Darryl Chen, 04 01 09


Underrated urbanism par excellence. 1971 yielded a planning treatise that seems now to transcend its postwar era and enter the cut-up remixed world of the fantastic now in a way that Collage City only ever dreamt.

Civilia was a vision for a new city which served as a polemic for redeeming English planning from its postwar malaise. It was both the culmination and the most complete manifestation of the ‘townscape’ doctrine as a proposition. Far from the sterile and sober best practice notes we now have from every kind of para-governmental-commission-on-urban-design, Civilia is a ribald romp of a postcard-perfect consumer paradise – complete with sex shops, vagrant beatniks, commuter yachting, impromptu Shakespearean theatre and excessively flamboyant brutalist architecture. Robert Maxwell called it a “welfare state Monte Carlo”. Reyner Banham considered it no less than a precursor to Colin Rowe’s Collage City. We at TTT call it a ballsy take on future living late-60s stylee.

Proclaiming in its byline the “end of suburban man,” it lashes out at suburban sprawl as well as what its author Ivor de Wolfe* considers its siblings: the New Town, the City-region and the Garden City. It posits a high-density urban ensemble in the wasteland of the English Midlands. Its very presentation form is a critique of his contemporaries; the book is short on plans and diagrams (planners can go “stick it”), and heavy on pictures – possibly the most exquisite urban photomontages of the era. 

De Wolfe’s commentary is an acerbic kind of gentlemanly banter and is at its most entertaining when lampooning his contemporaries. If sprawl is evil, Milton Keynes is its “autistic little demon offspring.” Paolo Soleri is written off as the “lunatic fringe”, whose latest book is so pretentiously dimensioned as to warrant the use of “two medium sized tables.” De Wolfe *aka Hubert de Cronin Hastings was a fomer editor of the Architectural Review and brains behind the pen of Gordon Cullen’s “Townscape”. 

We don’t think Civilia is without its flaws. It is an unadulterated paean to the consumer lifestyle; productive sectors are happily relegated to the ether. And how in hell would you actually write planning for this? But we give it a thumbs up for putting drama back into urbanism, sticking two fingers to a soggy profession, and of course, bonus points for the funk-ass retro architecture.

Ivor de Wolfe (aka Hubert de Cronin Hastings), Civilia: The End of Sub Urban Man : A challenge to Semidetsia, 1971.

2 Comments

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  • 1. molly  |  May 28th, 2009 at 11:41 am

    Love that you’ve posted this here. I’ve spent some time with the book and it’s as strange and lovely an artifact as you say it is.

  • 2. TOM  |  September 12th, 2009 at 4:58 am

    Thanks for bringing this Civilia to light


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