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Must Objectivity Be Dull?

Chris Smith

'Towards the end of a sunny afternoon the town of Ludlow looks like a man at arms asleep at his post. You want to cry an alarm in the streets to awaken the spirit of the place. R Is. like Berwick-on-Tweed, a frontier town that dozes with one eye on the old front line.' [1]

.. [Jerusalem shows] vistas of whitewashed mosques, synagogues, churches, convents, monasteries, noble old houses and unspeakable hovels - all overgrown with a dense forest of TV aerials - forgotten alloys that have somehow got sealed off from the rest of the city and are now knee deep in grass, secret gardens stocked with carob, pine, fig and peach trees, acacias, oleanders; vegetable gardens behind impenetrable hedges of prickly pears in which are cultivated onions. artichokes and gooseberries; scrapyards. one of them full of old iron bedsteads. worth a fortune; butchers' shops catering for various religious sects; cookshops from which rise the smells of outlandish dishes ... ' [2]

Patrick Geddes astonished Abercrombie and other members of the nascent town planning profession by presenting material at their 1910 exhibition (sponsored, of course, by the RIBA) of which Abercrombie later wrote'...the merest hotch potch - picture post cards - newspaper cuttings - crude old woodcuts - strange diagrams - archaeological reconstructions; these things were unworthy of the Royal Academy... but when [Geddes] spoke... there was more to town planning than met the eye.' [3]

An ironic compliment, since to Geddes that which met the eye took primacy over intellectual theory alone. It was for that reason that Geddes urged the importance of survey work - a radical proposition at the time, since much planning was derived from elegant theoretical principles.

The conservation world, in which I work, is one to which the accuracy of understanding of the established scene has always been central. It is essential that such understanding be conveyed to elected members and to individuals and their professional advisers. And yet efforts to communicate the essence of the character of an area are bizarrely circumscribed by the dead hand of verbal orthodoxy.

As a young man entering the profession, bringing with me a literary degree, building trade experience and boundless enthusiasm, I was confronted by a senior manager with my, vigorously red penned, first report. The error of my ways summed up in the phase, '... we do not use words like beautiful...'

It does not matter - although it is fertile ground for conjecture whether this attitude has its roots in the aping of civil service language by local government or the fear of many professionals of judgement tainted by subjectivity.

What does matter is that the use of brilliant, evocative language in the description and appraisal of place is eschewed.

In the 1970s, a decade in which the concern about the pace and nature of change in British towns and cities was coming to a head, it took a poet, Betjerman, to hear and describe the force of analytical, latinate, theoretical language.

'In my mind's ear I can hear the smooth tones of the committee man... I hear words like "complex", "conurbation", "precinct", "pedestrianisation...' [4] He perceived the power of the incantation, the comfort taken by decision makers from the ponderous duvet of reportese.

And those equally committed to turning the physical tide in our towns responded in kind. Roy Worskett's 'Character of Towns' was seminal and it set out ground rules on which much of the practice of conservation area designation was based. It was cool, abstracted, analytical. It did the trick.

'The extent of a... conservation area... may be determined by the combination of several streets and squares into one total unit.' (Roy Worskett, The Character of Towns)

Members and ministers, anxious to avoid the sin of subjectivity were relieved to be able to present their decisions in terms of enclosure, focal points and identity areas. It was ironic that in the process a potentially rich word such as character should be used - and more or less fixed - in its most desiccated form. Not,'what a character' but 'the character of the place is defined as much by the homogeneity of building materials as...'. Perfectly usable and resonant words are turned, by the vendors of new clothes to those who would be business emperors, into faint xeroxes of their former selves.

Travel writers are often at the other extreme and always open to the accusation of the use of purple prose (in itself a good example of continued use of powerful imagery in everyday language). Clearly there is a real danger. Reviewing Laurie Lee's 'A Rose in Winter', Kingsley Amis wrote 'The experienced reader will know what to do with a book whose blurb announces, as if in recommendation, its author's claim to "the enchanted eye... of a true poet' , but the reviewer must act differently.. the 'striking' image - 'fragrant as water'... at first sight seems to mean almost nothing, and upon reflection and consideration is seen to mean almost nothing'. [5]

Nevertheless, when Hugh Honour wrote of San Marco's 'glitter of golden mosaics and bubbling of cupolas while the great red campanile stretches up into the warm mothy darkness of the summer sky...' [6] he need hardly have named San Marco's. The startling, memorable experience of the gloriously improbable moorish church and its great neighbour is conjured for us in a way that analysis cannot match.

Much, if not all, professional English is reductive and while this may be an appropriate part of, for example, the juridical process, it is inadequate for the description of human experience.

Just as sex is rendered incomprehensible by abstracted, mechanical description and love is only even hinted at by the imagination at full verbal stretch, so the communication to others of the experience of place must have freedom of vocabulary.

'Radstock is really desperately ugly. Or so at least it appears in its pleasant countryside. In industrial counties one would perhaps praise the nearness of field and hedgerow and the hilly site as such. In Somerset the small colliery town without dignity in any building hurts particularly. [7]

Thus Pevsner on Radstock - a rare excursion by him into evocative language - and one which may have caused offence. Nevertheless, it is extremely effective (and fortunately now so historic as to give little ground for present offence).

There is little danger that conventional local authority description will ever give offence - nor, sadly, engender any emotion. 'The conservation area is based largely on the Esplanade northwards from South Street to encompass the large groups of terraced residential/ hotel/boarding house development. The seafront contains relatively few listed buildings and although the majority of the existing older buildings are not particularly rich in detail, taken as a whole, the area does present frontage which is characteristic of the scale and proportions of a modest Victorian resort...' [8]

Description which grasps the full associative power of language need not be flowery, or serious to evoke recognition in the reader: 'Cologne is a dismal place, which rather pleased me. It was comforting to see that the Germans could make a hash of a city as well as anyone else, and they certainly have done so with Cologne. You come out of the station and there, at the top of an outdoor escalator, is the cathedral, the largest Gothic structure in the world. It is awesome and imposing, no question, but stands in the midst of a vast, windswept, elevated concrete plaza that is just heart numbingly barren and forlorn. If you can imagine Salisbury Cathedral dropped into the car park of the Metro Centre you may get the picture... [9]

There is a wave of conservation area character appraisals under way. Unless our imaginations are allowed free rein, our use of the breadth of English encouraged to match that of the places we seek to understand, then little new will be communicated and worse, not much will be learned.

The exercises in the brain gym of analytical philosophers can reduce a sparkling ruby to a red sense datum. It is the associative power of language which elevates neutral sense data to full, communicative human experience.

And so, in the dry matter of Conservation Area Character Assessments, unless powerful communication remains at the forefront of the project, unless we allow ourselves the freedom of the glorious, varied language - our richest inheritance - little will be achieved. Developers, designers and planning officers will have new grounds for debate: planning inspectors, new bases for decision. And the character of the area? Encapsulated. Neutered. Professionally removed to a dry, safe zone - capable of analysis - but not to be shared.

This way, repetition of a frequent professional failing lies. The priestly caste - the speakers of the arcane tongue - will once more find justification for their proposed changes to the environment in which everyone else lives in the acquiescence of committees. Weighed down with the weight of the verbiage, the analysis of non-human concerns, the decision makers cannot feel the impact of that which is put to them for decision.

Far from being a professional failing, it should be the aim of all professionals to convey their understanding to each other and to the general public in ways that are open, clear and effective. That aim will not be achieved while objectivity and neutrality are assumed necessarily to deny access to the full majesty of the language of Shakespeare, or Orwell, of Joyce and of you and me.#


1. H. V. Morton, In Search of Wales , Methuen (1932), p. 9.

2. E. Newby, On the Shores of the Mediterranean , Harvill Press (1984), p. 269.

3. P. Abercrombie, Town and Country Planning (1933), quoted in P Kitchen A Most Unsettling Person, Camelot Press (1975), p. 236/7,

4. Amery and Cruickshank, The Rape of Britain , Elek Books (1975), p. 7.

5. K. Amis,'Is the Travel Book Dead?', Spectator , 17.6.55.

6. H. Honour, The Companion to Venice , Collins (1977), p. 17,

7. N. Pevsner, Buildings of England. North Somerset , Penguin 1958, p. 249,

8. Description of Burnham-on-Sea in The Conservation Areas of Sedgemoor , Sedgemoor DC 1993.

9. B Bryson, Neither Here Nor There , Secker and Warburg (199 1), p, 68.

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