Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A clip charting the redevelopment of the city of Aylesbury shows its age.
Welcome to the latest installation of “Public Access,” where CityLab shares its favorite videos—old and new, serious and nutty—that tell a story about place.
How do you create modern facilities in a historic town? Judging by this 1972 film, a good idea might be to examine what England did in the small city of Aylesbury—and then do exactly the opposite.
This intriguing clip from British Pathé, designed to run in movie theaters before the main feature, explores what happened to the town 45 miles northwest of London in the 1960s and early ‘70s. Designated an “overspill town” by the Greater London Council, Aylesbury was expanded by official decree as part of a constellation of exurban satellites, intended to accommodate exiles from the capital in cities that lay beyond the greenbelt on which all construction was banned.
The results of this transformation shown in the film are grim—at least according to soon-to-be disgraced presenter Bill Grundy, whose career ended four years later after he actively encouraged the Sex Pistols to swear on live TV. According to Grundy’s version of Aylesbury’s transformation, historic streets in what was once a sleepy market town have been flattened with a vast load of cement, while an obtrusive, charmless Brutalist civic center towers over a weathered roofscape.
Is this fair? Certainly the crystalline hulk of the civic center, comprising a town hall, library, and bus station, seems bulky and austere for its setting—as if the Eye of Sauron has relocated inappropriately to the cozy greenness of The Shires—but the film overstates its case. The creation of Aylesbury’s new civic center road system and housing did indeed entail some destruction of historic buildings that seems unforgivable in retrospect.
But a quick look of the map reveals that most new construction took place not over the old town, but on its edge—which is why the film has many old lanes to shoot from in order to provide contrast with the new construction.
Grundy’s critique is still fascinating because it shows how much attitudes have shifted since. He expresses heavy-handed loathing of the new buildings but grudgingly admits that, as a matter of planning, they do work. The new shopping street and mall are busy, while citizens traveling by bus along smoother, wider roads are fed effortlessly into the civic center’s amenities.
A contemporary architecture and planning enthusiast might come to the opposite conclusion. The spiky, interesting examples of Brutalism we see here could easily feature in a coffee table book today, even if the style and its chosen setting remain controversial. What the film grudgingly admires, meanwhile, seems appalling.
Like too many British towns, Aylesbury’s historic core is radically cut off from its residential hinterland by an inner beltway, creating a kind of rampart that privileges car access at the expense of placemaking. It’s a dispiriting environment which the pleasure of entering the narrower, older streets at the beltway’s heart never entirely dispels. Aylesbury is a fairly thriving city of just under 60,000 people now, but the effect of those planning flaws still endures—far more so than the jarring modernity of its 1960s buildings.