Respectability and Indigence in the Urban Environment

In his twenties, Thomas Hardy, the author, was working as a successful architect which makes reading his novels with an eye on design a revealing activity. Hardy writes with a depth about the built environment – and ‘place’ more generally – that is unusual in literature. The experience he gained in practice clearly gave him an observational capacity that renders the features of houses, streets, roads, markets, inns, hotels, etc. in fine detail. This is from Chapter 5 of The Mayor of Casterbridge describing a scene where the town band has begun to play:

“The building before whose doors they had pitched their music-stands was the chief hotel in Casterbridge – namely, the King’s Arms. A spacious bow-window projected into the street over the main portico, and from the open sashes came the babble of voices, the jingle of glasses, and the drawing of corks.”

That ‘spacious bow-window projected into the street over the main portico’ might be a line out of one of Pevsner’s guides to the Buildings of England but it is the social context through which buildings structure human activity that comes through most of all in Hardy – the shaped behavior following the shaped environment, to draw on Winston Churchill’s famous quote. A good example of this comes in Chapter 32, where Hardy describes two bridges in Casterbridge:

“Two bridges stood near the lower part of Casterbridge town. The first, of weather-stained brick, was immediately at the end of High Street, where a diverging branch from that throughfare ran round to the low-lying Durnover lanes; so that the precincts of the bridge formed the merging point of respectability and indigence. The second bridge, of stone, was further out on the highway – in fact, fairly in the meadows, though still within the town boundary.”

That move to describe the first bridge as: ‘the merging point of respectability and indigence’ combines the spatial aspects of the town with the human aspects. It is a point that will be familiar in many other towns: the place were upmarket connects with downmarket, where honest toil meets dodgy dealing.

Hardy describes the bridges further:

“These bridges had speaking countenances. Every projection in each was worn down to obtuseness partly by weather, more by friction from generations of loungers, whose toes and heels had from year to year made restless movements against these parapets, as they had stood there meditating on the aspect of affairs. In the case of the more friable bricks and stones even the flat faces were worn into hollows by the same mixed mechanism. The masonry of the top was clamped with iron at each joint; since it had been no uncommon thing for desperate men to wrench the coping off and throw it down the river, in reckless defiance of the magistrates.”

The bridges, in other words, had become places to ponder, worry, and reflect on things gone awry in life. The external movements connected with those thoughts – toe and heel movements, leg movements, hand movements, and grasping at loose material – had further served to shape, and communicate the meaning of the bridges according to their use.  Like stone steps, worn down in the middle after decades of people climbing up and down. Indeed the bridges said this very clearly through their ‘speaking countenances’.

Did the architects of the two bridges intend that they would find use in such a way? One might think it unlikely, the main function of the bridges really being to take a road across water, but the parapets – the worn down projections – indicate a secondary function: places for people to stop; to fish, for example, or to keep out of the way of wide traffic, or to look out on the river. So the pondering activity is there in the plan somewhere, if not accurately defined or envisaged. What an architect might not expect is the subsequent shaping of the bridge, through friction, to more accurately define the human activity that takes place on the bridge.

Casterbridge, the imagined town in Hardy’s literature, is derived from Dorchester, the real town in Dorset and it is interesting to think how fiction and reality might be connected and overlap, especially when one thinks of the work of an architect or urban planner as a kind of fiction or authorship. The vision expressed through sketches, drawings, or artist’s impressions, that I’ve talked about in other blog posts, show a potential narrative that is then further formed by actual use. And now Google Street View, time-lapsed over years, can reveal a post-design narrative (see Figure 1). Places take on meaning as much as being given meaning.

The First Bridge

Figure 1: A Google Street View image shows the place of the first bridge in Thomas Hardy’s description of Casterbridge (Dorchester) above. The bridge is ‘immediately at the end of the high street’, though the man caught on camera on the bridge doesn’t look as desperate as the men of Casterbridge.

A prime example of this, and a kind of modern day Thomas Hardy example, came to me when I lived in the centre of Milton Keynes some years ago. The centre of Milton Keynes is a shopping mall. A reasonably nice, high quality, grade 2 listed shopping mall; but a shopping mall none-the-less. Butting on to the shopping mall, further down the hill to the east, is Campbell Park: “the largest and most imaginative park to have been laid out in Britain in the 20th Century” according to Pevsner (Buildings of England: Buckinghamshire). The centerpiece of the park, leading directly from the axis of the shopping mall, is a belvedere; a huge pile of earth projecting out from the natural hill to give a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape looking eastwards. It is place, in other words, conceivably not dissimilar to the bridges in Casterbridge. The amount of ‘desperate men’ (the law courts in Milton Keynes are further than in Casterbridge I’d wager) is probably far outweighed by the number of people seeking a nice view in their lunch hour, but there is a kind of ‘speaking countenance’ there.

Campbell Park was generally emptier than it should have been. Housing schemes surrounding the park were only partially completed, so outside the hours of business the number of people in the park was often in single figures, outnumbered by the sheep that were allowed to graze from time to time.

The flat I rented looked into a wooded area at the side of the park and, after a year or so of living there, I noticed some odd behavior. My flat, as well as looking directly at the wooded area of the park, overlooked a car-park; a place, I assumed, where people would leave their cars while having a relaxed weekend picnic in the park with their family. What I began to notice was a pattern: single men would drive into the car park and wait in their cars while looking at their mobile phones. After a period of time, they would walk purposefully into the wooded area of the park before reappearing, less purposefully, some time later. Then they would drive off. What was confusing was that the path the men (and it was almost always men) walked so purposefully towards only led out of the park again some way down, after passing through the wooded area – it was a path that led nowhere! Figure 2 shows the place.

Campbell Park, Milton Keynes

Figure 2. A Google Street View image shows the wooded area (left) in Milton Keynes where a gay cruising area had formed. On the left, near the ‘keep left’ signs, you can see the entry point for ‘the path that leads nowhere’, while the car park is to the right of the picture (behind and out of view). The man caught on camera looks like he is headed to the path.

Now, it might seem obvious now, but at the time I was genuinely puzzled – why would you walk down a path that led nowhere? The question rolled around my head for a few weeks until my friend D arrived to stay. D, who is gay, had a very simple answer to my question: “it’s a gay cruising strip”, he said, nonchalantly. “How do you know?” I asked. He shrugged, “it’s just obvious, take a walk there and you’ll see people in tracksuit bottoms.” This was all news to me, but to prove D’s point we took a walk down the path and sure enough, up came a man wearing tracksuit bottoms, and paying us a lot of attention. “It’s the sense of danger” D explained of the behavior more generally, “or maybe they are married and don’t want their wives to find out”. A place for desperate men, in other words.

D had another theory. Perhaps the path had been deliberately designed for the purposes of gay cruising? After all why would a path that led nowhere make it on to the plan for the park? Maybe this was why Pevsner had called it ‘the most imaginative park to have been laid out in Britain in the 20th Century’? It’s a nice thought, that someone in the planning office was discretely tending to the needs of a community of people for outdoor sex; intending – by arranging parking, woodland, and a path that leads nowhere in close proximity – that outdoor sex would be the result. More likely is the Thomas Hardy explanation though, that the place came to support, and eventually help to shape, the behavior. And one way of doing that is to place a space at the border of respectability and indigence.

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