The search for good design – part 1

Mews street by Proctor and Matthews

Mews street by Proctor and Matthews

 

The first stop of my tour is Newhall in Harlow.  There is something ironic about a new housing development in Harlow, just outside the 1940‘s New Town, which for all it’s benign attempts by its designer Frederick Gibberd, feels drab and lifeless.  But the landowners of Newhall resolved for this place to be different.  The first thing that is striking about Newhall is the variety of architecture, quite a contrast to the neo-geogorgain repetitive housing that was so fashionable at the time of building Harlow.  

 

Main street with houses by Proctor and Matthews

Main street with houses by Proctor and Matthews

 

The Moens who still own the land, instructed Roger Evans to masterplan the development.  Along with several architects practices including Allison Brooks, Proctor and Matthews, and Richard Murphy, they drew up a series of design codes – something that is unusual in an English development, but utilised widely in Europe.  These codes are like rules or guidelines that helped to determine the massing, landmarks and street hierarchies.

 

Housing by Alison Brooks with timber stained facades.

Housing by Alison Brooks with timber stained facades.

 

In developing the masterplan Evans used a very clever device where he looked to older, medieval cities such as Venice, Bath, Cambridge and Oxford, analysed their street patterns, what makes them work so well and overlaid these forms to produce the street patterns of Newhall.  For so long we’ve been living with developments that are set out either on an orthogonal grid-like pattern from the modernists, or a convoluted pattern of dead-ends and cul-de-sacs from Radburn, New Jersey.  But this is a different idea.  The arrangement of these traditional patterns, that often occurred without much, if any planning are the characteristics we have left behind.  They are rich with elements that feel humane and lively.  

 

Proctor and Matthews

 

 

Attention to detail through carefully selected materials and colour palette.

Attention to detail through carefully selected materials and colour palette.

The question to  therefore ask is: does Newhall achieve these qualities?  My answer would be yes.  There is a wonderfully varied architecture, partly due using several architects on one project.  But there still remains a harmony and consistency.  Part of the design code was to produce a palette of building materials that reflected the local area, from red brick to timber-stained slats and thatched roofs.  It certainly feels more congruent with surrounding Essex character than Gibberd’s Harlow.  In addition a limited colour palette, created by the local artist Tom Porter and based on the theories of Johannes Itten, is used that mirrored the surrounding vernacular landscape.  Newhall also has an interesting and visually stimulating, hierarchy and variety of street typologies, from mews-like lanes, to traditional residential streets with housing fronting directly outwards.  This is a long way from the repetitive housing of post-war planning.

There are many great lessons to be taken from Newhall and it does begin to answer the questions of what good urban design is.  

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