The sense of floating timelessness I get when I roam around the lovely Oxford streets fades fast if I take a bus to the other end of the town, a journey of about three miles. Seeing Temple Cowley, once a pretty village, is like waking up to a punch in the head.
In contrast to the city of dreaming spires, which attract nearly ten million visitors a year, down the road you bump into some of the worst architecture in Europe, if not the developed world. For a hundred years there was a thriving car plant in Cowley full of workers, including immigrants from the India. At some point in the 1960s some truly cretinous council and its jerry builders decided to sick up some disgusting houses for them, along with a few rows of concrete shops. Worst of all is a heavily stained reinforced concrete multi-storey car park, with a kind of oversized rectangular block at the top, hanging over the rest of the building as if it’s about to collapse. This is possibly the ugliest building in the country. I haven’t seen anything worse.
The architecture of Oxford says something loud and very nasty about the post-war class system and the abysmal regard we have for our own people. At one end of town the most privileged of our young and their families enjoy sublime beauty and yet close at hand, the state gives to the rest (the working class as they used to be called when they had jobs, the car plant closed in the 1980s) buildings which are unbearable to look at, and unpleasant to live in. Certainly no architect would ever live in Cowley, if the men who built the place can be given that name. It is hard to know what to call them.
The minimalist style of the buildings comes originally from Bauhaus, with its idea of creating clean lined, elegant but modest houses for working people, grouped in small garden cities. Those young idealists of the 1920s could never have imagined that their ideas would one day reach England, its planning departments and moronic low-grade corporation ‘architects,’ and be turned into a nightmarish farrago of industrial garbage.
Of course all over the UK we have these planning deserts, where the classes are segregated by brick and concrete, the fringes of towns where the centre has been depopulated, and vast council estates which middle-class eyes never see, except from a passing car. I recently visited an out of town supermarket in the Midlands on a bus, and spent an hour traversing the wastes of Dudley. It felt as uncomfortable and alienating as driving through dried up river beds along the Hindu Kush in a four by four. I could recognise nothing from my own world and was astonished at the long identical streets of poor quality houses, and how so many people were consigned to live in them, were living in them while I was growing up not so far away, in a decent house, in what was still a pleasant village.
I see now that this class based building blight has infected every part of urban Britain, and remains there like terrible unhealing scabs. Not even glorious, golden Oxford has been exempt, in fact it has some of the worst, ugliest housing around, reserved for those English people belonging to a lower culture, where people are not thought worthy of beauty of the education which would inspire them to recognise and demand it in their lives. A particular culture which knows no history, literature, or religion, and would never dare to approach any Gothic spires, dreaming or wide awake.