How did British planners get it so wrong?

new abott squareThis is the square of the Newton Abbott shopping area in Devon, southwest England. This was designed to be the heart of the city.

With a wealth of inspiration to draw from, this is the best they were able to come up with? This was designed when Gorden Cullen was alive for Heaven’s sake.

Granted, I took this picture on a rainy day, but man, what a beaut.  The space is way too tightly defined, yet it is bounded by only two story, single use buildings.  The square is located inside a maze of pedestrian streets, not in a true central spot.  It feels isolated, faked.  The kiosks seem to have been added by the designer as some sort of acknowledgement that it was a barren space in hopes that they would add some life to the place.

The architecture says “lowest common denominator.” While I am not convinced that current architectural expression is able to truly engage a person’s senses and emotions, this would never do anything for anyone.

I realize that there was an expedited effort to rebuild after WW2 which was  combined with the anti-craft, anti-local sentiment of modernism in vogue at the time this was designed.  But this hit new lows.  The scale is squatty, there is no roofline, and the arcade does nothing but shade/hide the shops without really providing any protection from the elements.  The upper floor is death:  what attraction is there to go up there?  2nd Floor retail/office in a setting like this never works.  Love the little hope-scotch patterns in the paving; now it looks urban.

How to remake it?  Well, the Market Hall is quite lively.  Why not turn it inside out and have it more integrated into the plaza?  Better, why not move the whole thing out into the street and leave this area what it always was and will be:  a backwater in a commercial area.  Planners back then tried too hard – this area was dead space, so the thinking was “let’s put a plaza here and that will fix the dead space – and turn it into better income producing area.”  Instead it served only to draw attention to the fact that this space was dead.

Sadly, there are scores of urban environments like this in Britain. This place is demeaning and unworthy of the humans who have to live in it.  How much can a person take of this before they don’t care anymore, either?  British planners may have done what the Germans couldn’t:  defeat a population.

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