Here be Dragons: Barnet (part 1)

By NikitaNemygin, May 15, 2015

Fun fact
This is the only Outer borough I have actually lived in! If that does not grab your attention, I honestly do not know, what else will.

Location and context
Barnet is a northern borough of London. It used to be within the county of Hertfordshire during its pre-1965 history and currently encompasses zones 3-5 of both branches of the Northern line of the Underground. The landscape here becomes hilly, gradually mounting as we get farther away from the City.
Not much incredibly exiting happened here in terms of history except for Battle of Barnet, an episode from the War of Roses. As I have mentioned in my last article, the borough was largely determined by the two trading routes – Roman Watling Street and Mediaeval road to St Albans later becoming stagecoach road. Since the year 1199 Barnet, the eponymous northernmost village has been a marketplace, where traders from nearby counties met. It was farmland, small scale local industries and crafts that ruled the place, and later, manors, when better transport links arrived, gradually building up as the 20th century caught on.

Today Barnet is largely residential with an average-to-low Multiple deprivation index. The latter clearly divides the borough into areas along Watling Street around Cricklewood and Burnt Oak stations which are fairly deprived and the rest of the borough which is much, MUCH better off.

Golders Green and Hampstead Garden Suburb
Just think about it, around 95% of all buildings ever built where created in the 20th century.

So, as you can imagine, during this period people have tried a lot of approaches to improve how we see our dwellings and city environment. I love the grand utopian city planning concepts of the time. There were many of them, but the overall idea was: “let us use science to see what makes certain towns comfortable for people and then use those findings to create new ones from scratch”. People of the time had to deal with an unprecedented population growth and a rising demand for some decent accommodation.

The curious thing about these grand projects was that most of them were left uncompleted or failed upon completion. The early ideas were dominated by living in a quiet harmony where every honest working man would have a lovely house of their own, which was a response to over-crowded, over-polluted London. The later concepts got heavily influenced by the advancement of socialistic ideas and communal living.

The early 20th century ideas were stemmed by two wars and the later ones – by the petrol shock of the 70th.
The history around them shows how quickly people become fascinated by any new idea and how fast they abandon and forget the previous one, like children, who were given a new toy.

Nevertheless those ideas continue to fascinate people today as we seem to abandon this rigorous approach. You can now go and visit successful places like Welvyn Garden City, Milton Keynes or the complete abominable failure such as Cumbernauld which is a byword for the British to describe a flunked city development idea.

Cumbernauld, town center, it was DOA right from the beginning. (c) Chris Upson, Wikipedia.

Cumbernauld, town center, it was DOA right from the beginning. (c) Chris Upson, Wikipedia.

Certainly, there were a lot of mistakes to be made. But along with those – some beautiful things as well – and Hampstead Garden Suburb certainly falls in the latter category. Ironically, it is one of the examples of how successful an area can be at the same time ultimately failing the intended purpose of its creation.

An enchanted garden in Hampstead Garden Suburb

An enchanted garden in Hampstead Garden Suburb

The views down the streets were given a lot of attention as well:
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Garden City is the one of the first utopian city planning theory of the 20th century and the idea was that green belts should be intertwined with medium-sized local communities with housing, industries and shopping within an easy reach (as opposed to over-crowded and over polluted London of the time) and to combine the benefits of country and town living.
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Hampstead Garden Suburb was found by a prominent social thinker Henrietta Barnett soon after the turn of the century. Fun fact: her name has nothing to do with the name of the borough. It is centered around Hampstead Heath Extension – a former farmland transformed into park during the same time.

Hampstead Heath Extension invites you to linger

Hampstead Heath Extension invites you to linger

These developments tried hard to be less class-aware In particular in this one the idea was “that persons of all classes of society and standards of income should be accommodated and that the handicapped be welcomed”. However now it is as far from reality as possible: local Bishops Avenue is the most expensive street in London and the whole locality together with nearby Golders Green is one of the most expensive in the country. It is also a home to one of the biggest Jewish communities in the UK. Oi vey iz mir!

One of the houses at Golders Green

One of the houses at Golders Green

And who can blame the buyers? Just look at this beauty and serenity.
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How wonderful! A middle-class paradise!

How wonderful! A middle-class paradise!

Golders Green dinosaurs say hi to Crystal Palace dinosaurs

Golders Green dinosaurs say hi to Crystal Palace dinosaurs

Scandinavia-on-Burnt Oak
Here is a picture from one of my trips to Norway:
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I was walking up from RAF Museum (I will talk about it some other time) to Edgeware when I spotted these houses and the resemblance was striking to me.
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The weatherboard that these houses are covered with certainly conveys this impression. I love the place in London which absolutely do not look like typical London and was amazed to see how such a small touch like weatherboarding could immediately send you to a completely different place.
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Here is how the whole street looks, there are several of those in this locality:
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I was so impressed! As I was taking my photos in a quiet awe, I saw a local chap passing by with his kid.
– What are these houses? – I asked, – They look so unusual!
– They were built straight after the war, – said the dude in a very heavy Scottish accent (and I guess he meant The Great War), – as a temporary housing, but ended up lasting a bit longer. I have bought it out from the Council several years ago and it is very warm.
– Is it really?
– Oh yes, saves a lot on the bills the only problem in the neighbourhood is the bloody commuters, on the weekdays they always leave their cars here to continue to the City on the Tube. We do not have a parking scheme and the whole street is chuck-a-block. But it’s really warm, I have bought mine several years ago and very happy about the area – the shopping street is affordable and schools are fine.

Watling Avenue - local shopping street

Watling Avenue – local shopping street

It turns out, this development is called Watling Estate (you can learn about its history here). It was built approximately to the same standards and same manner as the Bacontree Estate in Barking and Dagenham, which I evoked some time ago.

Although it is located in a relatively deprived area, it is magnificent! Look at these cute little features, look at the attention to detail the architects gave their oeuvre!
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Of course, being a council house outside of a conservation area, it is absolutely imperative to have ugly plastic windows.
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Apparently, these dudes, for example, desperately wanted a window in their toilets. Too bad they did not manage to make them same size. Look, windows like these make baby Jesus cry.
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This all made me think of how the concept of decent housing ideals were changing through the 20th century. Compare it to the Hamstead Garden Suburb and you can see what kind of ideas were in the heads of people of yesterday. They had to solve different problems with different approaches. Bourgeois idealism of the beginning of the century was no more, giving way to a simpler, but more affordable living.

What different path have the social experiments in housing have taken! Our ideas on the subject now continue to evolve – nearby, right next to the RAF Museum there are several new development projects that encapsulate even newer ideas.
Indeed it seems like it the architecture and environment dictates the social order in the locality and not vice versa. Hampstead Garden Suburb turned out to be super-opulent, but Watling Estate on contrary is quite run-down. Compared to the latter, the beautiful great curves of the former provide much more for enjoyment and personal development. However, it is the latter that still crusades to provide at least some affordable housing, which was its initial intent.

What of these two do we regard as a victory and what as a defeat? The answer to this will tell about ourselves more than of the projects?

Ideals of better life, once coined by intellectuals and architects of the time elude us, as the plans do not quite come to fruition or at least not as intended. A lot of the projects have changed its courses, following an ever-changing present, however, all of them, gradually changed us and made us who we are.