The Conspiracy of Good Taste: chapter 4
CLOUGH WILLIAMS-ELLIS How the development of a modern working class vernacular was suffocated.
Clough Williams-Ellis is now best known as the designer of Portmeirion in North Wales, an ersatz holiday village which became used as the set for the sixties TV series The Prisoner. He is also known to students of the conservation and ecology movements for his book England and the Octopus. Lewis Mumford wrote the introduction and calls the author a 'master of urbane design' and describes the book, which first came out in 1928, as a testament to his aesthetic ability. Mumford then goes on to say:
"Not even the high eloquence of Ruskin, the suave contempt of Mathew Arnold, to say nothing of the downright castigation of William Morris, could weaken the stranglehold of the many tentacled Octopus whose inky secretions were inimicable to every form of organic life."
Clough Williams-Ellis was a charismatic character whose influence was also felt on architecture, particularly in planning control and new town development. From this vantage point Ellis and his colleagues managed to smother working class initiatives which promised the evolution of a new urban vernacular.
"Architectural taste, like manners, travels downwards"(Dyos, 1961, p.83).
The Shanty Houses of Britain Illustrations
"His piece of land cost him ú10 in 1934. It is 40 ft wide by 100 ft deep. First he put up a tent which his family used at weekends, and he gradually accumulated tools, timber and glass which he brought to the site strapped to his back as he cycled down from London" (Hardy & Ward, 1984, p.200).
The development throughout Britain in the first half of the twentieth century, and particularly in the inter-war period, up to the 1947 Planning Act, of thousands of self-built shacks, chalets and shanties was considered by the powers-that-be an 'eyesore' and a 'blot on the landscape'. From another viewpoint, further down the social scale and from the perspective of fifty years hence, they look like the beginning of a new postmodern urban vernacular. A real working class architecture, in the process of being evolved, which was brought down before it could flower.
The phenomenon had all the signs of something that, if it had only been encouraged rather than suppressed, could have solved our housing crisis from the ground up. Now we have the outrageous injustice of thousands of square feet of buildings lying empty, whilst people are homeless and daily being thrown out of their own homes because they cannot keep up with the mortgage or rental payments. They are often left not only homeless, but hopelessly in debt.
The shanty settlements themselves attracted a large lower class bohemian element. Artists, writers, actors, music hall and early film stars all found the atmosphere of creativity to their taste.
" One of the celebrities to visit Shoreham Beach was the music hall star, Will Evans, who named a number of the bungalows after pantomimes in which he had appeared -- like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. It was also the scene of early film making, with its own studio and personalities who stayed in the district" (Hardy & Ward, 1984, p.92)
It is even claimed by an inhabitant of Shoreham Beach, Mrs Cox, that the first all-colour film was made there. The presence of these cultural workers suggests the shanties were not an isolated phenomenon but part of a widely based urban working class culture in the making.
They were also encouraged by the back-to-the-land movement which was an aspect of a broad romantically-based arcadianism fed from many different directions. Writers like William Morris, Prince Kropotkin and Leo Tolstoy created powerful images of future societies without cities. The idea of small holdings as a solution to unemployment was also supported by radical trade unionists like Ben Tillett and Tom Mann.
"A surprisingly high proportion 'were either socialists or new lifers or both'. Jack David, for example, was an East Londoner who had an office job in the city, was secretary of Marlow Labour Party and was one of the group that published the Socialist Clarion in High Wycombe" (George Woodcock quoted remembering his childhood by Hardy & Ward, 1984, p.180).
The shanties had arisen from different causes in different areas of the country. In the North East of England families losing their jobs in the mines would find themselves evicted from the tied cottages and having to improvise shelter on their allotment. At one time in the thirties it is reported that 32 families were living on the allotments in the Durham mining village of Horden.
But by far the biggest influence on their development was the winning of leisure time by the organised urban working class. Disciplining a work force for wage labour had been a long and arduous task. The first generation of factory workers, from around 1700, were seriously oppressed by time. Working fifteen hour days, they were practically imprisoned in the factories.
"The preliminaries to the industrial revolution were so long that, in the manufacturing districts in the early 18th century, a vigorous and licensed popular culture had evolved, which the propagandists of discipline regarded with dismay ...the long dawn chorus of moralists is a prelude to the quite sharp attack upon popular customs, sports, and holidays which was made in the last years of the 18th century and the first years of the 19th century" (Thompson, 1992)
Such an onslaught upon people's old working patterns was not, of course, uncontested. By the next generation they were more organised and the ten hour movement had started. Finally in 1850 the Ten Hour Act was passed. Another sixty years of struggle passed before the eight hour day was generally won in 1919 and this only to placate the survivors of the Great War.
The weekend was another hard won chunk of free time. In the late 17th century it had become a custom of the more independent manual trades to take Monday off after the Sabbath. This unofficial custom became known as Saint Monday and spread until, by the middle of the 19th century, it was widespread. The Bank Holiday Act of 1871 was also a milestone. Passed in favour of the banks, it was quickly adopted by industry as a whole.
By 1900 the modern weekend, bank holidays and annual week holiday with pay were commonplace and Charles Booth could comment that holiday making "was one of the most remarkable changes in the last ten years." The middle classes had already led the fashion of sea-side resorts in the first half of the 19th century. Now certain resorts such as Blackpool, Southend, Margate and Bridlington became established as working class resorts. It was around these that some of the first shanties were built to cater for those who perhaps could not afford hotels or boarding houses. The starting point was often an obsolete railway carriage or other industrial container.
However it was not only coastal areas that attracted the shanty builders. In Shepperton-on-Thames, where I lived from the age of 11 to 18, the shanties are now the most valuable properties in the area, often having sought-after river frontage. Here in the Thames Valley the full force of repression was focused. It had been the heartland of the establishment: Eton, Windsor and Henley.
It "must have seemed the undisputed sanctuary of a privileged caste. So, suddenly to find greengrocers from Acton and printers from Fulham making free with their 'squalid little huts' must have raised blood pressures to dangerous levels ... the ascendance of vulgar, popular culture" (Hardy & Ward, 1984, p.185. see also Carey, 1992, pp 42 + 130).
Now these dwellings have mellowed into their settings, with matured gardens, and are generally recognised as some of the more interesting examples of riverside architecture.
The Commons Legacy
Following the Norman conquest there was a massive land re-allocation and following this a long process of enclosing commons and extinguishing people's rights of access to the land and its products. Common rights are still being usurped and people still resist this oppression. The need to have control of the land on which we live, and from which we live, is deep with each human. The injustice by which this right was taken from the people of these lands and the heavy payments imposed on them to get tiny bits of it back will never be forgotten.
This may explain the deep desire I have always felt for land ... a place of my own. A concept like leasehold has always seemed repulsive to me. That we can be made to pay a massive mortgage for something which still belongs to someone else seems an extreme form of symbolic subjection. Housing is a powerful medium of class oppression: "In the 19th century the estate planners tried to carefully contain these classes, by allocating special streets for them ... or by moving them out altogether" (Muthesius, 1982, p.237)
Apart from the planned segregation by street and area, and the obvious hierachy of size, class distinctions were made through the choice and design of architectural elements. Throughout the 19th century there was an increasingly detailed class differentiation of domestic dwellings. A stifling architectural culture of decorum and propriety drizzled down from the Victorian elite. There was little space in the towns for working class expression in terms of space. It is not easy to stand back and see the cultural fabric within which you have spent most of your life. But occasionally whilst reading Multhesius' book, ‘The English Terraced House’, I had a glimpse of just how deadening is the whole phenomena of urban housing provision. On a profound level of cultural expression it is not yours. It is something that has been forced upon you. Even if you manage to buy it, you still live in someone else's architecture.
Against this huge loss the shanties expressed fun, colour and improvisation, and however flimsy, they deeply belonged to those amateur architects who made them.
Late 19th century legislation which attacked aristocratic land owning privilege and demanded a redistribution of land had culminated in Lloyd George's 1908 budget. This led to a quarter of England changing hands in the period 1918 to 1922. A lot of this land was bought by speculators and the worst of it sold off as tiny building plots which could be bought relatively cheaply. These became the 'plotlands' of the shanty explosion. Much of this was poor low-lying land, often subject to flooding. In the floods of 1953, two of the largest East Coast shanty towns suffered worst -- Jaywick suffered 35 and Canvey Island 58 dead.
Poorer people the world over are subject to natural disasters exactly because they are forced to live on cheap land which is vulnerable to catastrophe. They are also disproportionately the victims of motorway and other urban redevelopment.
The speculators did not generally have any cultural interest in the shanty development, beyond swift profits. In their hasty division of the land, they would provide simplistic grid layouts and no services. Many of the plotlands, as they were known, then became vulnerable to various attacks by authorities through the implementation of Public Health Acts. The planning and layout of shanty developments does not therefore represent an example of working class culture which I would claim is evidenced in many of the actual structures.
It is worth noting that in the memories of the shanty dwellers themselves there are recorded many instances of how the move out of the smoky cities to these settlements, often by the sea with its more healthy air and with fresh food from nearby farms, had distinct health advantages.
Between 1914 and 1939 the proportion of owner occupied houses had grown from 10% to 31% of all dwellings. This was supported by the growth of the mortgage companies. By this means the land-owning class sold that which they had stolen back to the people and made sure that they paid through the nose for it. This is not quite as blatant as the current waves of privatisation in which people are sold that which they currently own.
"We never had a mortgage for any of them. I feel so sorry for young couples these days. They don't get the kind of chance we had" (Mrs Granger, whose first plotland house was started with a borrowed pound, quoted by Hardy & Ward, 1984, p.271)
Most of the shanty builders would not have qualified for mortgages in the twenties and thirties. People on low wages nowadays don't have this option for housing themselves.... Home ownership has become a key issue which divides the working class:
"The growth of home ownership amongst the working class, for example had made it harder to distinguish between people and classes on these lines although luxurious houses were certainly owned by the upper class" (Devine, 1992, p.243)
"The 1991 census published on 18. 12. 92 shows that 'Two out of three people own their own home a rise of 10.6 % on 1981. In contrast just 21% live in council housing -- a 9.7% fall over the past decade. The proportion of home owners ranged from just over seven out of ten in the south-west to just over half in Scotland'" (The Independent 19.12.92)
But has the mortgage system provided the same quality of experience in housing provision? There is of course tremendous satisfaction to be gained from the process of construction. If it is the very house you are going to live in then this pleasure is magnified. However there are other positive qualities to the experience which are not so functional. Building a house entails a large amount of collective activity, in the learning of building skills and the collection of materials, which would be an integral part of social interaction and community formation.
It was an important realisation for me on looking closely at the shanties that still survive, and there are many of them, that people had of course been making aesthetic decisions whilst making these houses. That every detail was available for minute consideration and creative intervention. Satisfaction was gained from every successful design built and lived in. In fact from an art and design aspect there can be little to give such deep satisfaction as the creation of your own shelter and the embellishment of this into a 'home'. Along with clothing, water and food it is simply the most basic of human needs.
The land speculators who managed the plotlands were not always only after a fast buck; Frank Stedman, who bought the Jaywick site in 1928, was remembered by his daughter as 'a Fabian, with a sense of humour, a talented water colour artist. People say he was on the make, but in fact he had a very strong philanthropic streak.' Like Charles Neville, who developed Peacehaven, he took an active, if paternal, part in the development of the place throughout his active life.
It is interesting to note that at least one prominent Labour politician had a close connection with the shanty developments. George Lansbury, from Poplar, was leader of the Labour Party in 1934 and had close connections with Jaywick. At that time he declared, "I just long to see a start made on this job of reclaiming, recreating rural England," so the interest of the residents wasn't entirely unrepresented in the political sphere. It was just that the shanty phenomena wasn't realised as a significant issue. Not so surprising because working class culture was also not a significant issue. If we remember the programme that Cecil Sharp was able to inaugurate through schools with little or no adult resistance, and the fact that working class cultural history was not a subject of serious study in those days, you get some idea of what we were up against.
Opposition to this self-build trend was in fact led by a 'growing body' of parliamentary socialists. Other bodies in the forefront of opposition were voluntary bodies like the National Trust and Council for the Preservation of Rural England, CPRE. Support also came from voluntary bodies who also wished to 'preserve the countryside'. The overt aims of such organisations as William Morris's Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the Pure Rivers Society, campaigns against unsightly advertising and the like, were apparently rational and would be widely agreed upon. However we can now see how these, operating within the unstated boundaries of good taste, were used to repress working class culture. Often, apparently, with a complete lack of understanding or confusion about what was going on.
"Since the war innumerable wooden shanties have sprung up -- better sociologically but artistically deplorable. Many of these are on wheels (although unmoved for years) in order to avoid rates; and whole fields have become so packed with them that they are extremely unsanitary ... the preserver of rural amenities cannot allow any sort of old junk cabin to deform the choicest spots" (Abercrombie, 1926)
This quote shows the clash of values and lack of understanding. The shanty builders were lumped in with the property speculators as sharing the same commercial values. Nobody really investigated who the shanty builders were. But without doubt the shanty builders had quite different values to the speculators: values connected with everyday living rather than making a quick profit -- or for that matter romantic concepts of landscape. But for middle class people some crucial territories were being invaded.
The upper classes have "an obsessive fear of number, of undifferentiated hordes indifferent to difference and constantly threatening to submerge the private spaces of bourgeois exclusiveness" (Bourdieu, 1979, p.469)
In spite of the forces ranged against them the shanty owners put their proletarian background to good use time and time again, in resisting local authorities' efforts to evict them.
"I wish to register my protest against the County Coucil's claim to have a royal prerogative over our livelihood, our destiny and our social life... The town planner dreams his way through life. There is no realism anywhere. I met town planners 40 years ago. They took a holiday in Germany and came home fanatics... the fantasy of the playboy town planner is no good to us" (An anonymous voice from Shoreham Beach, quoted in an enquiry on Shoreham Beach in 1949, Hardy & Ward, 1984).
The organisation and fighting spirit of places such as Jaywick was almost legendary. The charges to join the Residents Association was expensive (costing ú40 per year for full time residents in 1932) but included a variety of services including street lighting and a nightly patrol of two women with dogs.
The legislation that could have made all the difference for shanty building was the Holidays With Pay Act of 1938 which gave nearly 11 million people holiday pay for the first time. This was the boost that the shanty movement needed and it brought the whole issue to a head:
"All is changed today in the English (and most of the Welsh and Scottish) sea-villages. As the politicians say, the 'danger of proletarianism is near'.
Nothing but a dictatorship will save the English coast in our time ... when the millenium arrives, when battleships are turned into floating world-cruising universities, perhaps their guns, as a last act before being spiked, will be allowed to blow to dust the hideous, continuous and disfiguring chain of hotels, houses and huts which by then will have completely encircled these islands" (R.M.Lockley, in Williams-Ellis, 1938).
In fact the Second World War gave the authorities opportunity to destroy many of the coastal shacks as part of the Home Army's 'defence strategies'. After the war the shanty phenomena was finally killed off as a live cultural force by the comprehensive 1947 Town & Country Planning Act.
And although the movement was halted as a large-scale dynamic development of working class culture, the incremental process of improvement and enlargement, to accommodate changing needs, has resulted now in many thousands of 'desirable' properties. In the same time period many sixties council high rises have failed and been demolished whilst thousands of mortgaged houses have been repossessed.
Given the right supports and time to evolve, shanties could have provided mass scale housing to high standards. I would claim that they went beyond simply meeting the need for shelter; the process of self-build, improvisation and adventure that was involved, deeply changed the people involved.
There is still quite a bit of self-build happening in Britain. In 1990 20,000 people built their own home, a 9% increase on the previous year whilst the general figure for all newly built houses had dropped by 32% (The Self-Builder, Spring 1991). But the builders are forced to imitate the styles and building methods of the mortgage-born speculative development, so they tend to be invisible.
The shanty communities that had the potential for evolving into urban entities were repressed more forcefully. Basildon is said to have been 'built on heartbreak' -- the heartbreak of those who lost their shanty homes in the municipal redevelopment of this new town. There is little that can now be seen of its plotland origins except for a museum with a very tidy uncreative example preserved.
Since the 1947 Act effectively disallowed spontaneous self-build, people have had to find new ways to create effective low-cost shelter that can express their own being. The inheritors of the vernacular tradition nowadays are the New Age Travellers. As I write the State is preparing draconian new legislation in an attempt to make this alternative lifestyle illegal. Instead of facilitating the maturing of this new culture and giving it the resources to flourish we are again in the situation in which working class culture is to be violently repressed.
Housing? No Problem
The communities formed by the process of shanty development were usually limited in their impact on society by being literally outside it. If the shanties had happened within industrial towns, communities with an economic base in proletarian employment might have provided a different picture.
Various theorists of housing, like N.J. Habraken, have been asking for the inclusion of individual human action as part of the housing brief. They have inquired what the individual can contribute to the housing process. However, until the effects of class oppression on culture are understood such wishes will never reach fruition.
The endemic world housing problem can only be solved if the inherent building productivity of the working class is allowed to take the initiative. Not an initiative guided by the good taste of professionals but an autonomous space in which a modern urban vernacular can make mistakes, fail, learn and gradually evolve. Urban people are capable of a vernacular equal to the beauty of Devon cob cottages or any of the glories of the vernacular past eulogised by middle class aesthetes, but the contemporary result might look more like a Spanish hacienda! Blueprints and utopias can only hinder us. We can only find out through a living praxis. People, given peaceful space for cultural development, will only surround themselves with beautiful buildings. It is only profound classism that makes anyone fear otherwise.
"An African villager looking for the first time in his life at a European House does not suspect the travail and anguish that go into building it -- the ritual of buying the land with the help or hindrance of agents, lawyers and local authorities; securing a bank loan or mortgage; preparing plans, estimates, and documents indispensable for the construction of the house; and paying taxes and insurance policies on it forever after. To him the result may look elementary. Similarly, a Westerner inspecting an indigenous African dwelling may find it, too, quite plain. For what he percieves is the tangible substance, endearing in its unpretentiousness, while the all pervading magic escapes him. He may see it as the container of a life of extreme artlessness -- or what strikes him as artlessness -- and may envy the owner his freedom to build, untroubled by the chicanes of bureaucracy" (Rudofsky, 1977)
Having set the scene I now want to examine how one of the main protagonists in the repression of the shanties actually functioned: to continue to search for the actual mechanics of oppression in an individual's action.
Clough Williams-Ellis: Early Days
He was born into the lower aristocracy in Wales, in 1883. His mother, an artist, had attended Ruskin's lectures and was a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Clearly she was imbued with all the current romantic ideas of rusticity and the picturesque.
"It was my mother, too, as a second stage of my keying down of the picturesque, who revealed to me the almost 'natural' beauty of the old Welsh cottages that she was so fond of sketching. To begin with, I could not allow that they had any merit or interest at all. How could a mere hovel of only two rooms with no upstairs, no stone-mullioned windows, no arched doorways even, be called beautiful or even interesting?
She would not debate the question, but would quietly and very deftly make another picture. By degrees these sketches began to interest me, and I came to think them beautiful. It was not long before the attributes of interest and beauty that my mother had somehow contrived to make manifest in her pictures attached themselves to the originals, and I was soon protesting that she should not waste her time sketching animals and children when she might be so much more profitably employed in bringing out the faint yet subtle architectural flavour of the traditional 'folk-building' of our still primitive countryside.
For that matter, I would do it myself -- to set her a good example -- she must therefore instantly teach me just exactly how one made one of these engaging and revealing pictures. I can still remember the first architectural line drawing lesson and the rapture with which I repeated again and again my mother's ingeniously simple formula for drawing a cottage" (Williams-Ellis, 1971)
After reading this it occurred to me that this apparently innocent anecdote from his childhood could in fact be a rare clue to the violence that must accompany the conditioning of class attitudes. The process by which the architectural context of poverty and exploitation can be turned into a picturesque scene, is the process by which he was anaesthetised to the social context of building design. His much trusted and beloved mother's ability repeatedly to sketch the hovel in silence, without any expression of indignation or outrage at the housing conditions of the rural poor, was a display of aloofness that could not fail to mark any young child with its symbolic absence of empathy. Far from being revealing the process of sketching was, I would suggest, the opposite.
The reality was different -- as Richard Heath reports in The English Peasant (1893): "Picturesque and harmonious from the artist's point of view, these cottages are in most respects a scandal to England." From Peter Hall's film Akenfield we hear from the farm labourer how, "they wore us out without a thought" and how "village people in Suffolk, in my day, were worked to death."
Their homes are described as hovels, sometimes little better than chicken houses!
It is within a mass of apparently innocent ordinary gestures and blanks that the culture of oppression is passed on. Later Ellis says, "I shared my mother's dynastic views and regarded everything ancestoral with a reverence almost superstitious, if not indeed religious."
This was not just a quirk of Clough's mother. It was the approach of many popular painters of the time. Acres of canvas were covered in idyllic scenes by painters such as Carlton Alfred Smith and Birkett Foster. They are still popular, fetching high prices at auction rooms around the country. A few painters like Hubert von Herkner, who opposed the idyll with brutal realism, quickly gained notoriety. The public wanted to see poverty looking not awful, but 'authentic' and sublimely picturesque.
The picturesque is meant to illustrate the rural poor in their natural place and setting. Although they were regarded as a lower form of life they were also supposed to have a 'dignity' within their natural state akin to other fauna. This pseudo-respect is not extended to those varieties of this lower type of humanity who live in towns. Here they turn from picturesque peasants to a dangerous rabble or mob.
An Architect Errant
Later Clough Williams-Ellis became an architect and most of his contacts and clients, and the upper class circles in which he moved, were inevitably conservative. However, after the First World War, he was influenced by his wife Amabel to react with a sharp swing leftwards. Amabel had herself reacted against her father who owned The Spectator. Her brother John Strachey was to make his mark with the Left Book Club, as an MP and later as a minister. Clough joined the Independent Labour Party and lectured on 'Town & Country Planning' at their summer camp at Lady Warwick's Eastern Lodge: "All the left wing top brass were there: Ramsay McDonald, James Maxton, Clifford Allen, Oswald and Cynthia Mosley, HG Wells"(Williams-Ellis, 1971).
It seems like socialism really gave the old owning class a chance to assert its authoritarian values in the face of gung ho and short sighted capitalists. The kind of laissez faire which suited their free market values clashed with the dynastic structure of the older gentry. This was the basis of an ongoing tension within the ruling class. As Lady Cynthia Mosely said in the House of Commons in 1930: "The time has come when we must definitely choose between the end of 'laissez faire' or the end of rural England."
The upper class infiltration of the labour movement often seems to have been a tactic of counter bourgeois revolution. At the same time if they took charge of socialism they could steer the working class well away from any serious class war and be in a position to moderate the excesses of the free market. In this respect a visit to post-revolutionary Russia by Clough and other Socialists proved reassuring. But at the end of the day maybe the name of the party didn't matter, as long as they got their foot in the door.
"From our point of view, England enjoyed almost perfect health until the beginning of the last century, when sporadic signs of a disfiguring malady began to show themselves here and there in the busier and more populous parts of our land" (Williams-Ellis, 1928, p.24)
'Our' meant the owning class because the country population at the time was almost entirely poor and to his eye did not constitute a disfiguring malady. It was in fact integrated into his sense of beauty through the picturesque. "In the old days ... there was little outward evidence of the industries that they pursued." Only with capitalism was the ugliness of exploitation externalised and expressed in the landscape. It was this despoilation of their landscape that pained the aristocracy.
However the ugliness of industry, with its pollution and blatant disregard for the earth, and the ribbon development of speculative builders was confused with the expression of a new urban vernacular.
"For -- need it be said? -- it is chiefly the spate of mean building all over the country that is shrivelling up the old England -- mean and perky little houses that surely none but mean and perky little souls could inhabit with satisfaction ... Cultivated people of all classes must deplore what is happening" (Williams-Ellis, 1928)
We see here the liberal invitation to the uncouth to become cultured. There are two types of working class people. Those who take on the values of the dominant culture and so become cultivated and those that do not and stay vulgar, 'mean and perky' and insensitive to beauty. A classlessness based on the rejection of working class culture, the precursor of our Mr Major's 'classless' society. "False values, and insensitiveness -- particularly to beauty -- they are probably at the root of the trouble" (Williams-Ellis, 1928)
In common with William Morris there was a reaction against imported taste. The classical revival imported into Renaissance England "was no longer a customary art growing up from the bottom and out of the hearts of the people. It was a 'taste' imposed on the top as part of a subtle scheme for the dividing of gentility from servility. In England, Italian art (so-called) became a badge of the superiority of travelled people, especially those of the 'grand tour', over the people at home. It was an architecture of aristocracy provided by trained middle men of 'taste', who now wedged themselves in between the work and the workers, who were consequently beaten down to the status of mere executioners of patterns provided by a hierachy of architectural priests" (Lethaby, 1935).
These upper class socialists actually wanted change, something whose surface language and facade apparently related to the people, but whose deeper values were still controlled by those in high places. As we have seen this is a fundamental tactic of modern nationalism. On the foundations laid out by Ruskin, Morris and their contemporaries, it was refined by Sharp and Williams-Ellis.
Clough Williams-Ellis became something of an expert on vernacular house forms. He co-wrote a very useful book on building construction using earth and mud. This was first published as Cottage Building in Cob, Pise, Chalk & Clay in 1919. (A later edition of it became an important source for my own first book, Survival Scrapbook, Shelter, which was published in 1972.)
Although this interest in the vernacular fits in with an interest in Socialism, it becomes apparent that he never discusses the social and economic conditions on which the form of the delightful cob cottage depended. He is blank when it comes to any real connection to knowledge about working class life. He cannot ask obvious questions like, how did it fit into their yearly work schedule? How did they find the time and materials? How did they learn and pass on the skills required? How was social consensus on style and place achieved? What in other words were the precise social and cultural conditions that made these widely admired forms possible?. The answers to these questions would have connected forward historically and might have made it possible to understand the efforts of the new urban populations to develop their own vernacular forms.
The same sorts of questions were also not asked by Sharp and the song collectors, nor by Morris and his associates. The point that I cannot over-emphasise is that this was not simply an oversight by enthusiasts. Nor was it the result of 'evil' men. They were simply incapable of asking these questions, of obtaining this knowledge, because of their class conditioning.
In the first half of the 20th century there arose the new profession of town planners. They knew nothing of working class life, culture or community. The information that they had on their clients was a projection of their own fantasies and stereotypes, and bore only the faintest resemblance to reality. Someone like Williams-Ellis could wallow in this ignorance and yet present his idiocy with such panache that it seemed all a part of being the consumate professional.
By making his pronouncements from a socialist platform the illusion of being on the side of the people was complete. When talking of the redevelopment of towns he wrote vaguely of the requirement for 'Heroic measures' and 'large loans'. A park would apparently replace the slums. He made no mention of what would happen to the slum dwellers and their relation to the required heroism and large loans! He also seemed incredibly naive in how these suggestions could be used by those commercial forces he professed to hate. As was proven, with acute force in the sixties, large scale redevelopment was the place where really huge profits could be creamed off -- it didn't really matter if the place stayed empty or even if it got pulled down later; the money was to be made in the process of development.
His rhetoric was however, emotionally appealing to the lower classes, because he used his literary fluency to attack their common enemy. As I have pointed out, his classism was invisible. A large body of public opinion could therefore be found to support his position.
Reasonably he attacked the speculators: "Each of these parcelled out his own [land] purchase into little building plots in his own quite futile fashion; with no attempt at co-ordination or a general idea" (Williams-Ellis, 1928)
But he left out an important consideration; this was the only chance for many lower class people to get control of a plot of land and build their own house; and he did not make any differentiation between these two groups in his attack. Peacehaven, a south coast seaside town, was the classic example of this "distressing and almost universal complaint." It was with "their gratuitously flashy or exotic appearance that fault is found. Laid out with sense and designed with sensibility, a seaside Bungalow Town might be charming" (Williams-Ellis, 1928)
Peacehaven was singled out for particularly vicious criticism because, apart from its siting on the South Downs, it was urban in scale and potential.
"Unless you wish to see how ugly a thing man can make of beauty, avoid the cliffs between Newhaven and Brighton" (Mais, 1938); "A monstrous blot on the national conscience" (Howard Marshal in Williams-Ellis, 1938); "The poison begins at Peacehaven, which until thirteen or fourteen years ago was a piece of unspoilt downland open to the sea. It is now a colony of shacks, a long ungainly street of houses that all seem ashamed of themselves" (Mais, 1938)
It would be OK if he or his class could have designed and planned the bungalows, but otherwise he hated the results of working class creativity as much as he hated the thoughtlessness and myopia of the speculator:
"The adventurous bungalow plants its foundations -- a pink asbestos roof screaming its challenge across a whole parish from some pleasant upland that it has light-heartedly defaced" (Williams-Ellis, 1929)
"Good architecture is not necessarily conspicuous, and never pretentious: order is the first essential" (Williams-Ellis & Summerson, 1934, p.6)
Order requires a synthesis; which requires the overview of town planners; which, in turn, requires the strong central authority of the state. We can see how the shanties would have clashed with every aspect of his sense of order and good taste. Even within a profession this authoritarian command stucture is enacted.
"New architectural ideas filter down from the top, and the lesser architects imitate what the great men in the profession are doing" (Williams-Ellis & Summerson, 1934, p.10)
However in retrospect he did sympathise with the shanty builders on one thing, on which he imagines that he and they agree:
"It was easy to do nothing but revile those who thus spoiled the country with nauseous little buildings, or merely to laugh darkly at their tragic failure to achieve an imagined rusticity. But it was unjust, cynical and lazy -- like cursing a stricken family because in escaping from its burning home it trespassed over lawns and flower beds" (Williams-Ellis, 1951)
But I wonder if people were actually fleeing urbanisation? There was not the opportunity to self-build within towns -- if there had been, a different story would almost certainly have emerged.
Clough was a foremost supporter of Garden Cities and chaired the committee responsible for Stevenage New Town. In ‘Around The World In 90 Days’ (1978), he said: "We have, first, to be thinking all the time about living human beings." We realise the absurdity of this only when he goes on to describe the sensation caused amongst the new town planners at the end of the fifties with the arrival of Wilmot & Young's study Family and Kinship in the East London. This was notable as one of the first modern sociological surveys of working class life and it exploded many stereotypical assumptions that planners had hereto relied upon. The people in Young’s survey were not organised into neat little nuclear families but belonged to extended kinship groups with all kinds of patterns of complex community completely unsuspected by the planners.
In spite of this report they didn't seem able or willing effectively to change their approach and modify their subsequent developments to respond to such objective data. Their blankness was more deep seated than simple lack of information.
The Sham of Public Consultation
It must be said that Ellis did attempt some consultative procedures, but they were so laden with class ignorance that they were doomed to failure. In a little untitled chapbook written for the Industrial Discussion Clubs Experiment (IDCE), published in the 1940s to advise workers on their responsibilities, Ellis begins candidly, "No one else can quite do this sort of thinking for you, because no-one else knows just how you live, or would like to live." He appeals for workers "to say what it is you, the customer, require," because if you do not do this "loudly and insistently" then, "it will scarcely be the planners, fault if they dish up something you don't want at all".
He is not only expecting us to be able to translate spatial desires into language, but to be able to put them into a literary form that his class and profession can understand. In other words, to be able to speak their language. And if you do not manage all this in your spare time, if you have any, then it will not be the planners' fault if you have to live in a concrete shit-hole the rest of your life. This is not the only pitfall of this exercise in 'planning democracy'.
"Quite often money could actually be saved by leaving out such silly trimmings as sham half timbering and quite meaningless whim-whams that only fuss a building up and make it look a fool." Here we are aware that only certain types of suggestions would be acceptable anyway! The things that working class people tend to do to their houses are poo-pooed as silly, meaningless and foolish, so a further difficulty here is that all the suggestions must not only be in middle class cultural terms but also be quite congruent with middle class taste.
"Forget about fashion and what the Joneses might want you to have." Here people are exhorted to leave the whole basis of social consensus which can feed cultural evolution and to strike out into a brave new individualist world of good taste and modernity.
Throughout there is an assumption of the profound correctness of his position and the myth that rational thought would lead everyone to the same conclusions. At the same time the arrogance is vied by an absurdly fey doubt, "The fact is, we architects and town planners are a bit in the dark about what people want, yet there are tens of thousands of people in your district alone for whom we are going to be asked to build".
He also warns: "You are unlikely to get everything you want". With some guidance as to the realistic limitations to be faced: "Would you like to save a shilling a week in rent by reducing room heights (from 8') to 7' 6" or even 7'?" Why stop there, perhaps a really poor or short person might choose to go down to five foot ceiling height or less?
In several more outrageous questions like this he reminds the worker how they can get more money in their pocket for booze and fags if they agree to live like rats. They are constantly reminded that the quality of their conditions is dependent on their ability to pay, ignoring both the productive capacity of working class skills to transcend this limitation and the fact that shelter is a basic need and a human right. He ends this generous and progressive outreach:
"Post on a copy of your report to the secretary, the Housing Centre, Suffolk St., Pall Mall, London SW1, who will see that your opinions are compared with those from other districts and brought to the notice of the 'high ups'."
In this extraordinary conclusion we are infantalised whilst being reminded of those high above us who 'inevitably' and mysteriously run our lives. The Pall Mall address lends it the air of a royal court. There is no offer to publish the reports or pass copies around the senders. In other words, the eternal power of the 'high ups', with its connotation of the working class as children, is sealed.
The results of this kind of stupidity, to my mind, resulted in the largest scale violence to working class people this century, barring only the world wars. Beautiful urban community structures and culture, built-up over several generations, were decimated by the mass break-up and relocation of hundreds of thousands of people through the fifties and sixties. The people were often moved to towns and housing in which it was difficult to remake these connections; in which an indoor toilet, hot water taps and central heating were exchanged for alienation. Large parts of Southwark which I overlook as I write this, were covered with massive concrete high rise blocks, which have invariably generated profound environmental and social problems.
William Morris was not immune from this vision of tall blocks of flats "in what might be called vertical streets" (May Morris II, p.129, quoted by Thompson, 1955), which it was thought would free the land from squalid workers' dwellings and create healthy parkland. One of Morris's favourite derogatory words was 'makeshift'. This is a word consciously applied to the shanties by Hardy and Ward in the subtitle of their book. We can see how, fifty years earlier, Morris missed the implications of such culture.
On a smaller scale even council house allocation programmes have perpetuated this dislocation and disruption of community. All this is a crime the enormity of which has yet to be assessed because classism doesn't allow us to see it. Somehow it got passed off as the normal path of progress or even a proud socialist housing 'provision'. Although recent social housing is improving, with sensitive low rise housing as the norm, there is now little money.
At the time the shany phenomena was happening the propaganda of modern architecture was being loudly trumpeted and must have drowned out any working class protest. I have not come across any radical study which reveals a strategy of breaking up working class community in London, or elsewhere in Britain, but by then it was an establishment tradition. Here is a description of the same sort of strategy in operation in the USA written by Yolanda Ward in 1980 and reprinted in No Reservations, Housing, Space and Class Struggle (1991):
"It was not until 1979 that we discovered and began to research a federal government programme called Spatial Deconcentration, the hidden agenda behind the phenomenon of displacement. We discovered that displacement had an economic base to be sure, but more importantly, it was a means of social control -- a means to break up large concentrations of Blacks and other inner city minorities from their communities. We have witnessed the forced evacuation of more than 50,000 poor inner city residents from the city each year and their subsequent replacement by an affluent class. We understood the role of the government and its officials as it aided this process by creating laws that benefited landlords and speculators while impoverishing tenants, but it wasn't until Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) documents began to surface using the words 'housing mobility' and 'fair housing' that we began to understand the magnitude of the masterplan to rid the city of its inner city poor and working classes. To fully understand this programme we had to understand its history, the atmosphere out of which it developed, and its objectives. After this we had concrete answers to why 50,000 poor people a year are being driven into Prince George's, Montgomery, Prince William, and other suburban jurisdictions increasingly further away from the inner city, while central city neighbourhoods are allowed to decay until speculators and middle class whites move in to take them over".
This federal government programme called Spatial Deconcentration, which came out of recommendations made by the Kerner Commision, began in 1969 and received investments of over five billion dollars.
If home is where the heart is, then it was the destruction of the shanty initiative by the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, followed by the mass housing profiteering of the fifties, sixties and seventies, which destroyed the heart of working class culture, through such programmes of community fragmentation and spatial deconcentration.
What the dominant culture always fears most is the mob - a big crowd in an ebullient mood. It is just at such times when the deadening weight of powerlessness can be thrown off and an insight gained into our true collective power. In a large gathering of people information can spread quickly without state mediation. In the short term this holds the threat of riot. But in England at least, spontaneous riot is a recognised way of putting state measures of relief in motion. A traditional part of British culture in which the classes negotiate their consensus through deed and the oppressed let off steam, (see E.P.Thompson, 1991). The crowd which meets repeatedly is more deeply worrying. This unease underlies the state repression of raves with their hi-tech M25 mobile phone communication networks and the recent revival of the circuit of alternative fairs and festivals, as well as the 'spatial deconcentration' of inner city poor.
Prisoners of Good Taste
How can such benign bureaucrats as Clough be responsible for crimes of such magnitude -- these eloquent men with their elegance, glamour and charisma?
Their pompous posture of inane self-assurance was a masquerade behind which was nothing but a massive blank stupidity. Typically the opposite of their victims in whom intelligence is masked by a massive lack of self-confidence.
To me this blankness is reified in the 20th century townscape. Everywhere you find blanks, gaps and spaces which don't make sense, that have just been left without meaning or function, surfaces which sit there staring out with nothing to say, nothing to reflect. People fill these blanks with litter and graffitti in desperate protest. Even the official idealistic public open spaces have become too expensive to maintain. Gradually they become derelict, an anti-monument to municipal socialism's abstract 'citizen'.
Clough Williams-Ellis is most famous for designing and realising Portmeirion, a fantasy village built in North Wales in the fifties where many European vernaculars are collaged together in a celebration of the picturesque. All white and weirdly alienating as only a village which imitates an organic real village could be -- nearby at Transfynydd is a Magnox nuclear reactor which stands on common land that was compulsorily purchased by the war office in 1905.
"Lewis Mumford contrasted the Mega-machine at Transfynydd with the charm of neighbouring Portmeirion... but may they not be two sides of the same coin?" (Reed, 1991, p.30)
It has become world famous as the film-set for Patrick McGoohan's unsettling TV series of the sixties, The Prisoner. In this programme The Prisoner, played by McGoohan, repeatedly attempts to escape from neatly dressed figures and mysterious forces of oppression. He is constantly interrogated and threatened but refuses to give up his own judgement, his autonomy. The terror and coercion behind the nice facade of sixties' normality is revealed.
Clough had clearly designed Portmeirion as his answer to 'those mean and perky shacks'. But one mastermind attempting to design the indeterminacy of a village can only produce a crude imitation of the subtle complexity produced by incremental communitarian development:
"In the biological world there is always an immense complexity: and this complexity comes about as the result of a process of minute adaptations, which painstakingly, slowly, ensures that every part is properly adapted to its conditions" (Christopher Alexander, quoted by Reed, 1991, p.37)
The city streets had such rich potential for meeting, but the garden cities and suburbs successfully diverted people's desire to material possessions and cut people off from one another. The potential of the crowd was diluted. The Prisoner had no name -- he was called only `Number 6': "I am not a number! I am a free man!" He was imprisoned in The Village and although The Village had no walls he could not escape. It looked picturesque and nice but behind the scenes people are tortured and killed if they did not `give the right answers'. Most of The Village's inhabitants led a bland zombie like existence doing exactly what was suggested in spite of a charade of democracy. What the rulers were actually after was forever a mystery. Did they even know themselves? Or were we complicit? The director of The Village, known as No 2, gave speeches praising `social responsibility' and `participation' but these were empty platitudes. Everyone had `rights' but there was no real freedom to have your own thoughts and values. Language had lost its meaning: "Of the people, by the people, for the people", the emptiness of these Socialist slogans echoed around Ellis' monument.
McGoohan was, unusually, given a free hand in the making of The Prisoner, after his highly successful commercial series Danger Man. It was very weird and experimental when it was shown in the sixties and became a cult classic after it was repeated in the seventies. It revealed -- as only such a freely made cinematic drama can -- the violent alienation that results when a people's culture is replaced by a disinfected reconstruction of itself. We are all imprisoned and disenfranchised by the invisible and `undefinable' je ne sais quoi of Good Taste.