On 20 March 1969, New Society published an article entitled 'Non Plan: An Experiment in Freedom', credited to the magazine's editor Paul Barker, its architecture critic Rayner Banham, architect Cedric Price, and geographer Peter Hall. Given this weighty line-up of authors, it is hardly surprising that the article has achieved something approaching iconic status in the history of post-war British architectural thought.
Partly reproduced here, 'Non Plan' still makes extremely provocative reading, combining as it does a biting attack on the perceived failures of Welfare State planning with a series of hypothetical case studies that suggest what might happen if all planning restraint was removed from selected segments of the English landscape. At its heart was the question posed by its authors: 'Could things be any worse if there are no planners at all?'
From the distance of 30 years, the 'Non Plan' article can be seen alongside other attacks on the Modernist, technocratic structures of state socialism - housing, education, economic planning - that followed the breakdown of the post-war consensus. But what makes it unusual among these Post- Modern critiques is the degree of attention - this book, for instance - that is still paid to its proposals and predictions for a new kind of unregulated social order.
And it's not very difficult to see why, for the ideas presented in 'Non Plan' have been extremely influential in the three decades since publication, although not entirely in ways that the authors intended. For as veteran campaigner Colin Ward makes clear, the attempt to challenge the orthodoxies of bureaucratic planning was ultimately unsuccessful, but it can be argued instead that the 'Non Plan' idea was the principal inspiration for the Thatcherite enterprise zones of the London Docklands and elsewhere. Indeed, Paul Barker seems almost proud that the lasting legacies of 'Non Plan' are the Gateshead MetroCentre and Canary Wharf!
The book contains essays by some of the original protagonists and other fellow thinkers that tend towards a rather romanticised celebration of their own ideas and their influences. It is left to the contributions of younger critics and theorists to point out the inconsistencies and contradictions of 'Non Plan'. Thus, for instance, Ben Franks exposes the remarkable similarity of these ideas of the oppositional 'New Left' to the thinking of such right-wing gurus of free-market capitalism as Friedrich Hayek (whose books, we learn, were handed out by Keith Joseph to his civil servants!). The problem, one feels, is that they constructed too simplistic an understanding of the enemy. To see planning not as a symptom of a much larger and disastrous belief system, but as the main target of their critique, was simply myopic.
Other essays in the book examine related issues in the history of post- war planning, including the urban planning debates within ciam, and French critiques of Modernist planning by the Situationists and by Henri Lefebvre. It concludes with a number of contemporary takes on the issues of freedom and participation within the planning process, that help to bring these debates up to date.
Such a range of diverse and sometimes contradictory material means that the book is certainly a lively and provocative read, and there is a degree of balance between historical investigation and contemporary reappraisal, but occasionally one could wish for rather clearer editorial interpretation and direction. However, Non Plan is not just a valuable contribution to our understanding of the history of post-war planning; the way that it places architectural and planning ideas within a wider political discourse makes it a persuasive model for writing the architectural history of the late twentieth century.
Given the prevalence of preservationist polemics in contemporary debates about the architecture of the recent past, this book is a very timely addition to the growing literature on the subject, and should certainly help to raise the level of debate about the built legacy of the Welfare era.
Joe Kerr is a professor at the Royal College of Art