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The New Village


John Brouwer

Two pieces published in the pages of UDQ, separated by exactly twelve months, illustrate the importance that is now being granted to rural design Issues. In October 1994, Jeff Bishop discussed the application of urban design principles in the countryside and made particular reference to a code of distinctiveness. The community-led 'Design in the Countryside' [1] work sponsored by the Countryside Commission was centred around the studies carried out by Bishop's Practice. One year later, Terry Farrell and Partners illustrated their proposals for Cambourne new village in Cambridgeshire. John Brouwer examines the approach Farrell has taken for a completely new scheme on a greenfield site in the light of the pointers that Bishop raised.

The primary concern of all designers working at settlement scale must be to either discover or to create a true sense of place. The Masterplan Report and Design Guide for Cambourne [2] prepared by Terry Farrell's team are exemplary in their multifaceted approach to the exercise. Sustainability is quite clearly established as the primary aim. However, the task of imparting character and local distinctiveness to an area with no existing built references is open to the charge of pastiche, and the stated strategy of stylistic plurality may only reinforce this accusation.


Proposed layout for Cambourne showing the village centre at B and three residential areas located at C, D and E.

Time and evolution

The most obvious difference between developments such as Cambourne and true villages is the dimension of time. According to Hoskins [3] almost all villages extant today were established by the eleventh century and were mentioned in the Domesday Book. The obvious exceptions are the planned or estate villages of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The model for Cambourne is clearly stated as the 'traditional' English settlement, one which is 'informal and relaxed in its nature'. [4] Without the element of time, can this be achieved, or would the planned village be a more appropriate precedent to follow?

It may help to examine what tools and influences are available to the builders of complete new settlements. The first, the relationship between built form and its environment was vividly described by Kenneth Frampton writing in 1983:

'...the specific culture of the region - that is to say its history in both a geological and agricultural sense - becomes inscribed into the form and realisation of the work (i.e. buildings). This inscription, which arises out of 'in-laying 'the building into the site, has many levels of significance, for it has the capacity to embody, in built form, the pre-history of the place, its archaeological past and its subsequent cultivation and transformation across time. Through this layering into the site the idiosyncrasies of place find their expression without failing into sentimentality." [5]

Thus, the building or settlement helps us to form an interpretation of place, rather than merely being a place itself. We can all think of outstanding examples of this relationship - Cornish fishing villages set deep in their coves or Tuscan Hill towns high on the skyline - but this quality is also present in less obvious form in all small-scale settlements and is critical to their identity. The meaningful relationship with its site is fundamental to its eventual success.

Hutton Rudby, North Yorkshire showing the impact of urban sprawl.

Settlement and nature

The second factor is the relationship of the settlement to natural influences such as landform, hydrology, climate and vegetation. In historic settlements, the relationship was intimate and critical to the sustenance of life. Villages arose out of the need to be within walking distance of food-producing fields and to provide compounds for domestic animals during times of threat. The availability of supplies of water and fuel were primary, and general and local climatic influences shaped both building form and the design of spaces between buildings. Because every site is unique in its combination of natural influences, every village developed its own unique response, tempered by trial and error and by evolution of type and morphology.

The new villages, if they are to adopt traditional, relaxed and informal patterns, will seek to synthesise, or perhaps clone, the evolutionary process. This is obviously a dubious and possibly an impossible pursuit, and calls into question the integrity of the approach.

Settlement and setting

The third factor to be interrogated is the synergy between the village and its immediate setting. The plan of Cambourne is conceived as three 'lobes' of built development occupying higher ground, with the two intervening river valleys to be utilised as country park and golf course. Apart from these, there is little indication of how the surrounding land will be used.

In the waves of expansion that many English villages have experienced in the post-war period, the single most important threat to distinctiveness has been the change in relationship between the village centre and its surroundings. Sprawling estates have infilled orchards, fields and paddocks and have crept along back lanes, blocking outward views and destroying the peripheral transition zone from village to field. In the published illustrations of Cambourne, the surrounding land seems to have been treated as an exercise in emparkment with no hint that agriculture is welcome. In traditional flatland villages, the clustering and introspection of building groups was a necessity and, in the absence of external dominants such as wooded hillsides or looming castles, the glimpses out through gaps between buildings gave a wonderful sense of 'inside' and 'outside'. This clarity of separation is an essential formative influence in settlements of this type.

The strategy for Cambourne is based on a model of a concentrated development at the village centre with a gradually decreasing density towards the outer edge. Whereas this seems to be a logical concept, if utilised everywhere it will deny surprise and may reduce the clarity and connectivity referred to above.

The past is a foreign country..

According to Jonathan Glancey, [6] Farrell has rejected the Leon Krier approach being executed at Poundbury because it is 'too European' with its encircling perimeter road and 'quarters': 'this denies natural, organic growth, precisely the quality that gave our loveliest villages the face we so admire'. However, he feels that the proposals for Cambourne 'play many of the same tricks as the Prince of Wales 'architects' in their employment of historical architectural idioms.

The concern here is less with purely architectural issues and more with the macro scale of the design, the relationships between buildings and public space, and the architectural expression is the clearest guide to the whole underlying philosophy. This, in the case of both Poundbury and Cambourne may be summed up by quoting architect John Cooper, writing about his approach in a different context, where he rejected '...eclectic and unspecific approach to urban design that treats history as a dressing-up box to be used indiscriminately.....' [7]

In other words, one might politely enquire whether designers alive and kicking in 1996 have nothing at all to say about life today in a language appropriate to their own age.

Whereas Poundbury is driven by Princely convictions about which we have heard plenty over the last decade, Cambourne is a true child of the Thatcherite approach to planning - it is developer- led and therefore needs fiscal certainty above all else. Has this led to a conservatism beyond the bounds of reason? Popular taste is judged by what will sell as its only measure - what developers' agents refer to as 'kerb appeal' is primary, and the current best-seller is 'Vicwardian'. In the face of such marketspeak, we should perhaps rejoice in the quality of intent that underpins the Cambourne scheme, but the eventual outcome in its blanket rejection of anything contemporary in favour of 'tradition' is profoundly depressing.

So, is there any way for all parties involved in the genesis of a new settlement to gain the confidence to adopt a less defensive stance on architectural approach? This is where the work of Bishop's practice, BDOR Ltd, and the experiments carried out under the sponsorship of the Countryside Commission may be relevant.

Local Distinctiveness

For more than ten years now the notion of Local Distinctiveness has been seeping into the consciousness and, in recent times, into official policy documents of planners, urban designers and architects. From the work of Common Ground [8] and others, definitions have emerged which by the very nature of the concept are diverse and irritatingly difficult to put into a neat package. It is nonetheless crucial to the process of understanding and criticising proposals such as Cambourne.

Sue Clifford and Angela King, co-founders of Common Ground, have emphasised human action and interpretation as being crucial to distinctiveness, and Kevin Lynch wrote: 'The deepest meaning of any place is its sense of connection to human life and indeed the whole web of living things...' [9] In these definitions, place is invested with value by its relationships with social and biological factors.

A proposal such as Cambourne immediately denies one of these elements - the social dimension - by its very nature of being developed as a piece, each component and the whole representing a finished 'solution' to a defined need. The future inhabitants of the hamlets will have no contribution to the initial process and nothing to do by way of communal effort to achieve a commonly agreed objective. However, local knowledge, opinion and advice needs to be sought as a central component in the planning brief. As a brand-new imposed settlement, there are no existing residents to consult, but the district is sure to contain many groups and individuals with interest in what actually appears. The publication of 'Design in the Countryside Experiments' [10] and Countryside Design Summaries and Village Design Statements offer a tremendous incentive to engage with local communities. Local knowledge can enrich and add sophistication to design responses and, if imaginatively encouraged, can be more forward- looking than planners and architects may expect.

Justification for this claim can be found in the Village Design Statement prepared by residents for the village of Cottenham, coincidentally also located in Cambridgeshire, In it,they make clear their forward-looking attitudes: 'It is important to ensure positive opportunities for high quality contemporary architecture. Imaginative and original design can extend and renew the distinctive character and traditions of Cottenham's built environment.' [11]

Proposals for Cambourne Village Square by Terry Farrell and Partners First phase housing in Poundbury.

Presumptions of populism

So there will be a gulf between what developers, planners and professionals believe to be popular and therefore appropriate forms of design in the countryside and what the public actually want if they are consulted. Market research follows buying patterns, but these are inevitably shaped by what is currently available. What this country desperately needs are some good modern examples of domestic, and indeed of urban design, to set the agenda for the next century. The design guide for the business park segment of Cambourne is unreservedly modernist in its intention, but any intrusion of such dangerous thinking into the residential areas of the village is firmly resisted.

Is it true that we are content or even eager to work in the best of contemporary design but wish to turn our back on it at the end of the working day? Are we still so wounded by the experience of post-war mass housing disasters that never again will architects and urban designers be allowed to suggest anything other than historical mimicry as suitable for living in?

Jonathan Glancey accused those responsible for Poundbury of 'trying to build the equivalent of a tightly-packed Italian hill- town in Dorset before handing it down, as if by royal decree, to grateful bumpkins'. [12]

This may be so, but if it is, then it at least has the quality of honesty. Can the same be said for Cambourne? #

References

1. Countryside Commission, 'Design in the Countryside Experiments', Technical Report CCP 473, 1994.

2. Terry Farrell & Partners, Cambourne. Master Plan Report and Design Guide , 1995.

3. Hoskins, W. G., The Making of the English Countryside , Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1995.

4. Terry Farrell & Partners, op. cit.

5. Frampton, K., 'Towards a Critical Regionalism', published in Postmodern Culture , Hal Foster (ed.), Pluto Press, London 1983, p. 26.

6. Glancey, J.,'England, Whose England?' in The Independent on Sunday , 29th October 1995.

7. Cooper, J., quoted in 'Street Life Housing in Bloomsbury', Ruth Evans, Architects Journal , 2nd October 1991.

8. Various, Common Ground , Common Ground, London,1993.

9. Lynch, K., Managing the Sense of a Region , MIT, Cambridge, Mass., 1976, p. 34.

10. Countryside Commission, op. cit.

11. Cottenham Village Design Group, Cottenham Village Design Statement , 1994.

12. Glancey, J., op. cit.


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