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The Triumph of Subtopia

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Farningham Mill, from The Londoner's England (1947)

When I was a student I lived over a shop, just off the Edgware Road. Four of us squeezed in, and the cobbler and his wife (no, this wasn’t the 19th century) kept a kindly eye on us before heading home in the evenings to Purley. These days, as I wander the high streets of towns, small, medium and large, with an eye cast upwards, alert to any signs of life, I rarely see anything more than mountains of cardboard boxes or clothes racks. A campaign, LOTS (Living Over the Shops), which might have been a lot shriller, for years tried to draw attention to this wasted space, accommodation that doesn’t appear in the national estimates of empty housing – written out in favour of ‘guesstimates’ of the soaring need for more housing ‘units’, especially in the south-east.

Ian Nairn coined the word ‘subtopia’ in his special ‘Outrage’ issue of the Architectural Review in 1955, to describe that ‘mean and middle state’ of featureless suburban development, spreading like ‘a morbid condition’ and tainting even the ‘most sublime backgrounds’. Above all, he wrote elsewhere, subtopia ‘blurs the distinction between places’. Most of the volume on Surrey in Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England series, published in 1962, was written by Nairn, who’d grown up in the county. He found it mired in subtopia. London was slipping and sliding towards it, residential developments were universally ‘rootless’ and almost everything old had been ‘killed with kindness’. Any sense of place or distinctiveness – ‘townscape’, the sum of the parts, physical texture, lie of the ground, accidental compositions of ‘polite’ and ‘vernacular’ buildings – was under threat.

What Nairn observed and execrated in Surrey fifty years ago is now facing the village of Farningham in Kent. At the centre of the village – only 19 miles from London, at the intersection of the M25 and M20 – is a remarkable survival of rural economic life: an 18th-century watermill and engine house, mill house, cart store, carriage shed, stables, cow shed, coach house, counting house, greenhouses, folly and several cottages. Until very recently the property was still in the hands of the Colyer family, descendants of the 18th-century millers. Once upon a time my grandparents were their tenants. A couple of years ago the latest heir sold everything, and Farningham Mill is now a prime slab of real estate. The sales pitch hinges on the historic mill and the other listed buildings, even though the development will effectively scupper everything special about them.

A courtyard of new houses has been designed to fit around the back of the old shops on the village street; it’s to be called ‘Lion Yard’, in a nod to the Lion Hotel opposite. Nearby, ‘Tiger Cottages’ will be slotted in along the water’s edge, squeezed between the two old cottages already there. As Nairn argued, what lies between and around buildings can make or break them. The developers’ ‘vision’ in Farningham will sever the subtle connections between the mill, the bluff, bow-fronted mill house and the white weather-boarded group of service buildings, cottages and outhouses. The mill at Farningham is a perfect example of the ‘sublime background’ against which Nairn’s nightmare was set, to be elbowed apart, crowded out and shouted down by a selection of ‘in keeping’ executive homes and frantic conversions of the buildings that the developers are obliged to keep. In total, 24 new ‘units’ are to be added to the seven already on the site. It’s hardly a solution to Britain’s housing crisis, but it marks another stage in the triumph of subtopia.

Comments on “The Triumph of Subtopia”

  1. outofdate says:

    Yes, horrible. Presumably the lack of a proper urban culture has something to do with this petty-burgeois mentality the English have of needing to own a little housey with a little garden as soon as they can at all afford it, or possibly sooner (and which the Evil One famously tapped into). The resulting bias of the Land Law, and the culture at large, in favour of the landlord and against the tenant does the rest.

    On the other hand developers then create faux urban environments — ‘yards’ and such — even in country towns for a class of people who’ve seen Paris or Rome. Presumably these people would like the opportunity to live in the real thing, one way or the other, but it just ain’t there, so you end up with this weird in-between state. Where to start, though, if you want to unravel it? The dream of a nice place to live, whichever way people define it, or of a place at least approximating what you really want, seems to me very difficult to justify meddling with.

  2. Peter Robins says:

    I live above a shop, in Peckham, and have no shortage of neighbours; I would imagine that flats above shops off the Egware Road are also still pretty well-used. But then inner London is not like most of Britain.

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