For 500 years Exeter was a prosperous and handsome town, with a thriving commercial center. This center was heavily bombed by the Germans in WWII. Initial rebuilding began in the late 1950s and continued into the early 1970s. Unfortunately this coincided with the influence of the “modern”. Thus, much of the rebuilt area still has a desolate, recently bombed out feel. In the early 2000s a new wave of makeover began. While better in material terms, it still sadly lacks a human scale.
The ultimate question becomes: why did the town planners, when surrounded by the finely detailed, human scaled streetscapes like this…..
Was creating a human scaled townscape not heroic enough to satisfy egos? Was the dream of transportation so beguiling? Was it a fatalism, in light of that recent past, that nothing was worth building well since it would probably only be destroyed again soon? Was it an optimism, that rebuilding something fast and cheap would send a message of hope? Was it an impatience to just get on with it? Was it an acknowledgement that the townscape skills, and the time in which to practice them, just weren’t available?
Whatever the reasons, this happened. And it happened at a time when the leaders should have known better. The most humanistic and artistic of all town planners, Raymond Unwin, had died only a few years before much of the rebuilding took place. Yet little of his influence is evident in any of the bombed out – or even just “revitalized” – cities. Perhaps his seminal book “Town Planning in Practice,” published in 1909, was considered too quaint by then.
Yet, who can seriously argue with Unwin’s philosophy? It should be guiding us in all we do:
“there seems to have been such an all-pervading instinct or tradition guiding the builders in past times, that most of what they did contained elements of beauty and produced picturesque street pictures….The influence of the tradition we have mentioned was not confined to the buildings themselves, but seems to have extended to the treatment of streets and places as well as to such minor details as steps, entrance gates, walls, and fences, which often enhance the beauty of the picture…
two prominent elements in the tradition which influenced builders in old times were that the work should be well done, and that it should be comely to look upon when finished. While obviously the cost was carefully considered, it was not deemed legitimate to sacrifice proper construction, good design, or good finish in order to attain the last possible degree of cheapness.”