Wednesday 9 February 2011

Port Sunlight Observed

It’s tempting to imagine Le Corbusier being shown around Port Sunlight, his beady eye observing the wondrous display of vernacular building as a hapless guide attempts to explain to the Swiss modernist how such an abundance of architectural ornamentation should have come to rest in one small place. As a professed admirer of the industrial aesthetic he would have struggled to make sense of a planned community, built on the proceeds of mass production, where the prevailing aesthetic was defiantly pre-industrial.

The fascination of Port Sunlight is more than the visual pleasure of contemplating a diversity of architectural mannerisms deployed in a uniquely spacious setting. The questions that it raises about the relationship between capital and labour, about the merits of autocratically planned settlements, about the enduring attractions of past architectural glories, about individualism and paternalism and about managing and conserving for the future are all equally interesting. Walking the avenues, drives, causeways and corniches is a delight to the eye with a calculated diversity of surface treatments, textures and details, infinitely permutated to avoid repetition while maintaining some sense of universality and continuity. All this is very English, representing a determined effort to recreate a comforting vision of a lost pre-enclosure rural arcadia of orderly agrarian communities where, from the Lord of the Manor to the humblest of subsistence farmers, all prospered in perfect harmony with nature. (This fiction is so intensely reassuring that it continues to haunt the English collective imagination with arguably even greater resonance than it did a century ago.)

What is emphatically un-English is the generous provision of open space in the original master-plan. This is a country where privacy has an even greater value than space; the latter is always at a premium and normally the prerogative of the wealthy. The need for privacy was recognised by planning for individual dwellings but the provision of outdoor space on this scale is something rarely seen. A resident in St. George’s Drive is separated from his or her neighbour opposite by the width of the Champs-Élysées. There are two roadways with pavements, four avenues of trees set in grassland, a broad paved central footpath and flowerbeds between the opposing front doors. Elsewhere the frequent insertion of modest wedges, segments, semi-circles and ellipses of green space ensures that only a minority of residents are confronted by buildings opposite. These amenity spaces were originally allotments and playing fields. Notwithstanding the hierarchy of provision with superior dwellings for managerial and supervisory staff, the entire scheme was remarkable for the provision of working class housing that was not designed to look like working class housing and remind the occupants of their humble status.

In 1920 there were 8,000 employees (this figure had halved to 4,000 by 1927 as the economy contracted) in the Port Sunlight factory and the village with about 900 dwellings was never large enough to accommodate more than a fraction of the workforce and demand always outnumbered supply. The favoured few had the benefit of rents that were set at a level of between a fifth and a quarter of the local wage and overall were about a third lower than elsewhere in the area. On the other hand Terms and Conditions were strictly enforced and tenants were subject to an inspection regime that could lead to speedy eviction if they were found to be in breach of Rule 8 and neglecting to pay due regard to order and cleanliness. For those who were prepared to conform to Lever’s vision of a proper and productive existence these homes provided a level of comfort and a quality of environment that was normally well beyond the reach of working people.

Two factors contribute to the stylistic diversity, first being the extended period of construction beginning in 1889 with the area around The Dell and finishing in 1938 with Jubilee Crescent. Second was the large number of architects commissioned for various phases of development. Most of the architects employed were local to the North West and to begin with they exhibited a strong preference for regional vernacular, especially Cheshire half-timbering, and locally sourced Ruabon bricks and materials. As the development progressed and the number of architects expanded the styling became increasingly eclectic with Arts & Crafts features alongside imported styles from Flanders, the Netherlands and France. Italianate and Classical features were less common, largely being confined to the company office block and the art gallery. In later phases dependence on local materials was much reduced to the point where all the bricks for the Flemish House were imported from Belgium in the interests of authenticity. Notable among the architects was William Owen (1846-1910). Owen designed much of the early development as well as the office. His two sons, Segar and Geoffrey were involved in later developments. The Liverpool practice of Grayson & Ould specialised in half-timber revivalism and the landscape architect, Thomas Mawson, an enthusiast for the City Beautiful Movement, was very influential on the planning, planting and layout of the great central axis connecting the War Memorial with the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

We spent a week in September 2010 staying in the village and exploring the streets and open spaces. First impressions included a sense of wonder at the architectural homogeneity and the extent to which all appeared exceptionally clean and tidy. There was an alarming disparity in ambience between the village and the neighbouring shopping streets at New Ferry, just a few minutes on foot. Apart from Bolton Road that takes through traffic on a roughly north-south route the streets were remarkably traffic free. The absence of uncoordinated home improvements in the form of extensions, loft conversions, Velux windows, storm porches, conservatories, replacement windows and doors plus, with limited exceptions, the absence of divided front gardens and the associated diversity of hard surfaces, horticultural self expression or conversion to car-standings with dropped kerbs was all a joy to the eye. It may be a source of frustration to the residents, overwhelmingly owner-occupiers, that they are unable to express their individuality in these ways due to planning regulations and the need for listed building consents but the high level of formal cohesion and visual amenity and harmony that results is on a par with the best of Bath, Cheltenham or Salisbury.

In future postings we will look at Lord Lever’s cultural legacy in the form of public buildings, memorials and the Lady Lever Art Gallery plus a look at the factory.

W J Reader, Fifty Years of Unilever, London, 1980
Edmund Williams, The Story of Sunlight Soap, London, 1984
Edmund Williams, Port Sunlight, the First Hundred Years, Kingston upon Thames, 1988
Edward Hubbard & Michael Shippobottom, A Guide to Port Sunlight Village, Liverpool, 1988

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