Greenbelt 75th Anniversary Symposium: Keynote Address
After five sessions over two days, the Greenbelt 75th Anniversary Symposium culminated in a keynote address by British architect and town planner Dr. Mervyn Miller. The title of his address is “From The British Garden City to Greenbelt and back to the English New Towns.” “The talk will document [the] transatlantic dialogue that connects Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City ideas with the planning of Greenbelt and the design of important New Towns beyond.”
Isabelle Gournay, symposium chair and associate professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at the University of Maryland, introduces the speaker. Dr. Mervyn Miller is a renowned authority on Garden Cities. He has written several books including Letchworth: The First Garden City, Raymond Unwin: Garden Cities and Town Planning, Hampstead Garden Suburb, and English Garden Cities. Gournay tells that she and Mary Corbin Sies, another Greenbelt resident and University of Maryland professor, have attended many planning conferences with Dr. Miller, in Helsinki, New Delhi, and London. When they were planning for this symposium, they thought that they must have Dr. Miller speak here. She also thanks GHI for providing Dr. Miller a guest suite.
Isabelle Gournay presents Dr. Mervyn Miller a bag of Greenbelt 75th anniversary memorabilia.
Dr. Miller received his bachelor’s degrees from University of Durham (UK), master’s degrees in urban planning and architecture from University of Illinois, and doctor’s degree in urban and regional studies from University of Birmingham (UK). He has held many planning and preservation positions and consulted all over the world including advising on behalf of New Delhi’s designation as a World Heritage City. He opens by saying that he feels privileged to be invited to talk here and he will speak about the transatlantic dialogue between the Garden City planners in England, starting with the founder of the Garden City movement, Ebenezer Howard, and generations of American planners including Henry Wright, Clarence Stein, Clarence Perry, and Lewis Mumford.
“The 22nd of March 1938, the Unwins visit Greenbelt, a red letter day for Greenbelt.” Raymond Unwin (1863-1940) was a prominent English architect and planner. In these photos he and his wife Ethel are shown around Greenbelt by John Lansill, head of the Suburban Division of Resettlement Administration which carried out the Greenbelt project.
Miller then goes back to the beginning of the Garden City movement to its founder Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928). At the age of 21, Howard came to the United States as a homesteader in Nebraska. He failed, went to Chicago and then back to England in 1876. In 1898, Howard published an influential book “To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform” which was revised in 1902 as “Garden Cities of To-morrow.” The book includes Howard’s famous Garden City diagrams with the garden city in the center, surrounded by a green belt, with light industry on the outskirts. Miller goes into detail about Howard’s “Three Magnets” diagram which summarizes the benefits and costs of urban and rural life and shows that the Garden City (“Town-Country”) would combine the positive features and prove attractive to residents.
Mayor Pro Tem Emmett Jordan
Mary Corbin Sies
Miller then tells that shortly after Howard’s “Garden Cities of To-morrow,” Letchworth Garden City, the first Garden City, came into reality. A design competition was held and Raymond Unwin and his partner (and brother-in-law) Barry Parker won. In 1904, Unwin and Parker’s plan for Letchworth was adopted, and Miller talks about the railway line, arts and crafts cottages, village green, and Skittles Inn (the town pub). Unwin also sketched some grand buildings in the city center but they were not built.
Dorothy Fue Wong will speak at Clarence Stein Institute’s short course which will be held after this lecture here in the Community Center.
In 1907 Unwin and Parker designed Hampstead Garden Suburb for Henrietta Barnett, a leading English social reformer. “This was Unwin’s masterpiece,” Miller says. Unwin was proud that only one tree had to be fell during the building of Hampstead Garden Suburb.
Ulker Copur, Professor of Architecture at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island
The Unwins made their first visit to the United States in 1911, arriving in Boston en route to the Third National Conference on City Planning in Philadelphia. He also spoke in Chicago on Garden Cities in England. “We don’t know whether Frank Lloyd Wright was there.” In 1925, Howard, Parker and Unwin arrived in New York for the International Garden Cities and Town Planning Federation Conference. They toured Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, a planned community designed by Clarence Stein and Henry Wright. Unwin was also a consultant for Radburn, New Jersey, another planned city by Stein and Wright. He was later appointed professor at Columbia University after the death of Henry Wright. He died in Connecticut in his daughter’s home in 1940.
Miller shows “Toward New Towns For America” by Clarence Stein which shows the iconic plan for Greenbelt on its title page. He tells that Stein stayed in Unwin’s old home in England while he was preparing this influential book.
Miller concludes: “The examples of the Garden City are still with us. Howard’s legacy endures into the 21st century. And as I hope I have shown that Greenbelt is actually central to that legacy. It actually marks the transition of the Garden City from traditional architecture into modernism in a very material way.”
The first question in the question and answer period: “You described this conversation across the Atlantic very nicely. Was there any similar conversation between the English designers and the French modernists, Le Corbusier in particular, and Russian centralists? What was the relationship to those radical ideas taking place in the continent?”
Miller answers that Le Corbusier, the great French modernist architect, studied the Garden City movement when he was an intern in Berlin for Peter Behrens, and Miller sees the plan of Hampstead Garden Suburb “traced over” in some of his works. In Germany, Ernst May who worked on many projects in Frankfurt studied under Unwin. A Russian architect “had a short spell with Unwin” (Miller does not recall his name) and later became one of the Garden City movement leaders after the Revolution. “Unwin seems to have been the key figure.”
Question: “Can you say anything about how the people you told us about in England influenced people who designed Greenbelt?”
Miller: “I am not sure they did actually.” Hale Walker’s master plan for Greenbelt was more about updating Radburn, New Jersey. “The more open layout and the curvilinear roads I think are more American modernism.”
Question: “Can you tell us if there is any connection between English Garden Cities and the development of the English council estates?”
Miller says that the English council estates were designed as massing housing for the working class after the Housing Act of 1919. Unwin greatly influenced that legislation. They do show Garden City themes but are not quite.
Jim Giese says that when he saw the plan for Welwyn Garden City it struck him that is very similar to the plan for Greenhills, Ohio. He asks whether Dr. Miller can comment on that.
Miller answers that he is not familiar with Greenhills, Ohio but Welwyn Garden City was founded in 1920 and its plan was published widely.
This question is about the terms artisan cottages and Arts and Crafts.
Miller answers that “Arts and Crafts was the rejection of machinery in terms of manufacturing of domestic products.” William Morris was the leader. In terms of architecture, these are houses based on medieval styles, with “lots of gables.” Artisans are referring to skilled working class members including craftsman, bricklayers etc. “These are people who can afford a bit more.”
Carl Elefante asks about Langston Terrace in D.C. by Hilyard Robinson and Paul Williams, African American architects. He asks whether this project or their names ever enter this dialogue.
Miller: “I haven’t seen reference to it.” Miller says that he is aware that public housing in the U.S. then was built in the segregated way.
Question: “I’m researching Dartinton, a rural estate in Britain, and that has a mixture of medieval Arts and Crafts and modernist buildings very like Greenbelt. I wonder whether that’s completely unique or whether there were mixtures of architecture, rather than entirely Arts and Crafts or entirely modernist.”
Miller: “Yes, there were. There is some very striking modernist architecture in Hampstead Garden Suburb in the 1930s.”
On the screen is a memorial to Ebenezer Howard at Welwyn Garden City. Miller tells that he saw a group of Japanese kneel down and kiss the plaque.
Dorothy Fue Wong: “I’m very impressed with how well preserved the garden cities are in England. They are over a century old. Could you give any advice to the American garden cities?”
Miller: “I think you have done all the right things in Greenbelt. I’m absolutely amazed this morning just how many measures were taken for the preservation of the buildings and of the natural landscape.” He has heard many programs (“I think in Greenbelt everybody needs a dictionary”) and hopes that everything is coordinated. He observes that people in the U.S. are more comfortable with tax breaks for conservation than in England.
Megan Searing Young, Greenbelt Museum’s curator and an organizer of the symposium, presents a bouquet to symposium chair Isabelle Gournay. Gournay tells that many years ago she was Young’s teacher: “At that time we woud never have known that we would work so hard together.”
Members of the audience ask Dr. Miller questions after his address.
25 years after the 50th Anniversary Greenbelt Conference on New Towns, the 75th Anniversary Sustaining Greenbelt’s Legacy Symposium has concluded.