Skies above Wraysbury Village

After All: A project that tried to stand a town on its head

Image credit: Viitali Vitaliev

Ding-Dong! Time for our traditional Yuletide techno tale!

In the run-up to Christmas, even the most ‘correct’, pedantic and nerdish of us become dreamers, and those who do not, like to hear stories about other people’s dreams. That was probably why my last year’s real-life tale about Manea Colony – a peculiar Utopian community in 19th-century Cambridgeshire – triggered considerable reader response.

This time we’ll have a look at yet another – much more modern – Utopian techno project.

Let us begin with a protracted, yet relevant, quote:

“Pedestrians should be loved.

“Pedestrians make up the greater part of mankind. Not only that, the finer part. Pedestrians created the world. It was they who built towns; put up sky-scrapers; installed drainage and plumbing; paved the streets and lit them with electric lights. It was they who invented printing; thought up gunpowder; built bridges across rivers; deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphs; introduced the safety razor; abolished slavery, and discovered that 114 tasty, wholesome dishes could be made from beans.

“And then, when everything was ready, when our planet had acquired a comparatively well-planned appearance, the motorists appeared.

“It should be noted that the motor car was also invented by pedestrians. But for some reason the motorists soon forgot about that. They began to run over the meek and mild, clever pedestrians. The streets, built by the pedestrians, passed into the hands of the motorists. The roads were doubled in width and the sidewalks were narrowed down to the size of a tobacco wrapper.

“In a large city, pedestrians lead the life of martyrs, just as though they were in a traffic-run ghetto. They are allowed to cross the street only at crossings – that is to say, at points where the traffic is heaviest and where the thread by which a pedestrian’s life usually hangs may most easily snap. The ordinary motor car, which the pedestrians intended to be used for peaceful purposes, has taken on the menacing aspect of a fratricidal missile.”

This passionate (if somewhat tongue-in-cheek) anti-motor car diatribe comes from ‘The Golden Calf’ – a satirical novel by Soviet writers Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, first published in 1931. As you see, even then – 92 years ago, when the overall number of cars in the world was no more than 23 million (now it is approaching 1.5 billion!) and those were mostly in the USA – the problem of separating those mechanical monsters from the cheerful crowds of peaceful pedestrians was very acute.

Since then, despite all those (largely futile) attempts by engineers, architects and town planners to resolve this ever-mounting problem with the help of autobahns, spaghetti junctions, electronic traffic lights and multi-storied car parks, the confrontation between cars and pedestrians keeps growing. In the overall number of casualties, it has come close to a major military conflict – a perpetual and bloody World War Three that had never been officially declared.

Not that there hadn’t been any promising projects to radically change the situation. As early as in 1929, for example, Clarence Stein (1882-1975), an American urban planner, designed a ‘masterplan’ of a “garden city for the motor age”, his main goal being to create “a safe place to raise children in the age of the automobile”. He tried to realise it in Radburn – a small town in Bergen County, New Jersey (present-day population 25,000) – by separating the traffic from pedestrians and reducing the contact between the two.

Stein created a pedestrian circulation system that allowed people to walk to the local centre, park and the school without the need to cross a road. He designed a row of 300m by 600m housing blocks with a series of cul-de-sacs pointing into the centre of each block. These cul-de-sacs provided car access to the front of each home, while a separate pedestrian network was linked to the back gardens via which residents could walk to local facilities.

Only a small section was completed before the Great Depression stalled development amid complaints that the cul-de-sac-based layout made the Radburn estates difficult to navigate and hard to police. The town had gradually returned to more traditional street planning and, with skyrocketing car ownership in the US, the remaining cul-de-sacs, packed like sardines with parked vehicles, had become nearly impossible to negotiate, as I myself made sure when visiting the town some 20 years ago.

Instead of restricting the movement of vehicles on the ground, the famous French architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965), tried to resort to a more radical solution: lifting pedestrians high above the road level. In his multi-storey ‘Radiant City’ apartment block in Marseilles, completed in 1952, public spaces were lifted and placed in fully functioning, but traffic-free, ‘mid-air streets’ on every third floor, including the main ‘High Street’ on floor 3, with several shops (a bakery, a café, a supermarket) and, later, a hotel. In the long and straight ‘streets’ (corridors) on other levels, one could find a primary school, a kindergarten, doctors’ surgeries and small workshops.

The main communal area was on the vast roof terrace. It consisted of a running track, a playground, a paddling pool and a gym. In Le Corbusier’s eyes, the roof, with its 180-degree sea views, was supposed to represent the upper deck of an ocean liner, moored in the Marseille cityscape.

For me, who happens to be suffering from both sea sickness and acrophobia (fear of heights), promenading on the building’s roof, as I did during my visit to the Radiant City in 2016, was a bit of a torture. Yes, the Vertical City (another nickname of the building), is still there, in all its crude brutalist beauty (or ugliness, depending on your perception of brutalism), yet the present-day residents of that ‘garden city in the sky’ still have to come down back to Earth (for work, proper shopping and other daily needs) - i.e. the traffic-ridden streets of Marseilles, frequently, thus further exacerbating the city’s chronically unresolved cars-versus-pedestrians problem.

Skies above Wraysbury Village

Image credit: Vitali Vitaliev

In 1944, Sir Patrick Abercrombie (1879-1957) came up with his much-debated County of London Plan (or Greater London Plan, as it is also known), aimed at reducing the traffic congestion in the capital. It proposed a series of ring roads, labelled from A to E, to remove traffic from central London, due to undergo a substantial ‘pedestrianisation’, to which most of the London-based small businesses were naturally opposed. It was partly because of that, and partly due to the sheer impossibility of pronouncing the tongue-breaking neologism ‘pedestrianisation’ without stuttering (only joking) that the plan had not been carried out in full.

Then, in 1959, Motopia came into the picture. Its creator, Geoffrey Allan Jellicoe (1900-1996) – an architect, a town planner and a dreamer – was a fan of Le Corbusier’s Vertical City, but instead of lifting pedestrians above the ground, he brazenly suggested the opposite: to relocate the traffic onto rooftops!

“No person will walk where automobiles move and no car can encroach the area, sacred to the pedestrian,” he wrote in his manifesto of a book, ‘Motopia. A Study in the Evolution of Urban Landscape’. This 1961 book is now a bibliographic rarity. I managed to get a dodgy reprint of it, with the characters so tiny that it can only be read with a magnifying glass, which makes the very process of reading feel like a discovery in its own right.

I first heard of Motopia from my good friend Bill Bryson, who visited its intended location – on Staines Moor near Wraysbury Village – bordering on the site of modern Heathrow Airport and (rather ironically) squeezed between Britain’s busiest M25 and M4 motorways. In his book ‘The Road to Little Dribbling’, Bill sums up Motopia as “a proposed model community, based on the uniquely unexpected idea of banishing cars” and intended “to provide housing, shopping, offices, theatres, libraries, cinemas and schools for a population of 30,000”.

All those ‘motopians’ (forgive my neologism) were supposed to live in a grid-pattern of buildings, modelled by Jellicoe on London’s Bedford Square, with an expanse of rooftop motorways in the sky. In actual fact, it was to be just one giant edifice – a superblock of the type of Le Corbusier’s ‘Vertical City’, with residential wings and elevated streets linked together by moving walkways, where there was no danger of being hit by a car. “In this town, we will separate the biological elements from the mechanical,” Jellicoe wrote.

As becomes clear from his book, Jellicoe himself did not fully believe in the practicality of his Utopian plan of a “pedestrian paradise”, which he himself considered to be mostly of a “diagrammatic value”. There is also a strong element of irony and even satire in ‘Motopia’ – the book where, among other things, the author reproduced his imaginary interview with a future traffic warden, who said that bicycles must be banned from Motopia as “an anachronism in the modern world”.

And yet so lucrative and so topical were Jellicoe’s ideas that the government did designate a provisional site for building Motopia – ‘a town of 30,000 people with rooftop motorways’ – 17 miles west of London, at an estimated cost of $170m. It was a decision that surprised Jellicoe himself, who remarked in his book that “the site chosen in the Green Belt round London is… an exercise only”.

Those plans were (of course) duly shelved and the construction of Motopia never got under way. However, the clearly designated site of one of the boldest Utopian projects ever remains. I visited it to decide if I could visualise Motopia on the exact spot where it was meant to be located and thus make it a tad more real for myself.

While researching my latest book on Britain’s Utopian settlements, I came to the firm conclusion that every Utopian project, if tried in reality, inevitably led to its opposite, i.e. a dystopia. I am not the only one who thinks that. “Every Utopia has an implied dystopia,” wrote Damien Rudd in his book ‘Sad Topographies’.

Few things can illustrate the above conclusion better than the present-date state of the intended Motopia site.

The village of Wraysbury in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, next to Heathrow Airport - unexpectedly charming, leafy and old-fashioned as it is - is one of the UK’s most unfortunate places to live. Its residents never look up at the sky, where planes of all existing makes, airlines and destinations fly so low above their heads while landing or taking off that one seems to be able to touch them with an outstretched hand, let alone a proverbial bargepole. Every 30 to 40 seconds, all through the day, with a short four-hour break at nighttime, a deafening roar, similar to that of an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, shatters the villagers’ neat cottages and their uncomplaining ear drums. That is not to count the never-ending din of both the M25 and M40 motorways, which can only be heard during the brief intervals between the ear-splitting thunder of low-flying planes.

Paradoxically, it was the proximity of the world’s busiest airport that had made Wraysbury Britain’s most down-to-earth village and probably the only place in the country that benefited from the recent Covid-19 pandemic, when the number of flights to and from Heathrow had been drastically reduced.

“It was great here during Covid!” a local woman walking her dog in the lush village green told me. “So quiet that...” her last words drowned in the uproar from the sky.

A failed motor-car Utopia turned into a thriving airplane dystopia. History must have had a laugh by placing thousands of airplanes, instead of cars, as Jellicoe had suggested, in the long-suffering Wraysbury skies...

The woman assured me that the villagers had learned to shut out the noise – the fact that I had reasons to doubt, for why, then, had they been so active in campaigning against Heathrow’s extension? I could hear the echoes of that campaign in the name of one of the village’s pubs – the Perseverance, which turned out to be welcoming and cosy, and served excellent food. And opposite it was a garage, nostalgically called Dr Clutch – the name straight out of a nostalgic 1950’s Utopia.

Yes, despite its unfortunate situation, Wraysbury is not devoid of some Utopian traits. I spotted them in the solid ivy-covered houses, richly – almost excessively, like in the US – decorated for Halloween, although it was hard to imagine what the ever-so-resilient ‘wraysburnians’ can be scared of. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the villagers enjoy scuba-diving in the nearby Staines Reservoir, which is also considered the UK’s best spot for carp fishing (fishing must be popular here as a source of much-needed calm and peace of mind).

I must confess that, after a brief visit to Wraysbury, I fell in love with that luckless and down-to-earth, and at the same time beautiful and vivacious, village, sitting quietly in an ear-splitting and hard-to-find ‘alienation zone’ (an expression coined by Ilf and Petrov, with whose quote I started this Yuletide tale) – right under the western approach path of Heathrow airport.

Next time, moments after taking off from Heathrow, do look down through your porthole and give a wee thought, as they say in Scotland, to the village below that had bravely taken some of the stress (read: noise) of your flight onto itself.

I want to finish with three pieces of good Christmassy news – both for the residents of Wraysbury and for all E&T readers:

The plans for Heathrow’s controversial third runaway have been indefinitely postponed.

For the approximately 1.4 billion cars presently listed in the world, there are ‘only’ 25,578 registered aircraft.

As I was writing this column, the world’s population had first reached and then exceeded eight billion pedestrians (all humans have to act as pedestrians from time to time) and all eight billion of us are in desperate need of new – realisable – Utopias and Motopias, which, hopefully, will come to us in 2023. 

A very Happy New Year to us all!

Ding-Dong! Or rather, Beep-Beep!

Vitali's latest book, 'Atlas of Geographical Curiosities', is available now (£19.95, Jonglez Publishing).

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