Shaping society — The Making of Our Urban Landscape by Geoffrey Tyack review

Geoffrey Tyack offers a compelling exploration of two millennia of British architecture and the history reflected in the built environment.

Whitehaven, Cumbria
Whitehaven, Cumbria. Credit: Art Collection 3 / Alamy Stock Photo.

‘The provision of our public buildings is something more than a mere job… Civic pride means good citizens, just as pride in a regiment produces good soldiers.’ So wrote the architect Ernest Berry Webber in 1938. Webber was one of an under-considered generation of architects who shaped British towns and cities in the interwar period by designing municipal buildings such as Southampton’s Civic Centre in a restrained classical mode. His exhortation prompts us to consider the qualities of the citizenry that has been produced by British urbanism over the last two millennia, and how it continues to shape our civic character.

In a remarkable new book, The Making of our Urban Landscape, Geoffrey Tyack deftly moves through two millennia of Great Britain’s towns and cities with an impeccable depth and breadth of knowledge, squeezing it all into under 400 pages. The book does admirably in examining the exigencies and contingencies that have determined the contours of our urbanism. Wool towns, coal towns, spa towns, cutlery towns, company towns, pottery towns, church towns, new towns, slave towns and biotech towns all rise and fall and rise again across the tremendous scope of this history.

Tyack has a keen eye for urban forms generated over the longue durée. He understands streets to be ‘the veins and arteries of towns’, but they also sustain bodies formed from more ancient forces: convenient river crossings, the placement of Roman temples, patterns of trade between early medieval burhs and wics, long forgotten Norman castles or the length and breadth of burgage plots. He speaks of a ‘presence… traced within the landscape’, and his writing has the potential to truly enliven us to the history immanent within our built environment.

However, for all Tyack’s potent description of the accretive, gradual process of history in building our cities, he also takes a thrill in historical moments when the power of the state, gentry or civic institutions, buoyed up by economic and cultural momentum, took direct action to forge new urban patterns. It is a much older tendency than we might expect. The prominently gridiron ruins of Winchelsea on the Sussex coast speak to a deep and often hubristic urge to generate scale and order against prevailing winds or tides.

Similarly, Whitehaven, a late seventeenth-century new town on the Cumbrian coast, was designed to be ‘regular’ in plan and ‘uniform’ in architecture, desires which Tyack rightly connects to the faltering progress made towards urban planning in London after the Great Fire. Although his discussion of Whitehaven bypasses more recent scholarship exploring the transatlantic dimension — might the grid plans of Caribbean ports or New Haven, Connecticut, have been just as influential as London on this new ocean-facing town?

Tyack is deft in handling the bathos of living in an old country. He is keen on the euphemism ‘much-restored’, a sweet and repeated sleight of hand to subtly convey just how illusive the material reality of the historic built environment can be. Emblematic and exceptional examples of historic architecture find themselves marooned in car parks or sublimated into the fabric of chain restaurants. There is a clear-sightedness about the forces driving the survival and retention of historic fabric, such as the ‘pre-industrial arcadia’ of Lavenham in Suffolk, which only survives to us because the collapse of the wool trade and subsequent economic deprivation meant it could not afford the classical reconstruction so popular during the eighteenth century, enabling its ‘rediscovery and… re-invention’ by readers of Morris and Ruskin years later.

The book is extensively illustrated, particularly with a helpful combination of historic maps, modern surveys and topographic engravings. The lengthy image captions give a chance for Tyack to flex his analytical muscles. For example, he uses a brilliantly selected photograph of a street in Cirencester to elucidate the town’s late-medieval history with consummate ease. Throughout the book, exceptionally well-chosen case studies of towns and cities appear in neat grey boxes, but they can disrupt the flow of the overall story and leave some of the chapters with extremely abrupt endings. I can think of few scholars who could have written this intensely foreshortened account with such skill, accuracy and apparent ease as Tyack, but it is still an undeniable foreshortening.

The book is at its fullest and most compelling on the two centuries leading up to 1945. There is no real nostalgia here for the architecture or urbanism of a particular historic moment, a welcome frankness about the blunt economic forces that create and break cities, and the terrible conditions in which most people lived. Particularly striking is a passage quoted from De Tocqueville on Manchester in the throes of industrialisation: ‘Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish; here civilization works its miracles, and civilized man is turned back almost into a savage.’ Tyack provides us with a vivid sketch of the horrors of high industrial urbanism, accompanied by a somewhat maddening overuse of the word ‘salubrious’ in chronicling the attempts to escape it. The book accounts for the broad range of actors involved: everyone from the Wheatsheaf Co-operative in Leicester (a communitarian venture that created the largest shoe factory in the world), to Eton College, as speculative developer of north London for the discerning haute bourgeoisie.

The pace accelerates in the final chapter of the book as the past 70 years are covered in half as many pages, despite the intensity of urban change since 1945. By 1939, one third of all houses had been built since the end of the First World War, and the rate only increased after the destruction wrought by air war. Tyack is firm but fair on the record of the post-war state and modernism, drawing heavily on the wealth of recent scholarship by historians such as John Boughton who have seriously shifted the conversation about modernist state-led housing.

The concision of the final chapter is starkest in the discussion of recent history, such as the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower, a fire in an apartment tower block in London in which 72 people died, which is covered in a single sentence. This catastrophe and the cladding crisis it highlighted perhaps deserved greater attention. Tyack is right to blame the ‘changing whims of politicians’ for the tragedy, but misses an opportunity to talk about broader negative trends in building procurement: the way that Design–Build contracts, aggressive value-engineering and the failed privatisation of building material regulation caused the tragedy, and still influence the construction industry today.

Given Tyack’s exceptional unpacking of early-twentieth-century suburban development, the lack of discussion of early twenty-first century volume housebuilders, such as Persimmon, Redrow or Barratt, seems amiss. As any train journey through Britain will tell you, these developers have done more than anyone else in the last decade to change the fraying borderlands between our urban and rural landscape, often with a derisorily low quality of design.

Reading this book, with its wide scope, makes one reflect on a curious presentism when we talk about architecture. Perhaps because of the huge claims made by modernist architects, and the newfound capacity of the welfare state to monitor and quantify citizens’ wellbeing, we usually discuss contemporary architecture within an imaginative silo. It is a commonplace to consider that modern architecture might be responsible for anti-social behaviour, or to criticise standards of maintenance and upkeep, in a way that doesn’t come so naturally when thinking about the medieval or Georgian periods, despite the plentiful evidence that disrepair and vandalism existed prior to modernity. The greatest strength of Tyack’s book is that he understands the vital role played by architecture in shaping and reflecting our society and uses his considerable powers to ponder on the deep history of both.

The Making of Our Urban Landscape by Geoffrey Tyack
The Making of Our Urban Landscape by Geoffrey Tyack, OUP Oxford, pp 384, £25

Matthew Lloyd Roberts