain urban forms invite crime, then the following snickets should be a constant fest of knifings and rapes. By all accounts they are not.


Bad things do happen here, though, and when they do, it seems that it has the eventually sinister nature of all villages (he writes, in a similar knee-jerk manner to someone in a village assuming the same about a story about a death where he lives in south-east London).


There are nooks of mild criminality, however, in the form of the graffiti that is scribbled on the walkways, much of which is so cute and indie that it seems like the local youth are all living in a Belle & Sebastian song. Or at least in Gregory's Girl, a place that comes to mind often here, in its modernity and unrelieved niceness. Not in a suffocating, austerity nostalgia way, though, and the place lacks the Keep Calm and Carry On posters and general Farrow&Ballisation you can find in the Span parts of Blackheath.


Nonetheless, by the standards of 98% of Britain this is hard-line stuff - the hedges impeccable, the original features mostly in place, the spaces extremely trim. You could have a wonderful life here and you could also go completely bonkers in a week. Although not nearly as bonkers as aSecured by Design officer would become looking at the below.


Span probably knew from early on that this one would be a hard sell. The RIBA's recent Eric Lyons and Span book about their ex-president (and think of the relative fate of the buildings designed by their only other talented recent president, Owen Luder) has loads of pictures of the flagrantly sexist ads used to convince people to move to the back of beyond (or the back of beyond less than an hour's drive from London). Architect's Wives, 'vital statistics (no not those ones!)', some fairly blatant suggestions of possible wife swapping and the general sexual intrigue that goes with being terribly modern.


The place may well soon become both modern and terrible, as Broadway Malyan are slated to redesign it. To get an architect of similar talent and prominence to Lyons, they should really be asking Richard Rogers - and his recent spec houses in Oxley Woods are a precise modern equivalent - but I don't suppose he comes as cheap. The shopping centre is slightly knackered, but compared to, say, Thamesmead, is thoroughly self-sufficient - banks, health food cafe, branch of Oxfam, co-op, newsagent, various other bits and bobs. I've seen places in Zone 2 with less amenities. Up on the roof there is some slight sign of ruffness - though having 'HENCH' as your tag is a bit sad. Like writing 'I'M A BIG MAN, ME!' everywhere. It doth protest too much.


We hadn't expected it to be as neat as it was. Matthew had been through before in a car and briefly stopped in the Village Pub, and came back with the impression that here, Span had gone Yokel, and the air of chic and wealth-expressed-through-minimalism you could find in their main estates had gone in favour of the same menace you find elsewhere in north Kent. Actually though, there are only two places here where New Ash Green seems anything other than idyllic - the back end of the shopping centre you can see above, a car-parking area that for some reason has gone derelict before everywhere else. The pub is not exactly welcoming, full of regulars who look at us like we're from Mars - which is rich, as they live on it - but I've been in far worse.


The door of the pub advertises the Sunday Carvery, but rather than showing a farmhouse, the advert shows the outline of a thoroughly modern house.

First posted on SDMYABT on 3/2/10

2 comments:

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  2. Very accurate appreciation of New Ash Green. I also think it has a touch of The Prisoner and Portmeirion about it. If you like Dartford, you should also visit Swanley.

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