Uncommon People

Joe Holyoak

The wonderful Flatpack film festival hit Birmingham again in April, with a packed six-day programme of events in 24 different venues. Two documentaries made last year about two parallel lives, those of Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) and Laurie Baker (1917- 2007), were outstanding films for me.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City focuses on the confrontations between Jacobs and Robert Moses, the enormously powerful New York official who dominated urban planning and redevelopment between the 1930s and the 1960s, and who at one time held twelve official posts simultaneously. I know a lot about my hero Jane Jacobs, but I knew less about Moses. What an appalling man! If you think Donald Trump typifies bullying arrogance and misogyny, think again. Moses was worse. Time after time in the film, in interviews and speeches, he reveals himself as the stereotypically ignorant but megalomaniacal tyrant who inflicted huge damage on places and communities. At one point he states his intention to obliterate East Harlem and rebuild it, describing the neighbourhood as ‘a cancer on the city’. At another point he says that America’s economy is unthinkable without automobile production, therefore expressways have to be build in order to have somewhere to put them. He had a huge amount of power, but Jacobs defeated him, with intelligence and wit.

I was scheduled to give an introduction to Jacobs before the film, but was foiled by the automated projection system in the modern cinema, which started the film running before I could get to my feet. The film anyway contains my best anecdotes, including Jacobs’ arrest and prosecution in 1968 for inciting a riot, and Moses’ brief angry note to Jacobs’ publisher, who had provocatively sent him a copy of the newly-published Death and Life in 1961. He returned the book, and ended the note ‘Sell this junk to someone else’!

Jane Jacobs is quite famous; Laurie Baker is not famous at all, but deserves to be much better known and celebrated. Like me, he was educated at Birmingham School of Architecture, but a generation earlier. He was taught in Birmingham’s Arts and Crafts tradition, met Gandhi and went to India after the Second World War, and spent the rest of his life there. His numerous buildings in India are shaped by the Arts and Crafts ethic, but look nothing like buildings in Surrey or Worcestershire. He adapted the principles of William Morris and Philip Webb to a different culture, climate, economy and technology. He built cheaply and inventively, often for clients who could afford little. He was a brilliant architect, but he showed that you should never believe what architects say about their work. In the film, he explains everything he did on the basis of economy. Yet his rough red brick walls, curving (to give the wall stability), unplastered (to reveal structure), and perforated with patterns of small geometric voids (to achieve natural ventilation), are sensuously beautiful. That beauty is not achieved just by addressing economy.

I was very moved by both films, by the modesty of the two central figures, and by the importance they gave to ordinariness in daily life. The quality of ordinariness is frequently overlooked, if not actually dismissed. Jacobs observed and documented the ordinary quotidian activities in Hudson Street in Greenwich Village, which Moses and the other men in suits featured in the film, had no interest in. She then constructed from that ordinariness a set of principles on which cities could be built, in opposition to Moses’ wrongheaded devastation. Baker similarly worked from observation of how lime was burnt, how timber could be recycled, how a poor family in Kerala lived, how they cooked and ate, how they sheltered in coolness away from the sun, and made from that an architecture full of practicality and delight which they could afford. He was a sustainable and green architect long before those terms were invented.

The Baker film is called Uncommon Sense, which quality Baker’s architecture represents, despite ‘Use common sense’ being one of the 20 Principles by which he defined his work. I have heard Jane Jacobs’ urban principles dismissed as common sense, but they are also still not common enough. I think of John Berger’s critique of common sense in his book about a country doctor, A Fortunate Man. He writes ‘….. common sense is passive because it is based on an outdated view of the possible. Common sense is essentially static. It belongs to the ideology of those who are socially passive, never understanding what or who has made their situation as it is’. Jacobs and Baker were activists, using their energies and imaginations to change the realities of the world in which they lived. They were uncommon people.

URBAN DESIGN 143 Summer 2017 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 143 Summer 2017

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Laurie Baker


Jane Jacobs demonstrating against the Lower Manhattan Expressway


Joe Holyoak is an architect and urban designer, working in masterplanning, site planning, area regeneration, historic conservation, and community participation .

He is also on the Editorial Board of the URBAN DESIGN journal.