Monday, 29 October 2012

Little Utopias

Model Villages are by no means confined to our little islands, but they were invented here and, for me, they seem to encapsulate three great British traditions: gawping, hobbies, and our insistence on imposing our idea of order onto an unordered world.

An aerial view of Bekonscot

The first Model Village proper was Bekonscot in Buckinghamshire. A rich man’s obsession, it was initially a private project, and only opened to the public in 1929 after featuring in a news reel which stirred up frantic interest in this Lilliputian marvel.  Many more miniature parks followed, mostly designed as tourist attractions, often in seaside resorts. Great Yarmouth has one, as does Torquay, Dorset and the Isle of Wight. Blackpool have one, too, of course, as you knew they would.   
Although there are examples all around the world, these typically merely reproduce famous landmarks at a reduced scale. The best kind of British Model Village instead creates an idealised fantasy environment: a village or small, manageable town which is perfectly proportioned and presents a nostalgic portrait of Olde England. There is usually a Church, a Butchers, a Bakers, a Bobby on a bike, a cricket match in progress, a pub; thatched roofs and narrow roads, buses and steam trains, a winding river with anglers on the bank and jaunty boats on the water – all the signifiers / clich├ęs of the land of lost content, a cosy, rural environ essentially unchanged from the Edwardian era. This safe, self-contained microcosm can be taken to mind boggling length: the Isle of Wight and Bourton on the Water’s model villages have their own model village, for example.

Bourton on the Water's Model Village's Model Village
There are no riots here, no anti-social families, no over-crowding, no litter or tiny pools of vomit- no problems whatsoever, in fact, instead a happy, harmless, comforting stasis: everything in its place, reassuring, safe – even death is banished, although dry rot can be an issue (a couple of model village’s include burning houses, but each conflagration is under control, and the good old Fire Brigade are in attendance).

Roland Callingham, inventor of the model village as we know it
The model village is created not by gradual settlement like normal centres of population, but seemingly all at once, by the guiding intelligence of a God-like figure and the myriad hands of his craftsmen (Bekonscot was accountant Roland Callingham’s idea, but he pressed his maid, gardener, cook and chauffer into helping him with the work). To this end, the design and purpose and feel of the development are informed by the deity’s sensibilities and preferences / prejudices, and it is their concept of order that is imposed.
This desire for order is, of course, also reflected in the real life model communities that were built specifically to provide housing for workers in the shadow of the factory or industry they served, as well as in the post-war enthusiasm for new towns, with their carefully placed amenities and logical but convoluted road systems. Again, as in their small scale counterparts, order is informed by a patrician view of the world. 

Model village, Great Yarmouth

Model community, Bournville
George Cadbury
Model village, Isle of Wight
Model Community, Port Sunlight
William Lever (brother not pictured)

The village of Bournville doesn’t have a pub, for example, as George Cadbury was a Quaker and disapproved of alcohol (one hundred years on, it still doesn’t have a pub - The Creator’s shadow looms large). Port Sunlight was an early example of a profit sharing scheme, but William Lever made the decision that the workers share would be put into houses rather than into their hands (in typical patrician style, he feared cash would be wasted on sweets and alcohol). The workers were not consulted, just as the thousands of Londoners forcibly rehoused into the new towns at Stevenage and Bracknell and Hemel Hempstead were not consulted. It may very well have been ‘for their own good’, but it’s nice to be asked.

Similarly, private developments at Thorpeness and Portmeirion also follow the pattern. Thorpeness is a strange resort of artificial lakes and mock-Jacobean chalet type accommodation, a holiday village for the wealthy friends of multi-millionaire Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie based, in part, on Peter Pan’s Neverland; Portmeirion, the famous location for ‘The Prisoner’, crams an Italianate village into a relatively compact space, an architectural showcase for the work of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. Both were created as private empires, idiosyncratic worlds shaped to suit an individual, and, long after the creator has died, ‘little’ people still fight to preserve the traditions and order arbitrarily imposed in the past.

Unique skyline at Thorpeness

The extraordinary Portmeirion 

Sir Clough Williams-Ellis and his most famous long-term resident
Whether full size or 1/12th scale, the motivation for the creator of the model is clear: to produce, like God, a perfect, complete world in your own image – an opportunity that I suppose we are all working towards to some extent with our own homes, gardens, sheds and blogs. It is perhaps no surprise that the publicity material for model villages rarely fails to mention ‘feeling like a giant’ as one of the benefits of visiting, as if power or a sense of omniscient omnipotence is passed down to the tourist as they traipse around the exhibit – seeing life all at once, from an elevated position, perhaps with an enormous sandal clad foot poised to crash down on it all.   

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