Sunday, 12 January 2014

Robert Matthew and the Belfast Regional Survey & Plan - Part 1

‘A Trump to Turn the Trick’(1)

Robert Matthew’s 1963 Regional Survey and Plan(2) for Belfast is arguably the most influential planning document in the city’s history, ushering in a new era and transforming it from a run-down Victorian industrial slum-town into a modernist planned regional city. Despite defining the contemporary city, today’s urbanists and planners blame the apparently negative urban conditions of the city centre’s periphery on this plan(3), often drawing similarities between the results of enacting it’s proposals and the violence and destruction of the ‘Troubles.’ The modernist movement in general has been largely discredited, with the general public associating it with high-rise inner city social housing, low-rise suburban estates rife with social and economic problems along with anti-pedestrian motorways disrupting previously happy and idyllic urban quarters(4).

A cursory look at the roots of modernism, and in particular the post-war planning revolution, reveals that it’s rhetoric and, we can only assume, it’s intentions were driven by a deep seated desire to improve the lot of humanity, along with the belief that humanity needed to increase it’s connection with the natural world to do so. As inspired as Robert Matthew was by the late-Victorian planning theorists, the question then remains; how did the desire to move it’s citizenry closer to nature result in a series of plans to construct an apparently ‘anti-humanist’ motorway system through thriving urban neighbourhoods? An examination of Robert Matthew as an architect and planner along with the concepts and theories which inspired him reveal that this response is not as contradictory as it first appears.

Robert Matthew, Beginnings
‘…a driving social idealism…’(5)
Robert Hogg Matthew was born in Edinburgh in 1906 to Annie Hogg and John Matthew. John was an architect and worked in the office of renowned Scottish architect, and proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement, Robert Lorimer. Indeed, his father’s work pervaded family life to the degree that Robert and his two brothers would become educated in the profession(6) with Robert particularly becoming increasingly interested in Lorimer’s “social reformist repugnance to mass commercialism.”(7) John Matthew’s relationship with his employer would also have an affect on the young Robert, who frequently observed his father being used by the bullish and opportunistic Lorimer.  His brother Stuart observed that Robert’s personality appears to be a mix of self-importance, almost arrogance, inherited from his mother’s fierce investment and pride in him as an individual, and the “…nervous, neurotic, argumentative energy, and even the self-doubting instability of his father, whose own domination by Lorimer served as constant warning, and spur, to Robert.”(8)

The social reformist themes of the Arts and Crafts movement which would become more prominent in early modernism would inform Robert as he embarked on the architectural course at the Edinburgh College of Art. Here Matthew was taught urban theory by Frank Mears, son-in-law of renowned biologist, sociologist and town-planning pioneer Sir Patrick Geddes.(9) The Geddesian philosophy of ‘Civics’ fused an evangelical belief in Darwinian evolutionary theory with an almost spiritual humanism tempered by the distinctly Victorian ideal of a hierarchical class system in which it was the responsibility of the privileged, both in financial and educational terms, to use their privilege to advance the lot of society as a whole. For Matthew and the early British Modernists this meant that the state should be empowered to intervene in people’s lives ‘for their own good.’ 

As Matthew entered professional practice, a distinctly Geddesian ‘scientific-humanist’ movement with socialist overtones was taking hold of architecture in the period between the wars. Another of Matthew’s planning tutors, E.A.A. Rowse, now at the Architectural Association in London, set about combining the roles of “…Engineer, Surveyor, Architect and Local Government officer together with that of the Economist, Sociologist and the Politician into that of the Planner.”(10) The idea of the professional town planner was slowly being embraced by the mainstream and, in turn, the trend for private architectural practice was waning, being viewed as the individualist, egotistical and self-indulgent quest for celebrity, and was slowly being replaced by agencies established to address the social problems of the contemporary urban environment. In short, the interventionist state the early proponents of Geddesian theory dreamed of was becoming a reality. The government was now viewed as an “obvious architectural patron and, increasingly, employer.”(11)

In 1935 Robert Matthew took on such a job, at the Department of Health for Scotland (DHS) which was “…pursuing a methodical agenda of planned interventionism” with regards to planning and housing in Scotland, and was also driven by a fierce nationalist pride and a desire to not be controlled by London. “For Robert, the move to government architecture also had the benefit of distancing him from the possibility of ever having to work under a ‘big boss’ in private practice, as his father before him with Lorimer.”(12) The Second World War, perhaps rather perversely, was viewed as a boon for the new profession of town planning. There was a lot of rebuilding required which offered the opportunity of addressing the social problems created by the inactivity caused by two international conflicts resulting in inadequate inner-city living conditions as the Victorian terraces across Britain began to show their age. Lord Reith, founder of the BBC, was now the First Minister of Works, essentially in charge of rebuilding now that the end of the war was conceivably in sight. He promoted research-led planning and began implementing Geddesian planning ideals as part of legislation, legitimising them even further, taking them beyond theory and into widely accepted praxis.

By this stage Robert Matthew now held the position of Chief Architect at the DHS and began doing much the same north of the border, taking on a host of researcher architects to exhaustively survey and plan large areas of Scotland. Matthew’s planning was distinctly ‘humanist’ rather than overtly socialist, being scientific and technocratic and also very much believing in state interventionism. His approach was “…somewhat anti-urban…” with "…strong concerns about rural depopulation and the regeneration of smaller towns.”(13)

These were ideals he would later bring to bear on the city and region of Belfast.

(1)  Glendinning, Miles. 2008. Modern Architect : the Life and Times of Robert Matthew. London: Riba. Page 53
(2) Matthew, Robert Hogg. 1963. Belfast Regional Survey and Plan :recommendations and Conclusions : Presented to Parliament by Command of His Excellency the Governor of Northern Ireland, February 1963. Vol. 451. Cmd. Belfast: H.M.S.O.
(3)  Along with the series of plans which were followed and inspired by it including -
R. Travers Morgan & Partners. 1967. Report on Belfast Urban Motorway (to) Ministry of Development (and) Belfast Corporation. Belfast: R. Travers Morgan & Partners N.I.
Building Design Partnership. 1969. Belfast Urban Area Plan. London 16 Gresse St., W1P 2DA: Building Design Partnership.
Belfast Urban Area Plan 2001. 1987. Belfast: H.M.S.O.
Department of the Environment. Planning Service. 2004. Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan 2015 (BMAP). Belfast: DOE Planning Service.
(4)  This is largely a fantasy. The neighbourhoods through which the Belfast motorways were proposed to run were, mostly, inadequate Victorian slums not fit for purpose. This is not to say that they were not without unique townscape value, but they were far from ideal and action was needed. More will be said about this later on.
(5) Ibid. Page 54
(6)  Although only Robert and Stuart would go on to actually practice architecture with Douglas becoming a doctor instead.
(7)  Ibid. Page 11
(8)  Ibid. Page 15
(9)  Ibid. Page 27
(10)  Ibid. Page 43
(11)  Ibid. Page 53
(12)  Ibid. Page 55
(13)  Ibid. Page 69