Ian Waites, Middlefield: A postwar council estate in time (Uniformbooks, July 2017)
This is a modest, gentle, elegiac evocation of an ordinary council estate of its time. If that sounds as if I’m damning it with faint praise, it shouldn’t. I think this is an important little book – a corrective to our focus on the grand projects and architectural showpieces (for good or ill) and a reminder of the unassuming decency of the vast bulk of council housing. Between 1945 and 1979, almost two-thirds of new council homes were located on so-called cottage estates.Ian Waites moved with his parents to the Middlefield Lane Estate in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, in 1964. He brings that child’s experience, as well as the eye of his later incarnation as a lecturer in art and design at the University of Lincoln, to this account of Middlefield.
This ‘New Gainsborough’ (as the local press described it) was defined, as Waites tells us:
by the clean architectural lines of postwar modernism and by experimental ideas in planning which aimed to separate the car from the family.
This was an unfussy, humanist modernism – ‘the front of the house is plain, asymmetrical and rectilinear’ (though a parabolic concrete canopy over the front door adds a small high-tech touch). Wimpey were responsible for most of the estate’s design and build but the local council architect – ‘keen to keep Wimpey at bay’ – designed the maisonettes which made local children think they were living in Marineville (a Stingray reference to the uninitiated).
Waites points out too the small and easily overlooked detail: the Phosco P107 lampposts (‘the local authority lamppost of choice during the 1960s’); the large cobbles on some street corners designed to prevent cars and pedestrians from cutting across; the privet hedges, an earlier council favourite, delineating back gardens. His photographs capture this detail and make us look at it anew.
That separation of traffic and people – recommended in the 1944 Dudley Report on housing design and layout and re-emphasised in the Government’s 1953 housing manual – was a more ubiquitous fashion of the age. This was the Radburn style (named after the New Jersey town founded in 1929 as ‘a town for the motor age’) now generally excoriated for its loss of the ‘permeability’ and ‘natural surveillance’ of the street. But in Middlefield it seemed to work: according to Waites, ‘the pedestrianised nature of the estate…gave its children an enormous space to play in’.
Another, more contemporarily, criticised feature of Middlefield and many like estates was its peripheral location – on the ‘distant rim’ of the town, in Waites’ words. This, in combination with the expansive, low-density nature of the estate, was the ‘prairie planning’ that architectural critics so despised in the new towns such as Harlow. But early residents seemed to ‘have few complaints’ according to a 1964 press report, and most, apparently, liked the ‘fresh-air feeling’ of the estate.
The detritus of out-of-town suburbia has grown around the estate since then but a field remains, no longer growing wheat but providing grazing for a horse which nearby residents keep a solicitous eye on. That space, that little bit of nature, remains valued.
In all, Middlefield epitomises what Waites calls the ‘paternalistic modernism’ of the post-war era. And he cites, as a small but telling example of this, the communal aerial erected in 1965 intended to keep the estate tidy, free of the visual litter of individual TV aerials. There’s no snobbery in pointing out that it is the individualism of Right to Buy which has done most damage to the ‘look’ and feel of estates since 1980.
And there, in essence, is the clash of values which has seen our council estates so scorned in recent years. This ‘paternalism’ is often portrayed as heavy-handed, statist – a constraint on personal enterprise and freedom. Waites should encourage us to rethink this lazy characterisation.
For one, ‘modernism’ had a personal meaning and value to those who experienced it first-hand on the new estates: ‘a bathroom and inside toilet, kitchen “tops”, hot and cold running water, a TV aerial socket, and a “picture-window”’. This was a new world to embrace; there was no romance in the slums.
And, furthermore, the residents:
were taking new decisions; they moved to the front. In the old slum terraces, the front door was never used. Everyone used the back door. Now it was different. The residents began to live in the living room, rather than existing in the kitchen.
Much else, in Waites’ telling, is personal – the well-remembered and half-remembered friends, the playgrounds and dens of childhood. And ‘open doors’:
People sat out in the sun on their doorstep while kids bombed up and down the footpaths on their bikes.
Maybe I’m being starry-eyed but this sounds like ‘community’ to me – paradoxically both the Holy Grail of post-war planning and allegedly its greatest victim. Decent homes, salubrious surrounds, healthy play – everything the paternalistic social democratic state prescribed and, surely, what most of its citizens wanted.
I’ve provided a personal response to Ian Waites’ book. Do read it for more of Ian’s own recollections and insights and for the many well-chosen photographs which illustrate it.
Middlefield: a postwar council estate in time is available direct from Uniformbooks or from online booksellers and independent bookshops.
You can also follow Ian’s blog, Instances of a changed society.