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Another View Harlow

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The Gibberd House & Garden

Sir Frederick Gibberd prepared the master plan for Harlow New Town in 1946 and a year later was appointed its Consultant Architectural Planner. In 1957 he bought the Marsh Lane property on the edge of Harlow, situated in the Green Belt, and, despite the fact that he had planned the new town, was denied permission to demolish the 1907 house and replace it with one of his own design. So he embarked on a radical transformation of the original building. This included the addition of a large, full height living room with picture windows overlooking the garden. The library and archive are now available for genuine research purposes and are the basis of the Gibberd Rooms which are open to the public. All the furniture and fittings are authentic and there are models and drawings of some of his work.

The present garden covers 16 acres and Gibberd's opinion was that, `Garden design is an art of space, like architecture and town design. The space, to be a recognizable design, must be contained and the plants and walls enclosing it then become part of the adjacent spaces. The garden has thus become a series of rooms each with its own character, from small intimate spaces to large enclosed prospects.'

His second wife was, like him, a 'hands on' gardener and her knowledge and choice of sculpture worked alongside his own endeavors. It is an individual creation sited on a small valley, sloping downhill to the Pincey Brook. In conception there are planned vistas and a series of planned rooms. As president of the Concrete Society he was an enthusiast for that medium and laid down much of the garden's hard landscaping himself. Into this setting some 80 items of sculpture, ceramic pots and architectural salvage were introduced.

To stroll through the garden is to enter another world of the imagination where some rooms are like stage-sets with, for instance, a pair of columns from the south façade of Coutts Bank when Sir Frederick was restoring that building. The columns were not needed so he bought them for his garden setting. A bust of Queen Victoria, looking very serious, has a wine rack tucked behind her in an enclosed space. Many of the sculptures were made by very talented artists but alongside were many pieces to bring a smile. Materials varied from concrete to wood, mild steel to bronze and stainless steel to fibreglass. The planting everywhere was very special, with the familiar mixed alongside the rare and wonderful colour combinations.

Hugh Johnson, author of books on wine and gardening said - 'I keep coming back to this wonderful place for inspiration; to look for ideas or just to feel the buzz of a great designer at work. You can refresh your fancy, test practicality, learn economy or just let yourself drift in this theatre of a garden. You can never be bored.'


The Civic Centre

With a full day ahead our first visit was to the Civic Centre to see the Gibberd Gallery which is run by the Harlow Art Trust, a charity formed in 1953, which also commissions and purchases sculpture for the town.
In the entrance reception area of the Civic Centre is a very large sculpture by Henry Moore – ‘Family Group’ in Hadene Stone (1954) – commissioned by the Harlow Art Trust.  The theme of the sculpture was particularly appropriate for Harlow with its fast growing population of young families but it was especially so for Moore because he had recently become a father. From the outside it can be seen through the ground floor glassed area and has the impact of inviting families to go inside the building.
Frederick Gibberd began his art collection in 1935 choosing it for particular features:  each picture had to be the work of a British artist, the artist had to be living and each picture had to be a watercolour, a drawing or a print.  In 1977 the Frederick Gibberd Collection of British Watercolours and Drawings was started with his gift to Harlow Council of ten pictures from his personal collection.  The provisos were designed to initiate and foster the careers of young artists, some of whom were friends.  The purchases were easily affordable, making it possible to acquire works by artists such as Graham Sutherland, John Piper, John Nash, Elizabeth Blackadder and Edward Bawden.  
Sir Frederick continued to contribute artistic works to the gallery, donating another thirty-three before his death in 1984.  Sir Frederick was a close friend of Henry Moore. 


The Water Gardens & St Paul's Church

Stepping outside, just a few yards from the front of the Civic Centre, there is the pleasure of a delightful Water Garden with sculptures by Rodin, Frink and Moore and mosaics by William Mitchell. 
There are 84 sculptures in Harlow and there are five sculpture trails in and around the town.  To walk around the centre of Harlow is to experience a large-scale open-air art museum, designated a Sculpture Town in 2011 and in the same year winning the Marsh Prize (this award is Britain’s most prestigious prize for Excellence in Public Sculpture).
Before moving on from the town centre we made a brief visit to St. Paul’s church, just behind the Civic Centre, which was opened for worship in January, 1959.  In design terms it shows many styles of its time, particularly in the windows but we were there to see the very impressive 18 ft mural mosaic by John Piper on the east wall, representing the recognition of the Risen Christ in the home at Emmaus (Luke 24 v31). The theme chosen to convey the sense of Christ being always present in his House and at worship, drawing people together in fellowship with Himself. It was Piper’s first mosaic.


New Towns & Harlow

Any look at post-war housing and national planning policy leaves one impressed. Given the consequences of war, not least the utter depletion of resources, the determination to improve living conditions and legislate accordingly is evident. With housing, it was not only massive war damage, particularly in London, which prompted radical and urgent action; it was also the legacy of unfit dwellings, a problem which Britain had struggled with for 20 years before 1939. The 1951 Census revealed that out of 12.4 million dwellings in England and Wales, 1.9 million had only 3 rooms or less, 4.8 million had no fixed bath and nearly 2.8 million lacked the exclusive use of a toilet. There was an awareness of the scale of the problem before the shock of the 1951 Census and so, among other measures, the New Towns Act of 1946 and the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947.

After the 1946 Act some 14 new towns were designated; eight of them around London. The new towns were to be administered and controlled by powerful appointed corporations, a formula which proved very efficient. Harlow was designated in 1947 and responsibility for the master plan went to Frederick Gibberd. But, as we heard during our visit, his appointment followed only after an intervention by Sir John Reith, who had become chairman of the Hemel-Hempstead New Town Development Corporation which Gibberd had originally been asked to serve.
The formidable Reith, chairman of the committee set-up to establish the programme for new towns, wanted Colin Jellicoe for Hemel-Hempstead, but he had been the original choice for Harlow and so a swap occurred.

More than in any of the new towns, Harlow became associated with its master-planner: Frederick Gibberd, architect, landscape architect and town planner. His ideals and commitment are firmly established in Harlow, particularly his emphasis on open space and landscape and his belief in the value of art in the community.


Harlow lies immediately to the south of a railway - connection to London Liverpool Street 30 minute - and, not far to the east, is the M11. The New Town area includes the old township but this is well to the east of the new centre, around which residential ‘neighbourhoods’ were developed. While three radial roads serve  the centre there is also planned provision for orbital movement. Typically progressive for its time, an extensive cycle-way network was planned and built within this system.

The roads are flanked by generous depths of open space in which we can now enjoy the sight of mature trees. These are the ‘green wedges’ between the neighbourhoods. One can travel along these roads and readily forget you are in a town of some 83,000 people. Distributed within its residential areas and its centre, no less than 84 sculptural works are to be found.
In many ways, Harlow may be seen as the creation of Frederick Gibberd, but he made sure that a range of architectural talent was brought in to design dwellings and other buildings; architects such as  Powell and Moya, Leonard Manessah, Michael Neylan, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew.

Now, 70 years on, much has changed. A community almost wholly reliant on local employment is, in so many places and in Harlow, a thing of the past. Manufacturing and creating space for industry no longer has the certainty it had. Some of the original buildings, constructed when the problems of aging concrete were not understood, have been replaced. The development corporations were abolished in the early 80s and ‘new town’ extensions must now be subject to the planning mediation and constraints appropriate to private land ownership. But the corporation at Harlow and Frederick Gibberd created something good, something that tells us what can be done with a will to secure good design and promote public art.



The plan was to visit the Stirling Prize shortlisted houses by Alison Brooks. I was not prepared for the wonderful variety of house designs that we saw as soon as we entered Newhall.
All of the houses are architect designed within an overall masterplan by Roger Evans Associates.

It was explained that there are six principles underpinning their approach:

First is to plan for neighbourhoods to avoid Newhall becoming a series of estates.
Second is to design with nature. Preserve natural features wherever possible. Integrate thinking about nature into everything we do.
Third is to create a legible public domain by creating memorable sequences of spaces.
Fourth, to promote local distinctiveness.
Fifth, Ensure safe and convenient access for all.
Finally, to design for future needs.

We were told how the owners of the land are committed to using the value of their land to ensure quality development rather than to maximise their own profit.

It was evident that there is considerable attention to detail throughout. Not least of which is the use of a colour palette derived from the local landscape and local places. This range of colours has proved inspirational to the architects, linking, but not limiting, the various house styles and building materials. It makes for an exciting, rich visual experience within the streetscape. It was pleasing to see new uses for traditional materials such as wood, brick and thatch.                                                              


Newhall Be

“The development consists of five apartment buildings containing six, seven or eight flats each; fourteen Villas; twenty-nine courtyard houses and seven terraced houses. Twenty-six per cent of the homes are affordable.
Streets running north to south are lined with villas and bookend apartment blocks are connected by east-to-west shared surface, terraced thoroughfares.
The blocks are clad with stained softwood and have slate roof tiles, although some walls are buff stock brickwork, also used for the flats.”                                                                                                           
AJ Buildings Library

Alison Brooks has created some striking houses using a restrained pallette of materials which seems to echo the local vernacular of Essex black barns. I thought that they looked very smart, certainly dramatic, reflecting a modern attitude to lifestyle in architecture - and marketing.

However, we all noticed that the softwood had been painted, not stained as described, and that the surface coating was already beginning to deteriorate. Considering the extent of the surfaces clad in this way, and that the houses are only 2 years old, these house are going to have considerable maintenance problems - unlike the Essex barns they imitate.