A weird wisdom of their own

The Director of the Design Museum, Deyan Sudjic, included in his book “London in Fifty Design Icons” The Regent’s Park. He writes that it “is a defining piece of picturesque city planning. It was intended to give London the impetus to leap across the Marylebone Road and expand towards its northern suburbs.” Sudjic recounts how the Park was to be edged by a series of grand, stucco-faced terraces, a number of which were designed by John Nash.” Much of the housing, however, was built by developers: “Some of these deliberately flouted Nash’s stylistic guidelines, which accounts for the sudden shift from sandstone French Empire style, to white stucco classicism, to grey-brick gothic along the eastern edge.”.

I’m here at Regent’s University, on the Inner Circle of The Regent’s Park , for another spot of CPD. The Forest of Middlesex once extended around this area. The four hundred acres occupied by the Park was originally seized by the Crown following the dissolution of the monasteries. Henry VIII acquired the Manor of Tyburn and created a hunting ground, Marylebone Park.

The University stands on the site of the former Bedford College for Women, originally founded in 1849 by Elizabeth Jesser Reid. In 1908, the College bought the lease for the site of South Villa, and new purpose-built buildings were designed by the architect Basil Champneys. There was an official opening by Queen Mary in 1913, and the College continued to extend and rebuild throughout the next 70 years. The original Villa was demolished in 1930.

I made my way here from Regent’s Park Station. It faces Park Crescent which, according to the UCL Survey of London, “turned into a prelude to the Park rather than the transitional interlude Nash intended.”. The houses themselves “were not the monster 100ft mansions Nash had first dreamt of, just (the large corner houses apart) good first-raters.”. Charles Mayor, Nash’s builder, underwent one of the most severe bankruptcies in London building history, largely as a result of the climax of the Napoleonic Wars and the subsequent slump. By the time of the Second World War, the Crescent was down at heel, and enemy action in 1941 either destroyed or damaged beyond repair Nos 19-24.

What is now the Inner Circle with its “bare smattering of villas” (only eight, including South Villa, out of a projected fifty-six were ever built), was to have been the Great Circus in John Nash’s “immortal scheme” of 1811. He devised three other colonnaded circuses or rond-points along the route from Whitehall and Westminster:

“All occupied critical junctures or points of transition, where traffic-ridden east-west routes broke the new line of procession, for Nash believed that the circus form invested such crossings with dignity and lessened the psychological sense of a barrier…”.

The exceptional width of Portland Place, which leads to Park Crescent, had been governed by the legal judgement of 1767 that the view northwards from Foley House must remain unobstructed. Foley House was built about 1754-62 by Stiff Leadbetter. In the 1770s the Adam Brothers arranged Portland Place around it, intending it to be a piazza of urban mansions overlooking Marylebone Farm at the northern end. Owing to the financial constraints caused by the American War of Independence, it became a street of townhouses. The site is now occupied by the Langham Hotel.

Chris Leadbeater reported in the “Telegraph” this July on the luxury villas of Regent’s Park:

“Here, at the very start of the Regency period, the feted architect drew up a scheme to transform what had been a hunting area and agricultural land into a giant grassy playground for the extravagant future George IV.”.

In 1987, Leadbeater goes on, The Regent’s Park Crown Estate Commissioners invited the Neo-Classical revivalist Quinlan Terry “to pick up Nash’s baton”. By 2004, he had created six villas on the Outer Circle: the Corinthian, Doric, Gothick, Ionic, Regency and Veneto Villas.

Early in 1946, the Government had commissioned the Gorell Report on the future of The Regent’s Park terraces. In 1944, Eric Cook, vice-chair of St Pancras Borough Labour Party, had described a vision “right around the “outer circle” of the Park a magnificent sweep of modern flats where people…, service couples and families, had their homes overlooking one of the loveliest of London’s parks.”.

The Gorell Committee at first recommended preserving seven terraces and demolishing Cambridge Terrace and Cambridge Gate. This would have “the advantage of opening up the Park for the immediate enjoyment of the inhabitants in a redeveloped area of terraced houses around Munster Square, Clarence Gardens and Cumberland Market (and) would remove a feeling of isolation and of living behind a barrier of more favoured property.”. This plan was not in the event pursued.

Munster Square and Clarence Gardens, designed as speculative housing for the middle classes, had represented two elements of Nash’s scheme and were deemed at this point fit only for demolition, a plan which was seen through. The Crown Commissioners agreed to sell some of the land to the east of the Outer Circle, and the Council acquired some 69 acres for clearance and redevelopment. The first of three phases of building of the Regent’s Park Estate began in 1951. In “Municipal Dreams” John Boughton notes that “It does feel slightly cut off by the Regency terraces to its west and the rather desolate Hampstead Road to its east.”.

In 1956, the American-Canadian journalist, author and activist Jane Jacobs (fondly remembered as the mother of “Vancouverism” in “Citizen Jane: the Battle for the City”) delivered a lecture at Harvard University, standing in for Douglas Haskell of “Architectural Forum”. She addressed leading architects, urban planners, and intellectuals, speaking on the topic of East Harlem.

In 1962, Jacobs went on to challenge successfully the plans of Robert Moses to run the Lower Manhattan Expressway through what he termed the “hell’s hundred acres” of SoHo and Little Italy.

She had urged her Harvard audience to “respect – in the deepest sense – strips of chaos that have a weird wisdom of their own not yet encompassed in our concept of urban order.”.

“Oh it really is a werry pretty garden

And Chingford to the Eastward could be seen

Wiv a ladder and some glasses

You could see the ‘Ackney Marshes

If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between.”

Written and composed by Edgar Bateman & George Le Brunn.

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