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Looking back without nostalgia

As architect hta resigns from the so-called 'Greenwich Millennium Village' project in protest against the conservatism of the development consortium, David Matless' talk, 'Near and Elsewhere', at the Photographers' Gallery, totally undermined the basis of the prevailing, nostalgic, 'Little England' attitude towards architecture and the environment. It is telling that one of the partners in the Greenwich consortium is a company called Countryside Properties. The Millennium has been packaged as a celebration of national identity, and as Matless points out, that sense of identity, or Englishness, is deeply tied up with ideas about the English rural landscape. This position has been relentlessly developed by the heritage lobby; any attempt at innovation in architecture is likely to be viewed as pernicious by the importation of 'foreign' - particularly European - influences which 'threaten the essence' of national culture.

The tragedy of this situation, as Matless reveals, is that the intertwined culture of Englishness and landscape was never, historically, so insular and conservative. On the contrary, it was outward- looking and progressive, embracing ideas not only from Europe, but from all over the empire. He examines two, particular strands of the tradition: firstly, the organic movement, with its roots in the 1920s and 1930s, and secondly the culture of road-building, dating from the 1930s.

It is intriguing to realise that the organic movement's pioneers were responsible for establishing most of the basic principles of modern dietary advice. These were derived through what Matless describes as some rather 'improbable cultural connections', for example with Germany - in the immediate pre-war years - or, more curiously, the Hunza valley, now in Pakistan, viewed as a model of organic production. On the one hand England was viewed very much as part of a cultural dialogue extending across from northern Europe. On the other, apparently alien cultural traditions were held up as exemplars for a critique of British identity.

At the same time that the organicists were forging links between ideas about the landscape, the body, health and the citizen, planning and conservation groups were forcefully arguing for the construction of new roads. This was a vision of the future inspired not so much by Anglo-Saxon America, as one might imagine, but by the national enemies - Germany and Soviet Russia. It was believed that the construction of well-designed roads and aesthetically pleasing junctions could actually improve the landscape and promote access and opportunities to experience it which would be fundamentally improving to the individual and the citizen.

Such insights provide a timely reminder that ideas about national identity can never be reduced to a simple formula; that there is no archetype of authentic English village life. Cultural complexity is written into the national heritage.

David Matless' book, Landscape and Englishness, is published by Reaktion Books.

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