Expanded from their ‘Jones the Planner’ blog, Jones and Matthews’ Towns in Britain presents what I’m tempted to call a whistlestop tour of urban planning, architecture and civic redevelopment … only “whistlestop” seems something of a pejorative for such a rich and detailed work.
Starting in Jones’ adoptive hometown of Nottingham, the pair set out to assess the various successes and manifold failures of two dozen British towns and cities (London gets four chapters, while a single chapter covers five key locations in the Hertfordshire Metropolis). The pattern that emerges is one of compromise between visionaries and quangos, aesthetics and red tape. Guess what? – the quangos and red tape usually win.
The authors pull no punches in their findings: Nottingham University’s Jubilee Campus Phase 1, designed by Michael Hopkins, is a “carefully considered, quietly confident and slightly flawed essay in sustainable design”. However, “the second phase by Make is all vacuous glitter … based on a grand axis that leads nowhere … It is all an academic Vegas.” I pass through this development on the way to work: the description fits perfectly.
Elsewhere it’s not just individual buildings or developments that get the sardonic treatment; sideswipes are taken at entire cities. “Leicester has a bit of a problem with its image,” begins the chapter on that city: “it hasn’t really got one.” Cardiff loses points on account of its “parallel urban universe of such crassness and banality that it disgraces the capital city of Wales”. Their reaction to Hatfield can probably be summed up by a photograph caption: “promise unfulfilled”. Ah, yes, the photographs. Towns in Britain is lavishly illustrated. I’m guessing there are in excess of 500 photographs spread across its 324 pages, often satirically captioned.
But I’d be doing Towns in Britain a disservice if I made it sound like nothing more than The Grumpy Old Buggers’ Guide to Crap Architecture. Jones and Matthews praise as often as they damn, and even when they’re indulging in criticism it’s leavened by suggestions towards improvement (here’s hoping town planners read and take heed). Behind the throwaway one-liners and witty captions is an intelligent, discursive and eminently readable prose style. If you’ve never given a thought to urban planning beyond cursing the ring road during rush hour or averting your eyes from some tombstone-like office block, don’t let the subject matter put you off. Towns in Britain offers some fascinating perspectives: if your home town’s featured in the book, it’ll change the way you look at it.
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