Planning, Art and Placemaking in a rapidly-growing Cambridge

The suggestion came from Cambridge-based architect Tom Foggin.

This was in response to a ‘provocation paper’ by the Town and Country Planning Association titled Civic Art: the renewed philosophy of town planning. The paper starts with this:

“The founders of the planning movement, inspired directly by John Ruskin and William Morris, saw the arts as central to liberating people and enabling happier lives.”

Both Ruskin and Morris left their artistic legacies in Cambridge. In the case of William Morris, he designed the interior to one of Cambridge’s little-known masterpieces, the now retired church of All Saints. With Ruskin, he opened the Cambridge School of Arts in 1858, which through a series of name changes over the next 150 years would result in the institution we know as Anglia Ruskin University. Below is a screengrab from the British Newspaper Archive from when Ruskin opened the institution in 1858.

There is something *very* interesting about the opening of the Cambridge School of Art in 1858, and the challenges that planners, surveyors, architects – and anyone with an interest in the built environment is concerned. It relates to a statement made by Richard Redgrave of the Royal Academy only a few minutes before Ruskin gave his speech. Just as significantly, only a year before, Redgrave had been appointed to the role of Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures – a role he held until 1880.

Redgrave stated that amongst other things his presence was to explain why The Government had taken it upon themselves to get involved in the foundation of schools of art across the country.

“When Schools of Art were first introduced to this country, it was after a Parliamentary inquiry with reference to the deficiency of beauty and elegance in the patterns of our manufactures. Schools of design were, therefore, established in 1841, for the purpose of instructing artisans – and artisans alone, for all others were carefully excluded – in designs for patterns the prices charged being low, to suit the persons instructed. But it was found that after good designs were obtained, they were of no use; there was no public to adopt them and it then became necessary to found schools for the improvement of public taste.” 

And the difference between the numbers involved are striking. Redgrave stated that under the system established in 1841, 19 schools trained up around 3,000 artisans. Between 1851-56 under the new system that the Cambridge School of Arts was about to join, there were 60 institutions that in its first five years signed up over 42,000 scholars – with much lower fees than the previous system.

How does this compare with 2020?

Fast forward to the year 2018 and the Government announced its intention to launch the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. The following year in 2019 the Commission published an interim report titled Creating Space for Beauty. Then in early 2020 the Commission published its final report: Living with Beauty.

“So…is this history repeating itself?”

In a nutshell. We. Have. Been. Here. Before.

Why are we where we are now this time around?

Where to start?

Not least because the factors and variables are so numerous and interlinked. It’s not like one can turn around and say “Well it’s capitalism, isn’t it?” when you look at some of the post-WWII architecture built in times when certainly across Europe, the state had a much larger share of national income than the private sector – and in the former Communist Bloc, dominated it in those countries. The artistic merit still divides and enflames passions and debate today.

At the same time, the architecture and designs also reflected the social and political values of the ages – something that is covered in the 2019 report Community Paradigm by the New Local think tank – formerly the NLGN. Pages 14-20 summarise those ages – it’s worth reading through those pages in the context of the design of buildings in each age. As far as post-war 20thC is concerned, we have these two:

The argument from the authors of the above report is that we now need to move towards a new paradigm – the Community Paradigm

We can’t pretend either that the majority of housing built in say Victorian times did not have its contemporary critics – a search of the British Newspaper Archive will return more than a few examples. And my childhood was shaped by Victorian architecture – my primary school dating back to the final years of that age, where I spent two of my seven years inside a school room built in 1899. And yet that still stands today while my secondary school that was opened in the late 1950s was reduced to rubble by the end of the last century.

Place-making, urban design, and art

This submission by the CEG Group to the Cambridge Local Plan 2018 is both a useful and a revealing example of what this whole debate is about. Their bid to remove that large swathe of designated Green Belt land from protection to enable development was rejected by the City Council and the Planning Inspector. It has been resubmitted for the Greater Cambridge Local Plan for the period 2030-40. And unless the economic model of growth changes significantly towards something else, it feels like it’s only a matter of time before those fields are built upon. But again, how are the proposals different to previous ages of house building? Let’s take a look at the other end of the Cambridge-Brighton railway line – one that came 20 years too late for me.

Above – the view looking north from the Brighton-Lewes railway line and the wonderful viaduct arches that I had to cross regularly by train in my final year at university.

Rows of seemingly endless terraced housing all in uniformed lines did not look pleasant on a cold, rainy November evening as we all got wet due to a leaky obsolete slam-door train. In my second year at university I lived in a large private halls of residence where the building manager randomly turned out to be the eldest son of one of my parent’s best friends – who still live in the same place even after nearly half a century in South Cambridge. That place in Hove was inspected by the local council and was condemned as unfit for human habitation – a side street seaside terrace artificially sub-divided to cram in as many of us into as small a space as possible. What value art when the building is a danger to the health of its inhabitants?

What do the people who will make the new communities want in terms of art and urban design of their neighbourhoods?

From one perspective this is an impossible question to answer unless you know that everyone who is buying a home in that area is buying off plan, has had the opportunity to influence the designs, and will actually be living in the home once built. I.e. not buying to invest/let either as an individual, institutional, or offshore investor. Successive governments of all political shades of the main parties have backed away from putting in place laws and regulations that discourage the sorts of financial activities that put the cohort of first time buyers and people ‘buying to live in full time’ at a disadvantage.  Hence all too often I use the term “Maximum profit, minimal cost, early 21stC disaster capitalism architecture” to describe developments where, going by the behaviour and tactics of the developers that bulldoze their way through the planning process and wear down local communities, the developer clearly shows no interest other than a maximum profit.

At the same time, we have a planning system where planning committees feel obliged to approve planning applications that meet the bare minimum requirements because ministers and Parliament – heavily lobbied by the building industry – brought in changes to the planning system post-2010 that restricted the ability of councils to refuse planning permission, and furthermore put the costs of successful appeals onto local councils with a regime enabling planning inspectors to favour developers.

Above – Cambridge City Council planning committee members slamming an application at Mount Pleasant House.

Below – taken in mid-2019 by myself, the nearly completed new student halls of residence for St Edmund’s College, Cambridge.

Below – the same building on GMaps taken from the entrance of Histon Road Cemetary looking south. The College had the opportunity to build a beautiful and truly iconic building at one of the most prominent road junctions in the city – Histon Road, Castle Street, Huntingdon Road and Victoria Road. But instead we got this.

Cambridge can do better – and the colleges should be leading the way. It is utterly depressing that in such a prominent public-facing site this one failed so unspectacularly. It is because of successive cases like this that ministers launched the commission that they did, and the TCPA published its provocation paper as it has done. Had the college approached local residents associations and community groups *at design stage* they could have worked together to produce a design that both met the accommodation requirements of the college while providing the local residential and business communities with a building the city could take genuine pride in.

Outrage at such designs in Cambridge is not new. Take The Guildhall

On 04 January 1935, the Cambridge Independent published the first design of a new guildhall, councillors having finally resolved to get one built, and having settled on Florence Ada Keynes as the chair of the reconstruction committee.

Above – from the Cambridgeshire Collection‘s newspaper microfiche archive. It was designed by one of my least-favourite figures of the 20th Century, Charles Cowles-Voysey, whose smokey stain of a facade still visually pollutes Cambridge’s Market Square today. Journalist Kenneth Robinson in his damning assessment of Cambridge’s architecture in his 1964 film (you can watch it here) simply described the guildhall as ‘appalling. Personally I’d have gone with John Belcher’s design of 1898 below. But well-organised campaigns ensured that this design was sunk not just once in 1898, but twice – again in 1913.


Above – John Belcher for Cambridge Mayor Sir Horace Darwin – from a photo of a photo in the Cambridgeshire Collection. We are still searching for the original.

Don’t think the guildhall we got was a straight forward affair. It was incredibly controversial – as Sid Moon lampooned the whole thing in the early 1930s. The town could not unite behind an alternative design.

…and as chair of the reconstruction committee that pushed through the final design, Florence Ada Keynes got it in the neck from the rate payers and protesters – culminating in a huge demonstration in the Large Hall still on the site.

Above – A detail from Florence Ada Keynes circa 1916, in the Palmer Clarke archive in the Cambridgeshire Collection, colourised from a glass plate negative by Nick Harris, commissioned by Antony Carpen. 

For me this was the only major decision in public life that Florence got wrong – and badly wrong. Despite this I consider her to be one of the greatest women to have lived in and served our city in public life. Hence describing her as The Mother of Modern Cambridge.

The women who made modern Cambridge developed a vision of the place it could become. Do we have such a vision today?

I’m not sure we do – which is why I think the call by Mr Foggin is all the more important when it comes to our built environment. We’ve had things like Cambridge 2065 which contained the visions of the great and the good. A generation ago there was Cambridge 2020: Meeting the Challenge of Growth – published by the Cambridge Network. (My call to the Cambridge Network is to commission a formal evaluation of that document: To what extent did Cambridge meet that challenge of growth?) We even had my own deliberately comical attempt in 2014 with the manifesto of Puffles the Dragon Fairy.  The result of standing a cuddly toy dragon for election in Coleridge ward, Cambridge? A year later, we got a dragon slide at Coleridge Rec.

Vote dragon…,

….get dragon!

Above – the dragon slide at Coleridge Rec, Cambridge – I’m leaving it to the children at Coleridge & the Ridgefield to give it a name.

GMaps even named the playground after the new dragon!

On starting the conversations…and ensuring the results are more than just words.

When I talk about the Women who made Modern Cambridge in my LostCambridge project, don’t think that this outstanding group of women all had the same views on everything and started off with an in depth plan on what they were going to achieve. It started off as a small dining society that is the subject of Dr Ann Kennedy Smith’s research, and the slightly larger Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society, which would evolve into one of the most influential civic institutions in pre-war and interwar Cambridge. It was a society that encompassed many strands of political opinion – conservatives, liberals, socialists, feminists, high church, low church, and no church to name but a few. Remember that when they started, the state banned women from voting in both national and local government. Only a minority of men – those that paid local council rates – had the vote. It wouldn’t be until 1928 that the UK achieved Universal Suffrage, nearly a decade after the UK Government imposed it on a defeated Germany after WWI.

In any conversations/events that happen – mindful of the Covid-19 restrictions, one issue I’d like to see explored in depth are the legal barriers – ones that require changes in the law to help deliver the necessary changes. That could be changes on responsibilities of land owners and investors, through to changes to the ways that which local councils can raise revenue, to changes to the constitutions and functions of charities and voluntary organisations active in this area.


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