The 20th century is littered with the febrile architectural dreams of megalomaniacs: Mussolini’s modernist recreation of imperial Rome, Saddam Hussein’s Mother of all Battles mosque and the Arc of Triumph, the monumental kitsch of Kim Jong-Il’s horrific Ryugyong hotel to name but a few. But there are none more deranged than Adolf Hitler and Albert Speer’s vision of Germania. Hitler wanted to tear down Berlin to rebuild his world capital, poring over the architectural plans for hours on end. Chillingly, Speer wanted to make sure the buildings would also make great ruins. The realisation of Germania would have made Haussmann’s reconfiguration of Paris seem cosmetic.
The British were not totally immune. Post-war Britain brought with it a wave of town planning.
The justification was simple: during the war, German bombing had eaten the heart out of many British cities, and this created an opportunity not just to rebuild them, but also to redesign them. And so a new breed of ‘town planner’ came into existence.
More or less at the same time, old back-to-back houses, many without inside toilets or gardens, began to be torn down, and replaced by concrete tower blocks.
Whole new towns – like Milton Keynes – were built.
Many of these new estates, although they looked good on paper, were not great successes in practice. In the tower blocks, all too often the lifts didn’t work, and the stairwells and walkways became the haunts of drug dealers and muggers and vandals. And the old communities who had been re-housed in the new estates were very often broken up, adding to the social disintegration.
And equally the bombed-out-and-rebuilt centre of a town like Bristol is dispiritingly drab. And also the new town of Cwmbran in Wales. I knew them both well. The planners tried to get it right, but didn’t succeed.
The result was that, 20 or 30 years later, many of the new high-rise estates were demolished and replaced with new brick-built, low-rise estates which consciously attempted to re-create a sort of ‘village’ experience. Which doesn’t really quite succeed either, and ends up just being a bit kitsch.
And, in my view, it’s the problem with all planned environments: however hard they try, they end up being fraudulent. Because the ‘villages’ aren’t real villages at all. They never quite manage to be what they’re pretending to be.
I think part of the problem is the Olympian view taken by the planners, gazing down on their plans. The same applies to Hitler gazing down on his model of the new Berlin. They never come down to earth, and actually live in any of them. They are, quite literally, above it all. It’s top down design, rather than bottom up evolutionary development.
And it’s a fixed and rigid design. Hitler’s new Berlin was to last for a thousand years. Which didn’t exactly hold out much hope for any innovation during that time.
In Britain it’s a class thing, in part. The architects and the planners are predominantly middle class, and the planned-for are usually working class. The architects and planners live in detached houses in the suburbs or the country, and the working classes live in cities. So they never actually go and live in what they build. Nobody is ever going to tear down Kensington or Chelsea. Not while the middle classes are living there, anyway.
And the same is true of smoking bans. It’s not town planning, of course, but it’s an expression of the same planning mentality – of knowing what’s best for other people – people whose lives you don’t share.
And it’s carried out with the same Olympian detachment. The old, smoky – and therefore obviously unhealthy – bars and snugs are swept away with the stroke of a pen, just like entire communities were swept away with the stroke of the town planners’ pencils. It will obviously be so much nicer for everyone if the noxious old habit of smoking is forbidden, just like it was obviously going to be so much nicer when the old, noxious, crowded, back-to-back houses with their outside toilets were bulldozed into oblivion and replaced with nice, clean, sleek, modern high-rise buildings. In both cases, the result was the death of communities. And in both cases, the designers never went to look to see what actually happened in their carefully-designed new communities. Once the last brick had been laid, they were off planning something else. Or banning something else.
It took years for the grim truth about the high rise estates to filter out. It’s taking years for the grim truth about smoking bans to filter out. Because, as ever, the planners and designers remain as above it all as they were when they were working on their plans and models.
The planners and the banners are of the same stock as each other. One thing they share is the unquestioned conviction that they have a perfect right (and perhaps even duty) to tell other people how to live their lives. But it really ought to be the first question that these people ask themselves: What right do I have to organise other people’s lives? I’ve never heard any town planner ask or answer that question. Nor any banner either.
Perhaps they don’t address the question because they have no answer to it. Other than, “Because we can.”
There is one difference between the planners and the banners, however. The planners weren’t trying to eradicate the working classes. Town planning was not accompanied with a public campaign of vilification of the working man. The working man may have been expelled from one environment, but he was relocated to another. But the banners have set out not just to improve the environment in pubs and restaurants, but to actually eradicate smokers like so much vermin. And this has been accompanied by a public campaign of denormalisation and demonisation. The smoker was simply expelled. He wasn’t relocated anywhere.
The planners, for all their faults, were not quite Nazis. But the banners very definitely are.