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We must escape Subtopia

As Ian Nairn warned, British town planning has had a grim levelling effect on our urban and rural spaces

The perpetual freneticism of modern life and its oversaturation of data over knowledge has served to bury a disturbing proportion of previous centuries’ qualitative contributions to intellectual and critical thought. One of the figures made obscure in the process is the twentieth-century British architectural critic Ian Nairn. In particular, his concept of “Subtopia”, which he defined as the universalisation and idealisation of suburbia, remains profoundly relevant to our present situation. His insights about the effects of place on us and the efforts of central planning to arguably obliterate any prior balance are urgently applicable to mistakes which keep being made in contemporary house building.

Subtopia was coined by Nairn in “Outrage”, a special issue of The Architectural Review wherefrom all subsequent quotes originate, in 1955. He argued suburbia had become so rampant and idealised in the postwar years that “the end of Southampton will look like the beginning of Carlisle”. His journey of the sprawling architectural ugliness between the two cities was the basis of ‘Outrage’. As a neologism of suburb and utopia, it expressed a sentiment that postwar architectural modernism was not fulfilling its grand promises of urban functionality and efficiency, but instead spreading suboptimal, suburban outcomes across the entire landscape. For instance, he was urgently concerned about the insertion of particularly artificial and modern “Things in Fields,” meaning the emergence of a reality where “every background, no matter how sublime, has now to be seen against a universal foreground imposed by modern man.” Simply put, nowhere was safe from concrete lamp posts and towering pylons. Nairn was perhaps naïvely optimistic regarding modernism’s potential, his hope in a turnaround progressively eroding over the 1950s and 1960s, so Subtopia ultimately encapsulated a supposed paradise lost from a future that never arrived.

Beyond this initial survey, Nairn intriguingly expounded upon the philosophy behind his concept. He saw it as absolutely vital that human nature, “whatever the charms of herd life and mass psychology,” must have the space to stay in contact with the natural “unconscious universe.” This was, for Nairn, necessary for our happiness and enduring quality of life so that we perpetuate “as more than an order of termites.” Accordingly, “Subtopia is the annihilation of the difference” of places by universally levelling-out urban civilisation and nature into some sort of grey average through central planning. The city and countryside are obviously different, thus attempting to form a mean of them and expecting to maintain the advantages of each is plainly madness. Of course, small villages and market towns have dotted the landscape for centuries, contributing in part to the bucolic qualities of Britain’s countryside. However, respecting the unique sense of place existing settlements had organically cultivated over decades or centuries did not figure in the agendas of Subtopia or central planning. Readers will be aware that postwar planners designed new developments with a drab uniformity, for they still exist all around us today. In their preference for utilitarian sameness, masked by delusions that they could create new egalitarian ways of living, the edges of urban areas and entirely new towns were rendered indistinguishable from one another and visually unremarkable.

Nairn’s prose on the meaning of Subtopia become most acidic with a series of statements on the implications of levelling-out the urban and rural, arguably reminiscent of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Last Man and justification alone for the concept’s enduring relevance to the state of the built environment today. He wrote that “twentieth-century man is … busy metamorphosing himself into a mean — a meany — neither human or divine,” the emergence of suburbia and Subtopia consequently “the measure of his own mediocrity.” Insensitivity towards both industrial civilisation and “the [natural] well-spring of his own being” meant man “is removing the sharp edge from his own life.” He argued this phenomenon would thus swap “individual feeling for mass experience in a voluntary enslavement far more restrictive and permanent than the feudal system.” In other words, the comforting omnipresence of Subtopia would drain lives of their individuality and meaning as somewhere became anywhere. The urban landscape which existed before the conception of mass psychology was being erased, with Nairn’s journey to prove Subtopia’s existence demonstrating its purported successes “masquerading as Improvement, Progress or Amenity.” There is at least a passing resemblance between Nairn’s ideas and the concept of oikophobia, the rejection of the home environment, popularised by Sir Roger Scruton. The ubiquity of postwar developments required a repudiation of many previously settled notions about home, work, community, aesthetics and their effects on people. Bear in mind that “Outrage” was written well before the peak of brutalism, the destruction of the railways for cars and what Peter Hitchens succinctly terms The Abolition of Britain, thus Nairn’s Subtopia was quite perceptive of trends for its time.

Unfortunately, Subtopia became too much of a buzzword in its day to popularly survive until the present. At that time, the total extent of suburbia for some cities and towns were limited by the green belts, but this approach has had many evident flaws itself over the decades. Elsewhere in the country and on the open areas in the belts’ interiors, new housing estates continue to be built to this day. It should be stressed here that the housing itself should not be opposed, with the major caveat that successive governments have insisted on artificially increasing demand in the market to the degree that companies will never be able to build enough. This article and the concept of Subtopia instead take issue with how contemporary house building is being conducted, particularly that the trends Nairn noticed in the mid-1950s continue to accelerate across the landscape.

Aesthetically … we have not learnt any lessons from the results of the postwar central planners

With modern technology, readers can make a quick comparison between new developments in the northern reaches of Southampton and the southern approaches of Carlisle, as well as a number of towns in between. Aesthetically, with only a few notable exceptions such as Poundbury, we have not learnt any lessons from the results of the postwar central planners. It is still clear that developers are engaged in the cladding of a small number of pre-designed shells with a slightly larger number of preconceived exteriors to a baffling array of manufactured creations. The proportions of some houses are contorted to have pre-installed loft conversions, at the cost of impractical living dimensions on each floor and presumably an inflated asking price. Others have alternating colours of brickwork with no apparent rhyme or reason, or else great vomits of jarring wood panelling. Some contemporary boxes attempt to chase trends in contemporary design by committing to the visual incongruity of black trimmings against red bricks. Elsewhere, gardens might be so puny and so poorly directed towards sunlight as to be only suitable for artificial turf. More often in cities than towns, plans will jettison all architectural sense and assert the postmodern cuboid as the apogee of contemporary living. Sometimes houses will be almost mercifully plain, the distant descendant of the abodes of the Victorian working class. Occasionally, a few houses within a development might be aesthetically passable, but they possess an uncanny presence amidst the surrounding mediocrities and variations of visual nonsense.

These estates can be discussed in generalities because the same superficial trends are present almost everywhere. This does not help in establishing one’s sense of place, but what is worse is the general disregard of the possibility of communities. When the central planners designed new towns, they had to predict needs and build amenities accordingly. If establishing functioning communities of these towns was in mind, it was obviously forced rather than organic interdependence but an attempt nonetheless. Even a smaller residential development could expect an unloved row of shops, a yet sadder estate pub and a school, meaning at least some basic needs could be met without the use of a car and by interacting with the same people regularly. Nowadays, one would be lucky to get a school built with new housing, whilst their typical segregation from the adjoining town by the pre-existing road network necessitates cars for almost all services. Indeed, we now cater to this rootlessness with retail parks, those groves of unfeeling monochromatic boxes as much of a protrusion of settlements as Subtopia itself. More recently, technology has allowed for most amenities to be delivered or otherwise met within the confines of one’s house, meaning it is possible for a growing number to never even leave their slice of Subtopia. Organic community institutions and physical social networks simply never emerge in contemporary Subtopia, supplanted by an atomising digital lifestyle. In terms of infrastructure and amenities, then, we seem to be progressing backwards from when Subtopia was first coined, not to mention the general lack of foresight in increasing the population of an area without improving the infrastructure it depends upon. As the population leans evermore towards a postmodern digital existence, to quote Nairn once more, “suburbia becomes Utopia, Utopia becomes suburbia.”

Millions have to quietly accept living in those houses from anywhere which form the planners’ legacy

When Nairn wrote “Outrage” in 1955, he called the issue “a prophecy of doom”. In the BBC documentary on his life in 2014, he and “Outrage” were compared in sentiment to the so-called “angry young men” who were writing in the same period. Their grouping was essentially a media phenomenon, as was the fate of Subtopia as a term in the mid-1950s. Nairn himself spent his years from then until his death in 1983 as a writer and broadcaster, desperately pleading for a halt to the destruction of Britain’s traditional fabric; he was unsuccessful. Subtopia never spread across the entire landmass, although there remains plenty of unnatural Things in Fields to which he would have objected, yet for so many towns and cities one could argue his prophecy came true. Millions have to quietly accept living in those houses from anywhere which form the planners’ legacy, but Subtopia must still be accelerating to force millions more to live in newer buildings which are somehow less visually appealing and more painfully isolated from either the town or the countryside. These are not true homes designed to stand the test of time, but bleak assets mortgaged to commuters as individual barracks, a receptacle for conspicuous consumption instead of families. It is difficult to know whether it is a mercy that there is so little left to destroy or subvert of the old buildings around which genuine communities formed, or a pity that many might never be aware of their chance to break free from their Subtopia mindset. Restoring the prior qualities of the national housing stock is an evidently long-term project, but if current trends towards all-encompassing Subtopia continue to accelerate unabated the only alternative may be the abyss.

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