Celebrating Max factor

An exhibition on show at the University of Westminster celebrates the work of Max Lock. Who he? The unsung hero of town planning, according to the show’s blurb – and Hugh Pearman, who believes that his visionary approach has disappeared from the professio

“If town planning can be said to have had an avant-garde,” runs the exhibition blurb, “then Max Lock would have been a leading member”.

If it ever did, it doesn’t now. The phrases town planning and avant-garde are mutually exclusive. Lock, who died in 1988, is described as one of the unsung heroes of postwar planning. Just so: nobody outside the business remembers him.

Indeed, nobody outside the business knows the names of town planners at all, with two possible exceptions: Sir Patrick Abercrombie, who redesigned so much of urban Britain after the Second World War that it’s a wonder they didn’t just give him the whole nation on a plate; and Ebenezer Howard, the shorthand specialist and utopian visionary behind the garden city movement a century ago. Any other name, even Sir Raymond Unwin, who, in partnership with Barry Parker, was actually responsible for the garden cities such as the Hampstead Garden Suburb, is for academics only.

Town planning is the only part of the built environment where this lack of recognition is true. There are plenty of avant-garde structural engineers, and a fair sprinkling of intellectually and aesthetically minded services engineers – particularly among the low-energy, natural-ventilation enthusiasts. Landscape architecture? Any number of original designers there getting public recognition. But town planning? No. Which brings us back to the late, once almost trendy, Max Lock.

Lock has now got an entire exhibition devoted to him , running until 25 January at the University of Westminster in London’s Regent Street. Good: his career is illuminating. In the post-war years he saw towns as organic entities containing people, not as abstract diagrams of growth. He invented community consultation. He opposed roads for their own sake.

Like Abercrombie, he evolved the humanistic ideas of an early twentieth century Scottish botanist and planning pioneer, Patrick Geddes: so did Lewis Mumford in America. People flocked to Lock’s seminars. When he presented a new plan for Middlesbrough in 1944, it made the glossy magazines and became the subject of a cinema documentary. He became, for some, a saviour. He was the man to call on when your town was under maximum threat. But he opted to stay on the fringe of things rather than become a public man.

Why do such people not exist today? One celebrated and cynical architect I put this question to responded crisply: Because town planning isn’t a profession. For him, it is simply not a design discipline. It is something else. An obstacle between the creators and the created.

But there is more to it than that. Lock trained first as an architect – and was actually pretty good at it – and only then turned to planning. Such architect/planners used to be commonplace. Now they are an endangered species. Despite attempts at rapprochement between their respective institutions (both the Royal Institute of British Architects and Royal Town Planning Institute logos are prominently displayed at the Max Lock show) there is now a chasm between them. The result is that town planners of vision are hard to find – and invisible, so far as the public is concerned.

Instead of Lock or Abercrombie, we now have urban task forces, community planning weekends and the like. The glossies, and TV, get interested only when a team associated with Richard Rogers or the Prince of Wales descends on a run-down bit of town. But these are loose gatherings of vaguely interested individuals nibbling away at bits of the urban problem. There is none of Lock’s holistic intellectual rigour and common touch.

What is masterplanning? What is urbanism? They’re simply architecture under different names.

Lock had his own name for the people who indulge in this kind of pretend-planning. He called them vistamongers. Max, you should be seen as a hero now. Because town planning is the biggest design job it is possible to imagine outside the Book of Genesis – and nobody has the vaguest notion of who’s doing it.

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