Jane Jacobs’s centenary provides a good excuse to re-publish this little-known piece by Bill Howell. Her was vice president of the Royal Institute of British Architects when on 7 February 1967 Jacobs delivered a talk called ‘Failure and Future of Planning’ at Portland Place, and had earlier taken her on a tour of London terraces. The text of her talk was published in the RIBA Journal (March 1967, pp.95-100).
Howell’s response is of intrinsic interest as it shows how far he had come since the Saint-Dié-des-Wandsworth of his LCC days. (Although it’s not quite as simple as that; more on HKPA’s urbanism in my forthcoming book). And Howell gets in mentions of two of his favourite London places: Portobello Road (where he would sometimes run in to fellow-collector Jim Stirling) and the Soane Museum. Reproduced courtesy of the splendid Hugh Pearman of RIBAJ; full reference: W.G. Howell, ‘Thoughts after the Jane Jacobs’s Lecture’, RIBA Journal, Vol. 74, April 1967, p. 135.
Thoughts after the Jane Jacobs’s lecture, by W. G. Howell
We all hoped that the Jane Jacobs’s evening would provoke some controversy, and it certainly did. The more public part of this has consisted mainly of planners and economists, squeaking because their professional corns have been trodden on, and of architectural journalists who didn’t get what they went for.
I think the more serious part of the debate is still going on, in offices up and down the country and in the consciences of the many architects, planners, economists and politicians who have begun to have doubts about our present articles of faith . To many of these the Jane Jacobs visit must have acted as a ray of hope, though they may have many, and strong, reservations.
‘It couldn’t happen here’
One of the reservations most often heard is that everything Jane Jacobs writes and says is really all about the United States, and has nothing to do with us. I recall that a few years ago, to many people’s surprise, we asked Alistair Cooke to give our annual discourse. ‘What relevance could this be to British architects? ‘ it was said. Well, he told us of the Gadarene movement of population to Florida and California, before the term ‘drift’ was heard over here, and he told us , before Colin Buchanan had alerted most of us, of the nearing paralysis of urban traffic. He ended by saying that, unpalatable as it might be to us, he was forced to point out that there was almost no human folly perpetrated in the USA that we didn’t succeed in copying in some form within a decade.
This it-couldn’t-happen-here line often manifests itself in disbelief that anyone could start a serious book on cities with a chapter entitled Safety on the sidewalk. This is held by many to be no problem in these well-ordered parts. People don’t, we are told, beat up old gentlemen or molest little girls in our towns. Really? The latter is practically a British speciality, and the former type of urban occurrence is increasing alarmingly in dead city-centres or deserted suburban roads at night.
The police, not in my experience a particularly hysterical group, and no more dirty-minded or cynical than their experience makes inevitable, have for years fretted about the increasing areas of pedestrian alleyways, garage cul-de-sacs and backaccesses in modern layouts, lacking any social supervision and beyond the resources of the police to patrol. Architects have usually dismissed this as very anti-utopian and reactionary, but anyone who continues to think we can ignore the necessity of social supervision of spaces between buildings in modern cities is, I believe, in ostrich-ville.
Planning – Jacobs’s fashion
Another recurring charge, which Lord Kennet repeated at the meeting, was that Jane Jacobs was anti-planning, and could only mean that we should pack it all in and go back to laissez-faire. She denied this vociferously at the time and I later heard her say to a planner that, though it might come as a shock to welfare-state Britons, she believed in even more controls than we’ve got here but of an entirely different kind. After her lecture in Cambridge I asked her what sort of development controls she would like to see, assuming some sort of bye-law control of the making of noxious fumes, smells and noises, and the generation of more traffic than the road pattern could sustain. Her answer was that, as development control always seeks to facilitate the sort of social and economic patterns that society wants and, if society woke up to the fact that what is wanted in a city is diversity, planning would actually limit the amount of any one use in a given area; which is, of course, the precise opposite of what we do now. Control by the Jacobs’s rules would really be anti-zoning control, to prevent over-separation of uses, and there would be control against too large areas coming under the bulldozer at any given time, so as to prevent the erosion of economic diversity which results from an overwhelming load of new buildings: where do the marginal (but often seminal) activities go, which can only afford to exist in buildings whose capital cost has long been paid off?
Redevelopment schemes would have to justify, by cost-benefit analysis techniques, that total destruction was in the interests of the community (as opposed merely to the building owner). We cannot afford the waste of national resources involved in knocking down buildings with good life in them and which in any case may be housing social and economic activities which would not survive transplantation. But perhaps most shocking of all to those of us brought up in the planning ethos of the forties and fifties, change of use within the above framework would always be permitted, because change of use means that down in the economy something is stirring. It is sometimes claimed that zoning control protects the value of domestic freeholds by preventing ‘unsuitable’ uses infiltrating residential areas. Even if this is a justifiable aim of planning, the economics are questionable because, when growing uses invade a residential area (as they do despite planning), the residential values go up, because enterprises with economic vitality are after the accommodation.
Building for changing cities
If we must face (and welcome and not regret) that parts of towns, like our buildings, will not go on being used for their original purpose, we must either plan for very quick replacement of buildings or for real in-built adaptability. The first of these we must accept, is really impossible – you can’t design a building that will stand for 15 years that won’t stand for 60 and, let’s face it, we are never in our foreseeable economic future going to be able to afford to treat buildings like Kleenex. So we ought to be planning buildings that can change to accommodate the changing needs of society (provided that is, that legislation allows for change rather than insisting on static conformity as at present). Now this is an old architectural chestnut – the adaptable building bit. The sad thing is that apart from very expensive office partitions, most of which let too much noise through, we seem totally In· capable of making any contribution to this vital problem. Are any of our flats really capable of becoming offices, or, if you think this too wicked a thought, could you make a modern office block into acceptable flats? Could you make a block of four-storey maisonettes into a school of architecture, or a school of architecture into a hall of residence? I ask these questions just in order to remind you that we have one building form in this country which does all these things really rather well, and it was devised 250 years ago namely the urban terrace house. I took Jane Jacobs across London from World’s End to the Caledonian Road to look at the amazing adaptability of this extraordinary building type. They make superb houses; they divide into flats and maisonettes; they make excellent shops and the sort of offices most of us prefer to work in. At Portobello Road they make arcades for stall-holders and the Soane Museum is carved out of three of them. So is the AA.
The reason for this is that they constitute a structural system of vertical load-bearing fire-barriers which it is fairly easy to cut pretty large holes in. Next there are frequent, identifiable and civilized entrance points and vertical access at every bay. Also, they presented a balance in their imagery between the individual and the larger unit that makes them comprehensible as single occupancies without their being so fragmented that when grouped to form say, an hotel, the group lacks cohesion. The elevational system of hole-in-wall gives a lot of choice as to where you can bring partitions up to the exterior wall. Alas, the technology of the day couldn’t offer fire-resisting floors which would have cut down their flexibility only marginally. At all events the imagery of the cell in relation to the block, and the entrance in relation to the cell, seems to me to be the basic architectural problem of adaptable buildings. .
I’m not for the moment advocating covering London with souped-up Georgian terraces but, surely, we ought to be able to devise systems of support, fire divisions, access ductways and exterior skin which could offer something as good as a row· house dreamed up two-and-a-half centuries ago. If we architects can’t evolve prototype solutions for really adaptable buildings, then any hope that towns can adapt and change (which is another way of saying ‘live’) is utterly lost and Jane Jacobs will have preached in vain. That, for her sake and ours, we could ill afford.