Sleeping Towers of Letchworth

Sleeping Towers of Letchworth

20 January 2014 by Vitali Vitaliev

In a highly ironic twist, having spent 35 years of my life in the world's largest Dystopia of the USSR, I now reside in Letchworth Garden City - another "Utopian" project, which is still going on.

The moment I first - and purely by accident - stepped onto the Garden City's asphalted soil, I felt totally at home. I think I know why...

The child of Ebenezer Howard, an idealistic thinker of the Victorian era, the world's first Garden City, was started in 1903. The term "Garden City" itself was likely to have been chosen by Howard to make his project echo "The Garden of Eden" - the most ancient biblical Utopia.
Architects Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker started to build Letchworth on Howard's principles on land which he and the Garden City Association, which he had formed, had bought.
Letchworth was laid out with its public buildings and shops in its centre, with industry separated from dwellings, and the whole urban area surrounded by farmland later turned into a 13-mile green belt, where the town's residents could stroll, ride and cycle.

In the early 20th century, the burgeoning town was visited by numerous Russian anarchists, revolutionaries and idealists, among them - allegedly - by Vladimir Il'ich Ul'yanov, better known as Lenin, who - again allegedly - spent a night in Letchworth in 1907 and gave a talk there.
Another name connected with Letchworth was that of Vladimir Semionov - a well-known Russian architect who defected to London with his wife, an active member of the Bolshevik party, in 1901.
Having settled in Britain, Semionov worked as an architect and was able to observe the Garden City as it developed until returning to Russia in 1912, by which time Letchworth was already thriving.
Back in Moscow, Semionov approached a railway co-operative with an idea of creating a Howard-style settlement for its workers in a Moscow region village. He got the permission, but then World War 1 broke out and the project was shelved.
After 1917, Semionov and other Russian supporters of the garden city movement became key players in building a "socialist" society in the USSR. They designed the city of Stalingrad on the Volga River and parts of my native city of Kharkov, then the capital of the Soviet Ukraine, on Letchworth principles.
In 1935, Stalin appointed Semionov the chief architect of Moscow, and the latter promptly came up with a draft to redesign parts of the Soviet capital along the garden city lines!
That was not to be. Gigantism and the so-called "Stalin Gothic" were the order of the day at the peak of the Great Purge. After that, the essential communal core of garden cities was lost forever in the USSR - although the form of garden city layout still characterizes hundreds of ex-Soviet urban settlements, including Kharkov, where I was born and grew up, and the Sokol area of Moscow where I had lived for a number of years.
Modern Letchworth, with its vaguely Stalinist spires, its fountains ("from where happy workers' laughter can often be heard" - to quote a North Korean propaganda magazine), and its disproportionately huge public spaces boasts two peculiar engineering landmarks, and whereas one of them is known all over the world, the other is rather obscure.
Many of "After All" readers will be aware that Letchworth is home to the UK's (and, I have reasons to believe, Europe's) ever first ... traffic roundabout. It is duly commemorated with a memorial plate in its middle saying: "UK's first roundabout, circa 1909". I was told that the plate had been installed by the Roundabout Appreciation Society of Britain, with headquarters in Poole, Dorset.
From a beautiful new book "Historic Streets & Squares" by Melanie Backe-Hansen (The History Press), I found out that, until 1930s, a different sign used to adorn this truly historic site in Sollershott Circus. It simply said: "Keep to the Left" - and was put up as a reminder to careless motorists who were unsure how to negotiate the roundabout and did not stick to the rules.
The other innovative architectural (or engineering, if you wish) feature is much less known, and I am proud to claim some priority in discovering and naming it - "The Sleeping Towers of Letchworth".
Why "Sleeping Towers"?
Sleeping porches (balconies) and colonnades (turrets) were part of the first Garden City's architectural design (Unwin's own house had them too). In accordance with Victorian beliefs, sleeping in the open air was highly beneficial for one's health. "The Sleeping Towers" were therefore added to the town's most eclectic Cloisters building, whose architects took the "sleeping porch" concept one step further to allow the School of Psychology students, the building's first tenants, to maintain excellent physical health by sleeping inside spacious castle-like turrets open to the air. The ensemble also boasted an open-air swimming pool in the courtyard - a rather unusual feature for 1907.
An interesting detail: the whole bizarre design of the Cloisters, with its towers, turrets and trompe l'oeil windows, was prompted to Quaker Miss Annie Jane Lawrence, the building's first owner, in a dream.

And here I dare conclude that "Sleeping Towers" can serve as an adequate metaphor for Utopian thinking in general. Dreamers, idealists and revolutionaries of sorts see the world differently from "normal" people. They tend to be airy-fairy and detached from reality as if indeed dwelling in a tall tower - a cloud-cuckoo land high above the ground...

When one sleeps in the open air - due to the increased supply of oxygen to the brain - their dreams are invariably vivid and colourful, if at times a bit weird...
There is no denying the fact: Utopian dreams and ideas have provided a lot of inspiration for the more down-to-earth architects and engineers. One solid proof is modern Letchworth Garden City - a model for hundreds of similar settlements all over the world (mainly I n the USA and Japan), and simply a great place to live.

As for the "sleeping porches" and "sleeping balconies" (if not quite "The Sleeping Towers"), they have become habitual terms of the real estate scene in the USA: living in the States in the late 1990s, I used to come across them in numerous property-for-sale and property-for-rent ads.

Some Utopian dreams do become reality, after all.

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    Posted By: Vitali Vitaliev @ 20 January 2014 05:48 PM     General  

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