08 Nov, 2009

The Freedoms of Suburbia by Paul Barker | Book review

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

We love to hate the suburbs but for Paul Barker they are places of humanity where individuality flourishes, says Rachel Cooke

I grew up on the west side of Sheffield, close to Broomhill, a place which, in 1961, John Betjeman celebrated as “the prettiest suburb in England”. Is it pretty? Handsome would be a better word, though I only think so now. At the time, I neither loved it nor hated it; those streets, wide and quiet, were simply a backdrop for my interminable teenage psychodramas. Besides, it was the 1980s. The city centre was unimaginably bleak. Hardly anyone lived there and, in my opinion, no one in their right mind would want to if they could help it. The city was where you went to buy cheap shoes and Thorntons toffee. Then you went home again, on the bus, for the miraculous price of 2p. 

When I was 18, however, I met a boy called Crispin, who was going to the same university as me. Crispin was different to everyone I knew and not only because of his neon sign of a middle-class name. I remember the evening he told me that his parents – they were academics – had bought a terraced house in town, close to Sheffield United’s football ground. Wasn’t that cool? Inwardly, I felt nothing but astonishment. What? Outwardly, I bluffed. Yeah, really cool, I said. I mean, who wants a house with a… drive?

Thus, in one fell swoop, I became an unsuspecting modernist. So far as suburbia was concerned, I now had a position. Years later, when a girlfriend told me how little she cared for bay windows, I managed not to say: “But they allow such a lovely feeling of space and light!” I nodded gravely and thought of a certain redbrick house in Bramall Lane. That was flat-fronted, too. 

The Freedoms of Suburbia pushes gently at this kind of learned snobbery, though its author, Paul Barker, admits that he, too, was once prey to it; when he bought a flat-fronted house in London’s Kentish Town – “the kind that modernists approved of” – his first act was to uproot the privet hedge in the front garden, his second to chip its enamelled name, “Bowerhayes”, from the fanlight above the door. He also bricked up any remaining fireplaces, which gives you an idea of how long ago this must have been, though he does not provide a date.

These days, Barker is a little more open-minded. Partly, this is down to age. We all get there in the end. I grow old… I grow old…. and I want, if not to wear my trouser bottoms rolled, certainly to have a pocket-sized garden and the illusion that my neighbours are more than three feet away from me. But it is also that the suburbs have endured like almost nothing else in British life. Some 84% of us now live in some form of suburbia, the vast majority in houses inspired, even if only distantly, by the arts and crafts architects CFA Voysey and MH Baillie Scott.

London is now, thanks to its suburbs, a 100-mile city. Such victories do not mean that we must all learn to love pebbledash. But perhaps – Lord Rogers excepted – we can finally accept that a semi with bay windows and a hall wide enough to hold what used to be called a console table is a fine thing indeed and a good deal more humane than anything that ever leapt off Berthold Lubetkin’s drawing board. 

Barker’s book is a ramble rather than a polemic, but it meanders through this hoary old argument nevertheless: naturally, the Smithsons, architects of the brutalist Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, east London, are here in all their unsmiling, totalitarian glory, standing proxy, as usual, for everything that went wrong in postwar planning. But he is careful to remind us that the modernists did not invent suburbophobia. It was in 1829 that George Cruikshank published his cartoon “On the march of bricks and mortar”, in which he fretted about the houses then being thrown up in Camden Town and Islington.

In 1928, Clough Williams-Ellis, the architect of Portmeirion, and his wife, Amabel, published England and the Octopus. The octopus was suburbia. Nine years later, they published Britain and the Beast. The beast was the bungalow (which first became popular in the 1860s). This is useful information if, like me, you are the kind of person whose blood pressure rises terrifyingly on catching site of a scarlet-bright Wimpey development, though there is, I suppose, a tipping point and perhaps the south of England has already reached it. 

What Barker mostly relishes about suburbs – the irony! – is their quirky individuality. Far from being bland, boring and uniform, they are, he thinks, bricks-and-mortar proof that an Englishman’s home is his castle – literally, in some cases. Among many fine photographs in the book is one of Highfort Court flats, in Kingsbury, north London, designed in 1936 by the architect Ernest Trobridge to demonstrate his Swedenborgian belief in symbolism (the building’s chimneys are turrets, its entrance a drawbridge).

It is Barker’s contention that, whatever the architects tell us, the semis of Kenton and Bromley are far more important to us collectively than the Barbican and Trellick Tower, and he is surely right about this, though I cannot share his enthusiasm for shopping malls. But for me, the real effect of his essay was appropriately small scale and site-specific. Flipping through the book again, I found myself staring hungrily at a particularly fine piece of topiary in Waltham Abbey, Essex. I’d like a bit of that action in my garden, I thought. Dear me. How times change.

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