Engineering 90 (October 14, 1910):539-40

This article appeared in an influential British professional journal of engineering immediately after the Royal Institute of British Architects international conference on town planning. At that event, architects from Britain and elsewhere lost no opportunity to claim that their profession should ge acknowledged as leaders in the field of town planning. Engineers and surveyors quickly reacted, this brief essay being one of the first. Moderate and indirect in its implied criticism of architects as not altogether practical in their proposals, this statement proved only a mild introduction to what developed as a more pointed and vigorous attack on architects as town planners.
Under most favourable auspices an important conference on Town-Planning has been in progress in London during the week. This conference has been organised by the Royal Institute of British Architects, and the effort has, we think, proved fully equal to the best traditions of that body. Although not strictly within our province, since town-planning is, in the best sense of the words, a matter of general interest, we may be allowed to record a few comments on the movement.

From the almost bewilderingly large collection of drawings now hanging on the walls of Burlington House, it is evident that town-planners may be roughly classified as interested in two special lines of work. Those in the one concentrate their effort on the embellishment, reformation, and glorification of existing towns; while the member of the other applies himself to the more domestic needs of the people. Although the latter class is, as time goes, of comparatively recent origin and restricted to nations of Occidental culture, there is nothing modern about the former. This class is merely a function of the modern development of a movement, sometimes oscillating towards the utilitarian and sometimes towards the spectacular, which has been afoot almost since the dawn of time.

It is the ambition of the modern aspirant to distinction in this class to produce some comprehensive scheme working from a grand central point, or a series of interconnected centres. This idea is nearly, if not quite, as old as the hills. Probably the earliest planning conference of which the minutes are extant was one held "in a plain in the land of Shinar," at which the chief resolution took the form of the words "Go to, let us build us a city and a tower...." Now the very purpose of this tower required that it should be easily accessible from all parts of the city, so that it may be assumed that roads were intended to radiate from it in all directions. Here evidently was a scheme dominated by a central feature, and thus the prototype of many of the suggestions of the present day. Success, however, did not attend this early democratic movement, and thereafter, until comparatively recently, town-planning as popular movement was dormant. The work itself, however, was not arrested, but became, instead of a popular movement, the interest of a few.

Witness is borne to successful attempts of town-planning on a greater or lesser scale in all parts of the world--the magnificent conceptions of great minds often carried out in so thorough a manner that they still remain objects of admiration to this day. The treasures of the Grecian and Roman empires stand, perhaps, highest in the scale, and form the relics of schemes of treatment which, account being taken of the conditions prevailing at the period of their evolution, were probably unsurpassable. The prodigious ideas of Ancient Egypt are never-ceasing wonders. Nor are examples confined to such lands. They have had place in all countries in which civilisation has won a foothold. Although the Oriental treatment is as a rule approached from a different standpoint and the result is therefore radically different to the Occidental, some of the Eastern examples are magnificent in their way. In the remains of Fatehpur Sikri, the great creation of Akbar, whose desire it was to make it a capital worthy the pomp of his court, there are lordly conceptions which few men would attempt to put into execution. The happy treatment of the fort at Agra, and the surroundings of the Taj Mahal, or the dominance of the mosque of Aurungzeb at Benares, are all successes in their way. China similarly has its instances, while Japan could at different periods boast of cities of great splendour, practically planned and built in the short lives of individual patrons. For example, Kamakura, built by the great Shogun Yoritomo, was as famous for its magnificence as Osaka, developed at a later date by the national hero, Hideyoshi, was noted for its size and for its great buildings. But with the passage of time, and the rise and wane of dynasties, such cities, originated or even wholly built at the fancy of dictators, have either completely changed in character or gone the way of their great founders. The stateliness of Egypt is buried in a shroud of sand and debris. The glories of Babylon and Nineveh are departed. The palaces of India are deserted. The imposing splendour of the court of Akbar was, for some reason never known, withdrawn from the new city on which he had lavished so much wealth of thought, even during the lifetime of its founder, and now the place is as silent as his noble mausoleum at Sikundra. Of the pride of Kamakura little remains but a few avenues and the famous Daibutsu, while the pride of Osaka is now the possession of the largest crop of factory chimneys that it is possible to find in any Oriental country.

But while many famous efforts are now relegated to obscurity, the spirit still persists. Though not emanating from the lordly oppressor, or the occasional benevolent despot, scheming on a vast scale is still a favourite occupation. The reformation of existing cities proves as attractive to architects as the planning of new ones, and opens up so vast a field that scarcely any limit need be set to the imagination. It is quite a simple matter to replan, say, the whole of London on a drawing board, to rub out congested areas with an eraser, and in their place ink in wide thoroughfares bordered by imposing piles of buildings. It is easy enough to dream of imposing vistas, or to let the fancy play at rearranging parks and water-fronts. Such exercises are interesting, but by no means novel; London itself has produced them times without number. Wren's suggestions in this direction are well known, while the elaborately conceived plans of Sir John Soane for the embellishment of the Metropolis are still preserved in the museum of Lincoln's Inn Fields. Soane's schemes, however, went the way of many another before and since, and for the same reason. Town re-planning is very much a matter of expense, and the utilitarian view of any proposal has perforce to be given due consideration. It was no difficult matter in ancient times to issue an edict ordering, if need be, the ruthless destruction of whole quarters of a city if such stood in the way of improvements on which some overlord had set his heart. To-day it is different. The displacement of the population has to be considered, while the whole scheme must he arranged with due regard to the ownership of property. Examples are not lacking of improvements becoming in the end burdens, and of errors of judgment of this kind committed by important bodies.

In the matter of city reformation there appear to be two schools at work. One man will be bent on obtaining broad, straight roads, and for this purpose will, in his dreamy enthusiasm, carve a way (on his drawing-board) through built-up areas, regardless of expense with the sole object of obtaining a "fine vista," ending in some monumental architectural masterpiece Another is equally insistent on the preservation of ancient monuments, and is of the opinion that these are never obstructions to development, save in the minds of those who make them so. Professor Baldwin Brown terms the schemes of the first "clean slate and paper projects," and believes that historic monuments should be made the centre point, and that schemes should be developed round them. Here, of course, we are face to face with the debatable point as to what is an historic monument. Big cities may be in a position to secure expert opinion on such a point as this, but what will the smaller towns do ? There is no central authority to judge, and the local civic administrators, worthy men though they may be, have, in most cases, not the least conception of archaeological values, any more than they have of artistic merit. Presumably, it was to help such as these that Mr. Leonard Stokes, President of the Royal Institution of British Architects, in the course of the last few days, put in a plea for the benign despot who should say: "This thing is wanted, and shall be done," and "That thing will become necessary before long, and must be provided for." The individual has been largely responsible for all the famous schemes in the past, now we suffer from the meddling many and untrained minds. In olden times the schemers were often the overlords themselves--men of big ideas. Now such work is left to the decision of popular tradesmen. Formerly the "yea" and "nay" of the planner were absolute but who shall find a censor fit to cope with modern needs. Yet some such authority is needed to step in where, through lack of knowledge and taste, towns are being made hideous in the so-called interests of the community.

The longing for a lengthy vista often overrides, in the plans of the enthusiast, considerations that should rightly have great weight. It runs frequently the risk of itself being overdone. Here in London, which is so often made the subject of improvement schemes, our city atmosphere is not favourable to magnificent distances. A little distance goes a long way here, and while wide roads are estimable in nearly every sense, the conventional idea of the artist or architect absorbed in the creations of his drawing-board may be very different to the practical view of what in this case is actually the "man in the street." A straight road may lose its beauty if too long, while, equally, no objection can be taken to a change of direction if it be well handled. If a bend be struck on a large radius it is termed a "fine sweep," and promptly accepted by the most fastidious as one of the best things for effect. It may be, and often is, of course, advanced that the straight road is also the best because it is the shortest between two given points. But this is only true if the two points happen to be on the road in question. As everybody knows, the towns in the United States are laid out in rectangular blocks without, as a rule, diagonal streets. The idea is simplicity itself. Nothing is easier than to carry directions in one's head:--"So many blocks straight on and then so many to the right or left." But there are no short cuts, two sides of a triangle have always to be negotiated, and hence the frequent employment of the street car, up or down town, with its transfer ticket to the cross-town service, for distances we should be ashamed to travel except on our feet.

The United States boasts at the present time of a school of civic design whose spectacular treatment of vast subjects is on a scale comparable only to the size of the country. There is no hesitation here about thorough reformation, and schemes for the complete transformation of cities are not uncommon. On the walls of Burlington House there are at the present time to be seen drawings from America, of subjects treated both in actual design and draughtsmanship on this huge scale. As works of skill in both these directions these drawings are quite impressive, especially effective being the coloured drawings of Mr. Jules Guerin. Here, Chicago as it should be lies stretched at our feet, with magnificent avenues and streets, a superb park-like water front, with sweeping arms thrust out into the lake to form the harbour. This scale of treatment is, it must be admitted, not to be wondered at in a country where reconstructions such as those of the New York stations are actually undertaken. For the true appreciation of the proposals depicted at Burlington House a bird's-eye view must be taken of the city. Few people on ground level could hope to grasp the theme. The idea is great, but, after all, our beauties should be to some extent commensurate with our lives. Things becoming too vast are wearying and, in the end, oppressive.

If these plans must be seen in bird's-eye view--a condition which, in life, few men as yet are in a position to fulfil--in order that their true beauty may be unfolded, Mr. J. Burns would have us climb to the top of the Monument to see how ugly parts of London are. The post doubtless would be a good one for some purposes, but if London is to be redesigned so as to look well both from the ground level and underground, as well as overhead, not only would the clean slate be necessary, but, before anything could be done in the way of reconstruction, architects would have to learn afresh how to deal with roofs and backs, yards and chimneys, for which at present anything is made to serve. There is no doubt that much might be done to make London more convenient, more sightly, and more conducive to healthy living, but what had best be done is hard to decide. It is easy to talk in generalities, to recommend the abolition of railway termini within the area of the Metropolis, or the suppression of all railway viaducts, the provision of wide streets, and so forth. But these, and other more useful schemes, are only possible with the expenditure of vast sums of public money, the disbursement of which cannot be made without the assurance of adequate recompense. The re planning[sic] of existing towns may be a matter of comparative ease to architects. In practice, reconstruction is limited by the ability of the community to carry the consequent burden. Wide streets alone do not solve the problem. The notorious Bowery of New York can only fairly be termed a wide street, while our own East End furnishes like examples of thoroughfares laid out on an ample scale flanked with houses in which the living conditions are far from the ideal aimed at by the town reformer.

All said and done, much has been accomplished already in London in the way of reconstruction, while many other towns in England are standing examples either of comprehensive development or of re-planning; as for instance, Bath, which can lay claim to broad and enlightened treatment. But much remains to be done. No fitter town to start upon could, perhaps, be found than that familiarised by George Eliot under the name of St. Ogg's. In St. Ogg's the streets are nothing but a series of bottle-necks, tortuous and mean, while hidden away therein, but at the same time surrounded by a bare earth desert covered with brickbats, there is what, if not an architectural gem, is at least an archeological treasure in the shape of an ancient hall dating back to John of Gaunt, or, as some would have, to earlier Norman and Saxon days.

Occasionally, the opportunity of reconstruction may come about through some great calamity. Instances of this kind have been numerous, even in our own time. The opportunity has, it must be admitted, however, not always been taken. But, as a rule, reconstruction can only proceed slowly and cautiously. On the other hand, the outer areas are more amenable to wise direction, and here every encouragement should be given towards development along healthy and far-reaching lines. When it is realised that every fifteen years an area, on the authority of Mr. J. Burns, equal to that of Buckinghamshire is added to the towns of this country, the importance of this will be understood. A healthy movement is now on foot, and in this we are not much, if at all, behind the best Continental efforts to provide people with surroundings which should lead to happier living. The examples of such efforts depicted on the walls of the Royal Academy are varied. They include the garden cities of England, and abroad range from the planning of Kalgoorlie to the laying out of the new Khartoum, and from Prince Rupert in Canada to the Cinnamon Gardens of Colombo, or the outskirts of Singapore. And if the able-bodied and successful are now to be provided with surroundings of a brighter and more open character than of yore, in the hope that thereby better men and women will be reared, surely it is fitting that those unable to help themselves should be assisted in a similar direction. It is therefore in keeping with the ideals of the movement that there should appear on the walls of Burlington House plans for a boys' garden city. This project, now well in hand, is the outcome of long experience at Dr. Barnardo's village home for girls at Barkingside. The new village for boys will consist of 28 houses on 39 acres of land at Woodford Bridge--a contrast to the great blocks at Stepney Causeway. The designs are by Mr. W. A. Pite, F.R.I.B.A., who has thus had the privilege of planning one of the best garden villages yet commenced. The scheme is one richly deserving success; for, instead of transplanting at an age when habits are formed, a start will here be made with the young idea, and no one will doubt that healthy principles of living can be instilled into the boys much better in such surroundings than in the East End of London, thus making them better citizens than they would otherwise have the chance of becoming. 

Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: