Wednesday, 30 October 2013

William Wordsworth: the patron saint of modern town planners?

It is difficult to see twenty-first century town planners huddled in their non-descript offices dreaming of the birds, flowers, and scents of the fields of England and looking for inspiration from an eighteenth century gentleman as they tick off the compliance of the latest revamp of some suburban house for conformity with some obtuse and absurd twentieth century rule designed to prevent the slim possibility of the applicant seeing the private behaviour of their neighbour in their personal open space.  But evidently, this is what they do.

Perhaps muttering under their breath as they search for the relevant sub clause:

Up with me! Up with me into the clouds!

For thy song, lark, is strong;

Up with me, up with me into the clouds!

Singing, singing,

With all the heav’ns about thee ringing,

Lift me, guide me, till I find

That spot which seems so to thy mind!

(To a Sky Lark, Spring 1802)

For in their work, they are channelling William Wordsworth, the great English poet and would-be town planner.  The rules of how to preserve or create a pleasant and satisfying garden suburb were set out more than 200 years ago by the Lakes District poet.  At least in their original sense, suburbs were an attempt to return to the country, houses set in a pleasant rural setting, but nestled close to the conveniences of an urban centre.  Perhaps instead of hundreds of pages of perverse prescriptions, all the protagonists in suburban planning dramas might consider reading from the text of St William of Grasmere.  In his Guide to the Lakes of 1810, Wordsworth explained how the integrity and beauty of a rural landscape should be preserved, as these areas were even then threatened by insensitive development.  For Wordsworth, Nature constructs such beautiful country scenes in a number of ways: 

‘Insensible gradations’:  Unlike the superficial ordered art of man, Nature has no ‘strong lines of demarcation’.  Instead, there are ‘fine gradations by which in Nature one thing passes away into another, and the boundaries that constitute individuality disappear in one instance only to be revived elsewhere under a more alluring form.’  Unlike a decorative garden, Nature allows a refined and complex connection of parts, with a seemingly endless and effortless melting or laying of elements into each other.  In contrast to the gardens then being filled with foreign trees, all planted together, tendered and perfectly selected for the location, natural forests began randomly from deposited seeds and the layering of the staged growth, and produced trees that are fashioned as much by their neighbours as any other natural conditions.  While the plants of nature may flow together without sharp distinctions, this does not create an undifferentiated singular mass.  Instead bare mountains, where wind and cold prevent the tree coverage of the lower lands, provide a focus.  Human forms such as church steeples can also be a valuable highlight, as opposed to a ‘discordant object’ such as a newly erected gentleman’s house located on a prominent hillside.

‘Variegated landscape’:  The randomness of the formation of soil types, stony patches, and land steepness ensures a pleasing ‘intermix of wood and lawn, with a grace and wildness which it would have been impossible for the hand of studied art to produce’.   In an effort to avoid flooding, and perhaps benefit from the most sheltered position, or the best veins of soil, houses are clumped together on the side of the surrounding hills not simply scattered across the valley bottoms.  There is diversity to the form of the houses as only materials immediately on hand are used.  Houses are changed over long time by a succession of owner-builders, and so appear to grow by instinct without following any fixed notions of form.   The rough texture of these houses and their uneven form allow them to be ‘clothed in part with a vegetable garb’ and ‘appear to be received into the bosom of the living principle of things’.

‘Multiplicity of symmetrical parts united in a consistent whole’:  For the whole scene to work well, there needs to be the balance of both the grand prospect and the enticing immediate details.  The sublime, broad, and massive forms of the mountains and valleys contrast with the beauty of the details along the lakeside edge, details such as small seasonal rivulets depositing gravel and subtly changing the lake form, and indeed the water surface at times.  The lakes of William’s area were formed in broad valleys that allowed well-proportioned bodies of tranquil water as opposed to rapidly flowing rivers, thereby creating ‘that placid and quiet feeling that belongs peculiarly to the lake’ with its attendant ability to reflect clouds and hills and express changes in light and atmosphere.

As Wordsworth’s explanation of the Lakes District shows, the perfect country scene is one formed over a long time, by few people with limited resources, if not subsistence living, with predominantly local communications and influences, but above all, a necessary acceptance of natural constraints.  Despite their pretence to being part of nature, modern suburbs are the very opposite.  Contemporary suburbs can be formed almost instantly, with considerable resources and almost limitless information allowing a vast ever changing smorgasbord of styles, materials, colours, and technologies.  Far from feeling the firm hand of nature guiding the choice of location, form, plantings or scale, the suburbanite is free to express individual style collecting the available elements together in some hitherto unconsidered combination, though set firmly within the logic of the layout of streets, services, conventions and innumerable rules or laws.  The contemporary suburb is an industrialised, commercialised landscape just as much as the nearby industrial estates or commercial centres are.

Saint William understood the inevitability of human presence but thought that the ‘invisible hand of art should everywhere work in the spirit of Nature’.  Even then, before industrialisation had moved into full steam, he was concerned about the encroachment of red-tiled ‘flaring’ gentlemen’s houses and alien improvers.  These houses with a desire for prospect - height and prominence -, he contrasted unfavourably with the receding peace, comfort and shelter of traditional houses, thinking that a desire for lines and formality showed an ignorant mind.   A careful understanding of nature revealed harmony to be the delicate balancing of individuality and commonality, the large and the small, and fine gradations set within broad contrast. 

But given the transition from the constraints of pre-industrial poverty to the many alternatives that the extreme wealth and technological capacity of recent times provide, how could we expect Nature to remain dominant and continue to shape our spaces?   In the absence of an alternative, the shaping of the suburbs has to become a conscious human thing but there is no single guiding hand.  Those who have nominally been given the role – the town planners – inevitably fail to live up to the ideals of their saint.  Their powers are too limited.  There is no meaningful sustainable consensus about all the elements necessary to replicate the actions of nature.  Planners are thwarted by the very nature of the process.  While at one moment we may want to imbibe ‘the spirit of Nature’, listening to bird songs or watching the complexity of light playing on a lake surface or clouds rolling over a mountain edge, at another, we seek the distraction of other forms of entertainment.  There are inevitably more resources, more connections and more ideas than a subsistence lifestyle can provide and these divert us from the natural path, making ever larger houses, with ever more exotic forms.  The ability to gain greater levels of convenience, comfort, safety, and pleasure that comes with wealth, takes us further from the realities of the perfect natural rural scene with its alternately dusty and muddy roads, unmade pathways, ill-defined unfenced boundaries, damp crumbling houses, randomly unkempt corners or fields, and irregular plots of land.

In his book, Wordsworth had a lot to say about the colours of houses, searching hard for a reliable rule to be followed.  Clearly, the ideal would have been to have colours that imbedded houses in the their location, and so reflected the colours of the nearby soils, rocks and plants.  However, Wordsworth understood that some rock colours in particular were so obviously inappropriate – likely to produce more discordance than fine gradation - that he could find no firm principle and in the end merely settled for ‘a warm tint’ that ‘would not disturb but would animate the landscape’.  In their range of brown to cream coloured brickwork, the builders of Australian suburbs seem to have taken the poet at his word.  If anything, the pursuit of the perfect warm tint has become a national obsession.

Perhaps it is time that we gave up this pursuit of natural beauty and the attendant desires for protective pyramidal roofs, cosy cul-de-sacs, serpentine streets, pallid nature strips, and most of all, obligatory boundary setbacks that create desolate would-be gardens or unnecessary service spaces.  Suburbs are not a replica of some tranquil harmonious rural place.  They have the thinnest veneer of a natural setting that does little to hide the reality of discordant objects and flaring colours overlaying pervasive regularity and relentless repetition.

So why maintain the pretence?  We could give this all up and accept that suburbs are human-created cities.  St William could remain the patron saint of rural planners, but suburban planners could look to some pre-romantic figure such as such as Leon Battista Alberti , that great Renaissance figure who managed to be both an architect and a poet (and many other things).  It is doubtful that Alberti would even have understood the romantic notion of Nature promulgated by Wordsworth and his ilk.  In Renaissance Italy, the city was an ideal and was to be built for humans to human standards.

But we are unlikely to be able to make this mental shift.  The trouble is that Wordsworth and the other purveyors of the picturesque have locked us into a process of continuous picture making, as we unconsciously gather all the clutter of suburbia and elsewhere into a comprehensive visual whole, and judge the worth of the resulting scene by some standard created either in the distant past or at least in some faraway place.  So if we are to give up the attempted identification of suburbs with natural beauty, some other ready-made notion of beauty will inevitably be substituted.  Perhaps we will end up following recent Chinese practice and attempt to recreate compact traditional villages modelled on whatever happens to gain our attention as a result of the random processes of pulsating visual media or the accidents of world travel.  Even Wordsworth would have found the notion of suburbia modelled on the genuinely beautiful naturally-created pre-industrial landscapes to be absurd.   Wordsworth accepted that in the featureless plains, away from where the strong hand of Nature was felt, houses themselves would be the feature and perhaps humans could apply their own standards of beauty.


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