11 MARCH 1966, Page 17




IE the anti-vivisectionists have a splinter group that worries about experiments on human beings they had better go quickly to Harlow in Essex. Some houses are being built there that are likely to put the people who move into them on to an architectural operating table. The difference between them and the run-of-the-mill housing estates turned out by Wimpey's or an average county borough is as great as that between a comprehensive and a grammar school. By this I mean that the experiment is social rather than technological, which is a welcome change. Droves of plastic houses, homes from the factory, even submergible homes have been flaunted about during the past twenty years but there has been a dearth of investigation into the relationship between architecture and such things as privacy, neighbourliness, safety and quietness.

There are, of course, difficulties about using human beings as guinea pigs, which is probably one reason for the rarity of live experiments. The solution is to make participation voluntary as is. the case at Harlow, where the group of houses in question will be let by the new town development corporation along with countless other houses, leaving people free to avoid them if they wish. The neighbourhood is the result of a competition won several years ago by Michael Neylan. He says his design was a reaction to the 'dust bin' house planning of the new towns in the late 1950s, and other nearby groups of houses show what he means. They are laid out in terraces fronting on to lawns and roads so that dustmen have only a set distance to walk to pick up the rubbish. At the back the windows of opposing rows of houses stare balefully at one another across gardens divided by chain-link fences on concrete posts. The disposition of space about buildings is in direct descent from the by-laws

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that put an end to back-to-backs in the last century. The effect is an environment that has been shorn of the compactness and sense of enclosure of eighteenth-century and mediaeval towns, but has not had anything positive put in its place. Admittedly a means of getting about— the motor-car—is catered for, but in the course of providing for it the more important end of creat- ing a place with individuality has been abandoned. The result is what Americans call `nowheresville.'

Michael Neylan was reacting against all this and at first sight one would say he has gone backwards in time. He has produced a romantic hilltop village with all mod cons and a green you can park your car under. Not for him the other contemporary romance of space fiction with its demountable, detachable, plug-in, plug- out and scrap architechnology.

The people of Harlow seem to have sensed Neylan's mediaeval romanticism because they have nicknamed Bishopsfield the Kasbah.' To some of them the ten-foot-wide alleys that radiate from the irregular hilltop square and serve the surrounding tongues of tight-packed courtyard houses are not so much a place where children can safely play, as a restraint on getting a car to the front door. Neylan's answer is that he has married the advantages of the car to other more timeless qualities of town life by providing electric trolleys that will be used in the alleys to move coffins and furniture, collect rubbish and make any heavy deliveries.

Only time will tell who is right about this but there is no doubt that the paths are preferable to a road for walking about on. They start out from the hilltop square by punching through gaps in the surrounding wall of buildings. The slate roofs of the courtyard houses tumble away

and b.4ond them other parts of the town can be seen. It is a mini-Montmartre, as the drawing at the foot of this page shows. The draw- ing captures the VI' hole spirit of the place in a way that is rarely possible; Michael Neylan thinks it won him the competition.

The court houses served by the paths are L-shaped bungalows backed tight up against one another so as to create small. fully-enclosed gardens. Overlooking has been designed out of existence so the residents could sunbathe in the nude. This is the esperiment in privacy. Another novelty is the lack of noise from cars which makes footfalls on the pathwav s seem quite loud. It may also mean that a neighbour's stereo or screaming child will be tiresome.

Inside the houses the sloping roofs become sloping ceilings giving an air of spaciousness. There is a big kitchen-dining-living room stepping down the hill and bedrooms that Neylan calls 'cabins'—boltholes into vs hich people can escape from the communal life of the big room.

The enclosed and private garden, are com- parable boltholes for people who do not want to go to the public square or to the wedges of park that run up the hill between the tongues of houses. More than anything else it is this succession of indoor and outdoor spaces, each with its carefully worked out purpose, that makes Bishopsfield a memorable place. Whether the un- usual privacy of the houses will create a compli- mentary sociability in the lanes and the square remains to be seen. Or does that sort of thing take a hundred years to grow?