Challenge to convention
Edited by Ken Worpole. Earthscan, 1999. 188pp. £12.95
This most enjoyable set of essays is brought together by the inspiration of Colin Ward. Not just a tribute to him, the essays inspire action and often anger that so many good ideas in public and political life - often obvious and simple, always mutual and voluntary, inevitably working outwards from the most direct and local experiences - have encountered such hostility from the status quo; whether from 'free' market forces, centralised state control or professional vested interests.
Topics range widely - as would be expected by anyone knowing the breadth of concerns seen in Ward's books, his columns in New Society and New Statesman, or his regular essays and reviews in the aj over the last 25 years. They include education, and particularly environmental education; food production and barter economy; housing, land and sustainability; each addressed from a fresh perspective which disturbs conventional attitudes. Ward himself offers an essay on the working countryside which is typical of him; it is better-written than much of the rest, and, as ever, he wears his hugely wide culture in such a light and user-friendly way.
I was reading this in a train across northern Italy, watching the intensely developed, useful and beautiful succession of vineyard, factory, poplar rows, orchard, power station, artichoke field, farmsteads, pollarded fruit trees, metal workshops, vineyard, pylons - the geometric carpet which Britain calls planning blight. I began a conversation in my head with Ward about this as their Classical heritage (from the Romans to Le Notre) while we are still living in the romantic spectacle of Capability Brown and Repton, on which our development laws are based (as well as our towns filled with four-wheel drive vehicles, Barbour jackets and fox-hunting debates). The British countryside is as constructed as the Italian one, but camouflaged rather than directly stated.
In an appealing part of the book, Tim Lang talks about the personal relationship between reader and author in just this way, and many aj readers must feel they have developed a link like this with Ward. No-one will agree with all the essays: Alison Ravetz' dry 'Old Labour' case for state provision of housing, neither exploring the meaning of renting nor the issue of land value, is offset by George Monbiot's campaigning essay 'The Land is Ours'. The range isconsiderable.
There is, however, nothing about low-density planning and housing, no memory of the New Society 'non plan' ideas; which makes me think that Cedric Price would have been an interestingly acerbic but generous contributor.
The real sadness is that they didn't ask any architects to contribute. After all, Ward himself worked for nearly 20 years in architecture with acp, Shepheard & Epstein, and Chamberlin, Powell & Bon before his best- known spell at the Town and Country Planning Association. There is a whole area of Ward's work which is about being in places and not just in words and ideas.
Why is participation in the formation of architecture not a key topic in a book such as this? The editor's verbal bias is epitomised when he says Ward published a book 'on the writers who influenced him'; but Ward included not just Lethaby but also Walter Segal, whose business was not words at all.
John McKean is professor at Brighton School of Architecture