A memoir of UCL / The Bartlett

(1/11/2008) I just retired after 39 years and a month at UCL in the Bartlett School. There was a wonderful party organised by friends on 29 October and I cobbled together some pictures and anecdotes which now I should work up into a readable text here. For the moment you only have the whole period in pictures which are here
You can see them as a slide show or one-by-one in which (latter) case you can read the captions which some of them have. The story as a full text begins in 1964 and so far reaches 1966.

I was finishing a degree in (mostly) economics at Oxford and badly wanted to escape from the metaphysical and pointless world of utility curves and general equilibrium.

Planning had long interested me and then I went to a seminar in Nuffield college by a young geographer Peter Hall, talking about Fred Pooley’s plans for a new town in north Buckinghamshire. I was much cheered and interested by this and it got me to decide to pursue planning next (rather than journalism – I had been earning some money in that and decided to turn down the offer of a job as art critic on The Times, which was then a good newspaper). Peter Hall was looking for a research assistant at Birkbeck but I chose instead to go to UCL and take a two-year MPhil course, which was feasible because there were scholarships available from the SSRC and I got one.

Student in London

1964 michael in flat.jpg I found a flat over a car spraying workshop in Belsize Park, for £6 per week, which was affordable for two: initially I shared it with Andrew Glyn (fine Marxist economist who died last year) and then with Adele Kosviner.

The Department of Town Planning of UCL was then housed in a converted factory near the Euston Road, far too big for the tiny group of staff and students who used it in the daytime and (a separate group of students) in the evenings. The building is now incorporated in the London Contemporary Dance theatre / school (The Place) but it still looks pretty grim.

The anchor of the department at that time was Maurice Brown, a man who scarcely ever published anything and would never have survived the RAE, but who spent most of his time standing in the hallways and chatting with students – or rather listening. He had that capacity to make a student feel they might have some useful brain-power, but he was very critical too. Quite educational I think. [Does anyone have a picture of him?]
1964 flaxman house.JPG
We had lectures from Lewis Keeble, the author of the textbook of the time, which I recall was full of what, today, our visiting Chinese groups call ‘norms and standards’: how many acres of football pitch are needed per thousand population; how many shops equals a neighbourhood centre; what is the correct city size. All deeply uncritical and low level – and I am fairly sure that I did not go to many of his talks. Nat Lichfield (discussed later when he became my first employer) also lectured to us but I tended to miss his lectures too: certainly he always chided me that I had rarely showed up. Both those men were more interesting as professionals than as teachers.

We had to do projects and I can recall three. In one we learned to arrange 5-storey slabs of council flats on a rectangular site in Wapping. We produced the kind of dull schemes which I now see being demolished. In a second I had to map every industrial enterprise in Fitzrovia (mostly rag trade and printing in 1965) and interview a lot of the entrepreneurs. That really was good education. And there was good cheap moussaka everywhere in Fitzrovia in those days. In the other project I can’t recall what we were supposed to do but what I did was to copy Patrick Hodgkinson’s Brunswick Centre and repeat it like a string of sausages on a metro line across the countryside round Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire. I thought high density housing in rural landscapes would be fun and would appeal to a lot of people and work well. This was long before I learned of the many things that developers will never dare to do, and of the NIMBYism of the Chilterns.

1964 william holford.jpg
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1964 paternoster holford.jpg
There were some stimulating lectures from William (perhaps by then Sir or Lord) Holford. He was at pains to convince us that the exterior of St Paul’s Cathedral was a shocking, pretentious assembly of fake facades. He considered it was only fit to be viewed in fragments and that was why his Paternoster Square development took the form it did. But he made it clear that he regarded the City office as a dull kind of design problem where only the configuration of the blocks could provide any interest. [Maybe I remember this because one of my ancestors ran an underwear shop in St Paul’s Churchyard in the 19th century.] Does anyone regard the repro scheme which replaced Holford’s in 2000-3 as an improvement? A view of it in Wikipedia is here.
Holford also turned out to be an examiner of my MPhil thesis and. despite being a pillar of the establishment, he seemed to be quite excited by my conclusion that a professional institute was a dangerously inappropriate form of organisation for a public service activity, liable to lead to gerontocracy, conservatism and so on. He urged me to publish it. I didn’t, though, because I didn’t think it good enough. This was the start, perhaps, of a long life of not publishing most of the things I was working on….
1964 ruth glass.jpg The undoubted star of UCL, however, was Ruth Glass, the sociologist (originally a refugee from Berlin) who really established urban sociology in England. She worked with John Westergaard as the ‘Centre for Urban Studies’ and they were housed on the top floor of Flaxman Terrace. Somehow we had lectures from her and the ones I recall were very meticulous treatments of problems in demography. But her invincible and passionate commitment to social change somehow emerged, whatever she was talking about, and we found it extremely nourishing. She must have been teaching us in the same year that she wrote ‘London: aspects of change’ and coined the term ‘gentrification’ which is now used everywhere in the world. [Does anyone have a better picture? This is not quite the old lady I knew. ] More on Ruth Glass at https://michaeledwards.org.uk/?p=953

 

Although the course we followed as students was often very dull, I do recall stimulating conversations and arguments with two fellow-students. One was Jon Allison who also worked as a journalist for ‘Tribune’ and later went off to be planning officer for Whitby. John and I were infuriated by the stratification and snobbery which seemed to be evident in UCL, notably in the main building on Gower Street where we occasionally went. We amused ourselves with graffiti and by modifying the signs with stencilled additions. 1964 ucl lavatory2.jpg

The other student I remember was Honor Woodland who had come from the College of Estate Management and was rather conservative in a way I had not met before and always found intriguing. We later ended up both working in Nat Lichfield’s office and got on well, despite our differences. She later (as Honor Chapman) became a partner in Jones Lang Lasalle where she had inaugurated their research division, and now lives (I assume in great style) with her horses and rare breeds of chicken in the Country.

As my student time was ending I had a narrow escape from a job – perhaps a lifetime – in the civil service. Maurice Brown was rather a snob, with excessive reverence for Oxford, Cambridge and the Civil Service. He persuaded me to write an application to the Ministry of planning (then I think called Housing and Local Government). I was invited to an interview in their building – the corner of Whitehall and Parliament Square – and set down before a panel of 4 chaps. They chatted away for over an hour about ancient Greece and Rome, urban grids and other stuff. I have no memory of being listened to, or even being asked to speak. However I must have impressed them and they wrote next day to ask when I could start work. They hadn’t impressed me, however, and I declined. In view of the low quality of so much of the British civil service’s work on planning and the craven behaviour of planners generally through the Thatcher and subsequent regimes I have always been pleased about that decision. Recently I have had renewed contact with one of the rare public servants whom I admire for having stuck to their principles throughout: Des McConaghy. But they are few and I do not believe I could have done it.

[ An aside which just shows how open government buildings were in 1966. After my interview at MHLG I thought I would look for my recent flat-mate Andrew Glyn who was working for the Treasury and thus in the same building. So I wandered freely through the passages and staircases until I reached him. Wonderful. ]

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Author: Ed

staff in the Bartlett School of Planning and cooperating with others in UCL and with the Just Space Network to support London citizens' inpu

7 thoughts on “A memoir of UCL / The Bartlett”

  1. Dear Michael,

    It took some time before I picked up the message that you retired from the Bartlett. I think about the many lectures about urban regeneration you presented for generations of students of humand geography and planning of Utrecht University on field trip in London. I think about the beginning when Ben Driessen and I popped in at the Bartlett in the early ’90’s and we were invited by you for an excursion to and a discussion (+ meal) about an unused power station, the beginning of Tate Modern. I thank you very much you did for our field trips.

    I whish you all the best

    Piet Korteweg

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  2. Honor Chapman (nee Woodland) suddently and tragically died on 22 August 2009 at her farm, Brewhamfield. As you recognized so many years’ ago, Honor was one of the most remarkable and wonderful people ever to live amongst us. She is sadly missed so very much by so many of us.

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  3. Michael,

    I had not realised you had retired – I didn’t think you were that sort of person! However let me thank you very much for all the sterling work you did on King Cross both with us at KXT but also, perhaps more importantly, with the Railway Lands Group. I very much enjoyed the stimulation of working with you and I am only sorry that we were not able to take one of the alternative schemes through to fruition. Have a wonderful and well earned retitement although I cannot quite see you lying back in the sun.
    Kind regards

    Ian
    n ,an d.

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  4. Michael,

    This is a great read, and I hope you go on with it…your style is easy to read, and even from the distance of Albany Western Australia, it puts the reader right there as if looking over your shoulder. It’s a wonderful blend of fact and observation, spiced with much of your trademark droll humour…I reckon it would be a great book if completed.

    The other aspects that appeal are
    * your descriptions of UCL and its elitist attitudes,
    * the great description of Maurice Brown, who I can still see just as you describe, standing in the corridors at Flaxman House, or near that table in the lobby (?) where we gathered at the beginning od the day and at many points in between, just waiting for a student or students to talk to, to exchange witticisms with, or to start a discussion with….probably much more valuable than any publication! [Think how much time academics spend writing obscure papers most of which very few read — that’s my observation after much of a lifetime as a an academic, now thankfully retired with more time for activism! ]
    *The observations about Lichfield’s dull lecturing style, but there was a man who had a great influence on you as a professional. Me too, and I still advocate the good old Planning Balance Sheet as an evaluation tool! [I regret not taking NL up
    on an offer to attend a conference on PBS/Evaluation he organised in Italy in the 1980s.I foolishly stayed at my politician’s desk!]. Anyhow, it must have been great working with him.
    The pice brings back many memories of Flaxman House and the MPhil course for me — all good too! Apart perhaps from that very confusing SE Region project we started on. Oh, and Lord Llewllyn-Davies patronising invitations to a cup of tea and a chat when we complained we never saw him!
    Do planning a service, Michael, please complete your lively memoir!

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  5. We never met, as I was a member of the “underclass” of DipTP students who visited Flaxman House by night, studying part time while working usually in local government by day. But I would like to express my pleasure at seeing Maurice Brown so respectfully remembered. I found him an inspiration when doing my dissertation in 70-71, he had an ability to stimulate that no one else I met in academia even tried for. And as you rightly say, one felt capable of higher things as a result. I would welcome reading any other memoirs of him.

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