A new development, 1950s style

A sketch of the proposed development from A guide to the Cambridge Plan.  Note the similarity to the as-built development

A sketch of the proposed development from A Guide to the Cambridge Plan. East Road is in the foreground. Note the similarity to the as-built development.

In a previous post I looked at some recent developments in Cambridge, now let’s skip back 50 years and compare these to a new development from the 1960s: Ashley Court between Norfolk Street and East Road in the city centre.

1952 saw the publication of the first Cambridgeshire Development Plan, also known as the Cambridge Plan, that identified some Comprehensive Development Areas, one of which was the area to the south east of East Road and north of Norfolk Road/Broad Street.  A Guide to the Cambridge Plan of 1956 claimed that in this area ⅔ of the houses were unfit or soon would be and that “It lies at the heart of what the consultants describe as ‘an area of almost continuous dilapidation'”.  It’s difficult to appreciate what the area looked like however pictures taken in the 1980s of the Kite area on the other side of East Road may give a flavour.  (Note that the Kite was suffering planning blight at the time.)

Comprehensive Development was explained as

…demolishing all the buildings (except those of outstanding architectural or historic value) in a sizable area and laying out a fresh pattern of streets and open spaces, so as to form sites convenient in size, shape and situation for new buildings of th kinds that are most needed in that area.

The Guide also includes a sketch (above) entitled ‘redevelopment scheme, East Road’ with no further explanation but it suggests that plans were advanced at the time.

Ashley Court in the 2010s. Photo: Bing maps

Ashley Court in the 2010s. Photo: Bing maps

One of the paths through the development

One of the paths through the development.

A comparison with a modern-day aerial photograph shows that the built development is very similar to the sketch.  The developed area appears to have been bounded by Norfolk Street and St Matthews Street, an area of about 7 acres/3 hectares.

The general layout of the area follows the pattern of New Town and Expanded Town planning in the UK after the Second World War: the front of houses face on to green open spaces that provide convenient, direct and safe walking routes through the development and connection to the surrounding area. We now call this filtered permeability and a look at OpenStreetMap shows the numerous path across the development.

Plan of the development showing the paths in dotted red.

Plan of the development showing the paths in dotted red. Navigable map. © OpenStreetMap contributors

There are no through roads, instead dead-end feeder roads link to garage areas.  Two large two storey car parks were built (the unnamed blocks at the north end and south east corner on the map to the right).  In addition a pub and six shops were included in the development.

There is a variety of layouts and styles of building and a large amount of open space divided in to smaller areas with a human scale.  No doubt land in the centre of the city was cheaper when this area was rebuilt, nonetheless more houses could have been squeezed in.  Overall this is a high quality development that was carefully planned with consideration for the people who would live here.

It’s not perfect of course.  Despite the good permeability of the site I have not walked through it on the way to somewhere, perhaps this is no bad thing as it provides some privacy for the residents.  The garages have proved too small for modern cars leading to the two garage areas being underused and they could be demolished.  These remote garages became unpopular in numerous developments due to the risk of crime and these days people seem to expect their car to be right outside their front door.  Some of streets in the area are therefore packed with cars (mostly off-road) and aren’t particularly pretty.

Despite being some 50 years old the development remains in good condition and appears popular: clearly high quality planning that is designed for living lasts.


2 thoughts on “A new development, 1950s style

  1. This is very similar to a development by Arne Jacobsen called Soholm, and the pub on site has a similar design to a farm house designed by Jacobsen. The architect was local David Roberts who has many buildings around town, I actually lived on the estate for a few years as a kid and the flats were very small and poorly built with dreadful virtually non-existent sound proofing and amp problems, but I always liked the architecture, just simple stuff really!

    • Thanks for the comment, I was not aware of the influences on the design. There’s more information on the Søholm Row Houses on Wikipedia. That development is praised since “What is particularly remarkable about the houses is the way the architect has transformed the usual two-facaded row houses into a three-dimensional composition with almost as many facets as a well polished diamond.” and this is certainly true of the properties facing Norfolk Street.

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