Garden city movement


Detail of an artisan's living room

During the nineteenth century, Britain was transformed from a rural to urban society. By 1900 most Britons lived in the towns and cities; London alone had some 5 million inhabitants. Fine suburbs could be found across the country; though most of the population lived in squalid conditions. Images and descriptions of this squalor abound: the horrors of the turn-of-the-century East End have long obsessed popular imagination.

Many tried to address this inequality. Pressure was put on the government to standardise housing, leading to the introduction of planning laws. Individual reformers like Ruskin and Morris tried to do more. They called for a revival of communities, a rejection of mass production, and a return to nature. Their reception was wide. From the 1880s onwards, the Arts and Crafts Movement dominated fashion. Most Arts and Crafts design, however, was only enjoyed by the middle and upper classes: handmade wallpaper and furniture just weren’t affordable for the masses. To make a real change, to make Arts and Crafts a mass phenomenon, something altogether more radical had to be proposed.  

One answer was the garden city. Pioneered at Letchworth, then Hampstead, Bourneville and Port Sunlight, this was an early twentieth century attempt at Utopia. Rather than a mere housing development, viable economic communities were designed. Industry, public buildings and housing were carefully combined to create an environment on a human scale, where the manmade was balanced with nature. The architectural partnership of Parker and Unwin led this movement, and the following examples reveal their vision and creativity. Their legacy was profound. Architects like Le Corbusier studied and adapted their work; the New Towns of the Post-War period – Harlow, Peterlee and Milton Keynes, defer to their example; and even the modern cul-de-sac apes their forms.

About the online exhibition

'How We Built Britain' is a major collaboration with the BBC


Images in the exhibition are from RIBApix, a growing database dedicated to providing you with exceptional and unique images from the RIBA British Architectural Library's collections.

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