Hello, dog walkers, bike riders, exercisers, strollers and all fellow-isolators! Please help yourself to the rhubarb and enjoy cooking it at home! Be safe and well!’
Such was the handwritten sign on a makeshift billboard in one of the quiet and leafy streets of Letchworth Garden City, made even quieter by the coronavirus pandemic’s first lockdown. Right underneath the sign was a capacious cardboard box, half-full of freshly cut pink rhubarb stalks, just asking to be taken home and put into a crumble. On the ground right next to the box stood a small bottle of anti-bacterial hand gel, thoughtfully provided by the anonymous rhubarb grower.
To me, that sign was a potent symbol of the irrepressible creative spirit of Letchworth Garden City, one of Britain’s youngest and quirkiest towns, and its unique community feeling.
HOME FROM HOME
The moment I first stepped onto Letchworth Garden City’s asphalted soil about 15 years ago, I experienced an acute pang of recognition. Initially (only initially, I stress), it felt as if I had been teleported back to the USSR, which I left for good in January 1990.
It took me a little while to understand what it was that made me feel that way. Despite the fact that Letchworth is an incomparably better place to live than the very best towns of my Soviet childhood, the explanation lay in the town’s social and architectural history. ‘Letchworth town planning is all about freedom: broad streets, squares and green spaces,’ says Ray Doney, a resident and retired engineer. ‘The moment you walk out of the house, you feel like you are out in the open – you can breathe...’
Letchworth is like no other place on the planet. Branded ‘the world’s first garden city’, it was the brainchild of Ebenezer Howard, an idealistic (read, Utopian) thinker of the Victorian era – a flamboyant revolutionary, a dreamer and a visionary, whose aim was to build an ideal settlement, a so-called garden city, with the comforts of both town and countryside lifestyles. His ultimate goal was a totally new and highly liveable ‘industrial town with an agricultural belt’ as a positive alternative to the slums of post-Victorian London and other major British cities. The term garden city was likely chosen by Howard to make his project echo the Garden of Eden – the world’s most ancient and most enduring Utopia.
‘There are in reality not only, as is so constantly assumed, two alternatives – town life and country life – but a third alternative, in which all the advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country, may be secured in perfect combination; and the certainty of being able to live this life will be the magnet which will produce the effect for which we are all striving – the spontaneous movement of the people from our crowded cities to the bosom of our kindly mother earth, at once the source of life, of happiness, of wealth, and of power,’ Howard wrote, both poetically and prophetically, in his book To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, first published in 1898 and reprinted four years later – one year before Letchworth came into existence.
Howard’s book was written as a response to Edward Bellamy’s Utopian romance Looking Backward, which told of a socialist society as seen by a Rip van Winkle-style character who awakens after years of sleep and discovers a manuscript explaining how the society came to be. William Morris also read Bellamy. He wrote News from Nowhere in response to its message. Both Howard and Morris objected to the centralised, authoritarian character of the socialist society as described by Bellamy. Each of their books centred around federations of small self-governing communities in which the benefits of both town and country living could be realised. However, while Morris’s book is purely visionary, Howard’s is a textbook for how such a society could be built.
In 1903, architects Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker (both of whom were members of the Socialist League and both of whom later, after the success of Letchworth, went on to design Hampstead Garden Suburb in London) started to build Letchworth according to Howard’s principles on 3,818 acres of wasteland bought by the specially created Garden City Pioneer Company.
Letchworth was laid out with public buildings and shops at its centre, with industry separated from dwellings and the whole urban area surrounded by farmland – later turned into a 13-mile green belt – where the town’s residents could stroll, ride and cycle.
Its maximum population was set at 32,000 (it’s around that now) living in conjoined neighbourhoods. Land was to be owned in common, with ground and building rents paying back the capital borrowed for its construction before funding municipal expenses and social welfare. Howard’s principles were summed up in a poster that promised potential purchasers of Letchworth’s cheap (£150 on average) cottages the ‘health of the country’ and the ‘comforts of the town’.
Another pioneering trait of Letchworth was (and still is) that it became the world’s first – and so far the only – town to be fully administered not by a town council, but by the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation – a charity that reinvests all the profits it makes directly back into the community and has overall control of the town’s cultural and environmental issues. ‘From its early days, it was known for its eccentric characters, its thirst for education and its community feeling,’ says Kate Thompson, former county archivist. ‘The latter was – and still is – hugely helped by the heritage foundation, which runs the town according to Howard’s principles.’
In Letchworth, the foundation is responsible for the preservation of the town’s unique Arts and Crafts architecture, its impressive parks and its green belt. It also runs all local museums, libraries and the Broadway Cinema, designed by architects Bennett and Bidwell – one of the country’s first art deco movie houses, built in 1938. Similar arrangements had existed in Welwyn Garden City, Howard’s second Utopian creation, until 1948, when the latter was bought by a development corporation and thus, officially speaking, stopped being a garden city.
As new settlers kept moving into Letchworth throughout the 1920 and ’30s, Howard pushed his Utopian ‘socialist’ ideas further and further. In accordance with his wishes, the town was declared both vegetarian, with no meat served or sold anywhere, and entirely teetotal, with only one strictly non-alcoholic pub, the Skittles (now housing a popular adult-learning centre called the Settlement), which only served herbal-based soft drinks and fruit juices.
Howard himself was neither a Quaker nor a teetotaller and, reputedly, enjoyed his daily shot (or three) of whisky, for which a servant would be sent to Norton, the nearest non-teetotal village. Letchworth stayed alcohol-free until 1958, and even now it only has five pubs, compared to nearly 100 in neighbouring Hitchin. Letchworth is also home to the UK’s only vegetarian public school: St Christopher’s.
Within ten years of its foundation, Letchworth’s account books showed it to be a financial success, as did the growth of industry, public building, housing and population. Businesses, big and small, kept emerging in the town’s thoroughly detached industrial area like mushrooms after rain. Among them were printers, carmakers, small steel factories and engineering workshops. Most employees were able to walk or cycle to their workplaces and special pedestrian pathways were built to connect residential areas with the industrial zones. One example is Common View, with its rows of workers’ cottages and tree-lined pedestrian shortcuts to the business park.
‘Ebenezer Howard said that Letchworth is the town that should always be there for its residents,’ says Pamela Burn, Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation’s (first female) chair. ‘Things are now different from 1905 of course, but we, the heritage foundation, are still the town’s main land owner. We make sure that Howard’s basic principles remain unchanged, and it’s not just about stopping the residents from painting their front doors yellow. We are trying to protect the unique look of the town, into which we pump more than a million pounds a year.’
The resounding success of Letchworth Garden City couldn’t have failed to impress the Russian ‘socialist democrats’ who had been watching its progress with interest from the very beginning. They, reportedly, included Lenin who – again, reportedly – stayed in Letchworth overnight and gave a talk there in 1907.
Another name connected with Letchworth was that of Vladimir Semenov – a Russian architect who defected to London with his wife, an active member of the Bolshevik Party, in 1901. Having settled in Britain, Semenov was able to observe the garden city as it developed before he returned to Russia in 1912, by which time Letchworth was already prospering. Back in Moscow, Semenov approached a railway cooperative with the idea of a Howard-style settlement for its workers in a Moscow-region village. His design was accepted, and although its implementation was interrupted by the revolution of 1917, a significant part of the project was realised.
After 1917, Semenov and other Russian supporters of the garden city movement became key players in building a socialist society in the USSR. They helped to redesign the city of Stalingrad and parts of Kharkiv, then the capital of Soviet Ukraine, using Letchworth principles. In 1932, Joseph Stalin appointed Semenov the chief architect of Moscow. Semenov promptly came up with a draft to redesign the Soviet capital along garden city lines. That, however, was not to be. Gigantism and the so-called ‘Stalin Gothic’ were the order of the day at the peak of the Great Purge. After that, the essential communal core of garden cities was lost forever in the USSR – although the form of a garden city layout still characterises a number of the post-Soviet urban settlements, including Sokol, a district of Moscow where I lived during the 1980s. This explains why I immediately felt at home (in my case, not necessarily a pleasant feeling) when I first arrived in Letchworth in 2006.
Modern Letchworth, with its vaguely Stalinist church spires, its jolly fountains (‘from where happy workers’ laughter can often be heard’, to quote a North Korean propaganda magazine), its reassuringly large public spaces and its cosy residential areas combines the best and the worst of modernist architecture.
A very good example of this eclectic architectural mix is Broadway Gardens, Letchworth’s central square, a disproportionately large urban space surrounded by Arts and Crafts-style buildings, and with a large fountain at its centre.
Another innovative architectural feature is much less known: the Sleeping Towers of Letchworth. Sleeping porches, balconies and colonnades were part of the first garden city’s architectural design. According to Victorian beliefs, sleeping in the open air was good for one’s health. Several bespoke ‘sleeping towers’ were therefore added to the town’s Cloisters. Its architect, William Harrison Cowlishaw, took the ‘sleeping porch’ concept one step further to allow the School of Psychology students (the Cloisters’ first tenants), to maintain excellent physical health by sleeping inside spacious castle-like, open-air turrets. The ensemble also boasted a swimming pool in the courtyard – a rather unusual feature for 1907.
It’s interesting to note that sleeping porches and sleeping balconies (if not quite sleeping towers) have become popular terms in the real estate scene in the USA. Sleeping towers also serve as an adequate metaphor for Utopian thinking. Dreamers, idealists and revolutionaries of all sorts see the world differently to ‘normal’ people. They are often seen as being ‘airy-fairy’ and detached from reality, as if they dwell in a tall tower, far above the realm inhabited by the rest of us. And perhaps when one sleeps in the open air, our dreams are more vivid and colourful.
It isn’t widely known that Letchworth Garden City eventually became an inspiration for hundreds of innovative settlements all over the world, including Canberra, Australia’s purpose-built capital city; the so-called ‘new towns’ built in the post-war UK and USA; and hundreds of urban communities and suburbs in countries as diverse as South Africa, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Canada and, more recently, China and Japan – all parts of the growing international garden city movement, of which Letchworth is the indisputable flagship.
Outward similarities aside, the totalitarian USSR is no more, but Letchworth Garden City is thriving like never before. Some 117 years after its foundation, it remains a great place to live.
Utopian dreams do sometimes come true after all...