An archive of nearly 4,000 slides used to illustrate lectures by Sheffield University professor John Richings James provides a fascinating history of post-war town planning, writes Steve Parnell
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It’s hard to believe that before PowerPoint, Prezi and PDFs, lecturers used to roll up to their lectures with carousels of slides under their arm, insert them into a projector or two at the back of the hall and flick through them as though they were showing you their holiday snaps. Sometimes they actually were.
Only 20 years ago, preparing a lecture started several months in advance. The lecturers visited the sites in person (imagine that!), took photographs and had these developed into slides. No Google Images to filch from, no leaving it until the night before, no last-minute improvisation unless the slides were inserted upside-down or back-to-front – which they occasionally were, sometimes deliberately, to test which students were still awake or could tell their Lautner from their Ellwood, their Palladio from their Adam, their Corb from their Mies.
Having worked so hard, each year the photographers stood before their students, bearing their elbow patches like weathermen, performing the same microwaved presentation, and waiting for the flares and moustaches of the people in their slides (if there were any people in their slides) to come back into fashion. Some of them even knew their stuff. Whatever happened to their slide libraries when PowerPoint became hegemonic?
Nearly 4,000 such slides belonging to the late John Richings James were recently rediscovered at the University of Sheffield’s department of Town and Regional Planning. James was a major figure in post-war planning. He worked for the Ministry of Housing and Local Government from 1949, rising to chief planner in 1961. He moved to the University of Sheffield in 1967, becoming the department’s first professor in 1970, a post he held until his retirement. He died in 1980 at the age of 67. The slides then lay dormant until Alasdair Rae discovered them in his office when he started as a lecturer there in 2008. Rae finally found some money to pay recent graduates Joe Carr and Philip Brown to digitise them, and the result is an amazing resource on flickr which has achieved over 2 million views since its launch last summer.
The haul of slides is essentially a record of James’ years of town planning, from his time overseeing the development of New Towns in the 1950s to his teaching in the 1960s and ’70s. Organised into several albums, with captions attached by the diligent digitisers, the slides form a searchable history of post-war town planning. In our sanitised age of Photoshop, the amateur snapshot nature of these photos is half of their charm. They are variously under and overexposed, out of focus, uncomposed, and wonky, and some of their colours have shifted through the spectrum. Instagram could learn a thing or two from the collection.
James’ main interest was obviously housing, but public space and civic life also seem to have been key concerns. Unsurprisingly, the city of Sheffield dominates: Meadowhall is documented under construction; Hyde Park towers over the centre like a fortified castle; Park Hill makes an unfetishised, unaestheticised appearance; there’s even a view from a helicopter on a heliport in Shirecliffe, which must have been far more glamorous than is portrayed. There are also hundreds of images of New Towns such as Stevenage, Harlow, Hook, Skelmersdale, Peterlee, Crawley, Cumbernauld, Runcorn and Milton Keynes, along with other utopian visions from Thamesmead to Port Sunlight, and the Garden Cities of Welwyn and Letchworth, all as they were imagined, under construction, and finally in use. These aren’t just photographs of the architecture, but also of books, plans, maps, statistics and charts, reinforcing the fact that you are looking at a cross-section of any number of lectures, as if James had dropped his carousel just before the lecture and quickly reinserted them randomly. Without the author’s linear narrative, you are forced to invent your own. The obvious one that springs to mind is about the optimism of futures past from an era when planners actually made plans.
Future successes and failures are documented side-by-side, indiscriminately soaked in sunshine and drizzle, bereft of comment, hierarchy, or crucially, hindsight. The heroic punctuates the prosaic, and the idiosyncratic articulates the cliché. For example, a fantastic photo captioned ‘March 1967 public consultation in Cumbernauld’ shows a group of young people looking morosely over a model of their future town centre as if at a wake. Then there’s a slide of it under construction, rising concrete geometry underneath delicate towering cranes, and finally a sunny aerial view of the realised centre looking far less impressive than the model. James must have found the town’s housing more interesting, taking dozens of photos of the various designs, which have ultimately proved considerably more successful.
What is particularly striking throughout is the lack of cars, even in Milton Keynes; and the general tidiness in both old and new towns – concrete pavers are uncracked, window frames unmodernised, semi-detached houses unextended. Life appears uncomplicated and slow, like an episode of Heartbeat.
Houses are still places to live in and not pensions to invest in. The market hasn’t yet dominated development. Everything appears as it was planned. Slums are portrayed without sentimentality – a haunting picture of a row of surviving chimneys from a derelict mining village in Northumberland reminded me of the remains of Auschwitz. An underlying metanarrative develops: the power of the planner to improve conditions, to strive for utopia. The collection is a soothing lotion if you break out in an irritating rash of Ian Nairn.
If you are interested in this era of architecture and planning, as I know many of you are, don’t go to www.flickr.com/photos/jrjamesarchive because it’s the most effective and useful procrastinator on the internet beyond Twitter. On the other hand, that lecture on post-war town planning, has just become a little bit easier to illustrate – I wasn’t there myself, but I now feel as though I know a man who was.
Steve Parnell is an architect, critic, and lecturer in the Department of Architecture and Built Environment at the University of Nottingham
The JR James archive and a glimpse of post-war town planning