Growing up in a slummed out bombed out working class district in West London in the early 1950s, there was little formal intellectual stimulation. I got lucky in two ways. First, my grandfather was an engine driver (a locomotive engineer) and his union, ASLEF, were big supporters of Adult Education. The union arranged for its members and their families to attend lectures and films. Through them I was lucky enough to attend several years of lectures for children at the Royal Society where I learned in a most entertaining way the basic laws of physics and the solar system. Second, there was my Uncle Jack.
Uncle Jack was the brother of my mother’s oldest sister’s husband. In the 1930s, Jack was a bum, a hobo traveling the roads of England. At some point he decided that was not the future he wanted and, passing the entrance exam that was available back then, he entered Oxford University where he eventually became a professor of sociological statistics. Jack never married or dated (so far as I know) and never drove a car until much later in life he visited the States and became enamoured of wide-finned machines.
Uncle Jack’s niece was my cousin Pauline. She was a little less than a year older than me and we were quite close friends. Whenever he was in town, Jack would take Pauline and me on special outings: we would row on the river, or visit museums. He took us to the very first fast-food burger joint in London, and somewhere else he taught us the joys of Knickerbocker Glory and Banana Split ice cream sundaes, which hadn’t even been dreamt of in my imagination. He treated us with the seriousness that we deserved, and we appreciated that. He liked his beer (it would be his brother who introduced me to the pleasure of bitter ale when I was just twelve) but every year he would bring to our house a fine bottle of wine from the Oxford cellars for my father and he would decant it himself by the fire.
It was through my Uncle Jack that I was signed up to attend annual lectures for children at the Royal Institute of British Architects. I became acquainted with the Greek orders, the structure of temples, Palladianism (as illustrated by Chiswick House, where my mother used to take me to play in the park), and Sir Christopher Wren.
As I got older, I continued to attend lectures at RIBA and elsewhere. It was through these that I learned about Le Corbusier (generally a god to the lecturers), Robert Moses, and had my first taste of approved brutalism (oops, I meant modernism). Luckily I had been brought up in a neighbourhood which, having had large portions bombed flat during the war, had undergone an earlier version of “urban renewal” and so I was already familiar with the failures of central planning.
Most of my relatives lived in subsidized housing projects (called “council estates” in Britain), huge multi-storied blocks linked with concrete walkways. I particularly remember the rubbish chutes on each floor, the fact that the ground floor always smelled like a garbage dump, there were wide boys (or spivs) selling stolen property in the carpark, and gangs of kids hanging around the stairwells (thankfully, I knew most of them and wasn’t often troubled). Looking back, these were terrible places to live and bring up a family (although my own family’s privately rented fourth floor cold-water walk up tenement was no better, that’s for sure — and they had hot water.)
I didn’t become an architect or anything like that, but my interest in urban design remained. I attended further lectures in London and Manchester before I left England, and I read Geddes and Mumford and Jacobs. It was Robert Caro’s majestic multi-volume biography of Robert Moses that enlightened me the most, though, about central planning and the social disasters that nearly always befall that sorry exercise.
When I came to Vancouver in the late 1970s, activists had already scared off most urban renewal projects, including the freeway that would have devastated Grandview, Strathcona, and Chinatown, although we did have numerous housing projects in place, such as Stamps Place, Little Mountain, and Nicholson Place. I came here pre-Expo and watched in awe as the city planners grew our city to met the event.
For twenty years or more, as Vancouver City Planning worked its way through the original Local Area Plan or LAP (which gave us the Grandview we love today), City Plan, and Community Visions systems, I was proud to tell the world about how well our planners had done. I watched as they built a world-class city based in large part on retaining the diversity of our neighbourhoods. That all changed in 2005, of course, and city planning here has gone downhill ever since, as you can read about relentlessly elsewhere on this blog.
What triggered this rememberance was a snippet of an article I read (and which I have subsequently lost) which argued forcefully in favour of a renewed need for good old-fashioned urban renewal. Almost immediately after, I read a Washington Post book review of a new biography of Le Corbusier. “In ‘Modern Man,‘ Anthony Flint attempts to liberate Le Corbusier from the indictments that have plagued his legacy.
His ideas and his template for disruption have value that has been obscured by the withering dismissal of those who see him as the destroyer of cities,” Flint argues. “There is much that works and much to be learned from Le Corbusier — and it’s in danger of being tossed aside, a baby thrown out with the modernist bathwater.”
Too late, I say, and thank goodness: Le Corbusier and his fascistic technocracy is dead (although there are some might say that Vision Vancouver’s social engineering-via-development agenda comes close). We learned that lesson at least once. We can only hope that the Chinese with their numerous and entirely vacant centrally-planned mega-cities will catch on soon, and that Vancouver activists can at least blunt the edges of Vision’s cruel vision for our beautiful city.
For those who might be interested, Uncle Jack, after many years in the quiet of English academia, gained a posting to Stanford, discovered America, women, and fast cars with more chrome than style. After two years of that, exhausted, he returned to a tenured professorship at Sheffield University in England. One summer in the 1970s he travelled to the south island of New Zealand for an adventure holiday in the wilderness. He never came back; just decided he liked it well enough and would stay. If he is still alive he will be in the his mid-90s. A grand man from whom I learned much.