We are, we are often told, living in a new “urban age”. Our former basket-case cities are all growing prodigiously, humming to the sounds of laptop keyboards and espresso machines. However, our new cities can be dreadful for all but the resilient and the rich. This reviewer recently spent a harrowing fortnight on New York’s Lower East Side in a squalid, lightless, 25 square metres said to be worth $1.5 million (£1.05 million). It might be a good time therefore to revisit the devalued concept of the new town, which in the mid-20th century provided an alternative: light-filled, green settlements with the stuff of life within easy reach.
Rosemary Wakeman’s history of the new town movement is an unusually comprehensive one, and the first large-scale attempt to represent the phenomenon in some years. Unlike most existing histories, it conspicuously avoids the showcase new capitals (Brasília, Canberra, Chandigarh) that so often stand in for the new town movement but are more often than not, in fact, outliers. It is also self-consciously global, taking the new town far from its origins in the garden city movement and the lived experience of the Anglo-American city, to its realisation in Asia, the Communist bloc and the Middle East. The more familiar iterations of the movement for anglophone readers – Stevenage and Milton Keynes in the UK, Greenbelt in the US, Vällingby in Sweden – are therefore balanced by Petaling Jaya (Malaysia), Korangi (Pakistan) and Tema New Village (Ghana), along with Tehran’s northern extension. This makes for some jetlagged reading, as the narrative races from one pole to another – but in doing so, it makes the point that the authors of the new towns – the Greek architect and planner Constantinos Doxiadis, for example – were themselves exceptionally mobile.
Throughout the story, some provocative ideas are constants, such as the new town as a response to war and the threat of war. As chapter 4 chillingly describes, the US military establishment post-1945 considered the new town a rational response to the nuclear threat. After all, as Edward Teller argued, it was much harder to nuke a dispersed populace than a city. Wakeman’s treatment of cybernetics is also extremely good, showing parallel responses to systems theory in urban design in the US and the Soviet Union. Likewise very good is the treatment of colonialism, a major theme. The new town, Wakeman notes, is both the problem and the solution, and particularly in Africa where it is too often a site of privilege and (racial) exclusion. Throughout Practicing Utopia, the new town represents both dystopia and Utopia, often in the same place. It’s particularly the case in the developing world, but also, amusingly, at Cumbernauld, where the architectural rapture at its design quickly turned to despair at its realisation.
This is really six books in one. For intellectual coherence, it has rather too much material. The narrative is unwieldy, and it sometimes lacks analysis: we don’t always get much sense of what these towns look or feel like. But in scope and reach, it’s a landmark history.
Richard J. Williams is professor of contemporary visual cultures, University of Edinburgh, and author of Sex and Buildings: Modern Architecture and the Sexual Revolution (2013).
Practicing Utopia: An Intellectual History of the New Town Movement
By Rosemary Wakeman
University of Chicago Press, 392pp, £35.99
ISBN 9780226346038 and 6175 (e-book)
Published 4 May 2016