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Northbound Dreams

An essay by Anna Fairchild, February 2024

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Utopian visions, science fiction, strange light and futures which may not happen.

This essay and accompanying analogue and experimental photography explores visual and conceptual patterns and parallels between hyperlocal experiences in the everyday and extraordinary imaginative visions of The Garden City and New Town Movement and ideals through ideas of time-travel and ‘lost futures’. (1)

Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy’s science fiction novel written in 1888, tells the story of a young American from Boston who wakes up in the year 2000 after a hypnosis-induced sleep of 113 years. The America he knew has been transformed into a stable and prosperous socialist Utopia, without advertising, inequality, war or poverty. The novel is both an indictment of 20th Century capitalism and a tale of imaginatively achieved vision for a collective utopian dream.

Apparently inspired by Bellamy’s novel, Ebenezer Howard (founder of the English Garden City movement) set out his own vision in 1898, proposing utopian satellite Garden Cities in his book, To-Morrow, a Peaceful Path to Reform.

Howard’s utopian ideas for ‘town meets the country’ in his ‘three magnets’ proposal (Fig. 1), his seminal ‘future-plan’ To-Morrow, set out his ideas for relieving early 20th Century poverty in the slums of London by creating unique communities outside cities, where inhabitants could thrive in life, work, culture and the arts. This plan initially urged for satellite communities around London, where town (work) and country (life) would co-exist to eradicate the cramped and inhospitable living conditions in areas of the city. The plan advocated for proportionate areas of industry, residences and agriculture which would facilitate communities and see the benefits of all three, without the disadvantages, he believed. His first proposal for the idealised Garden City of Letchworth would house 32,000 people on a 9-acre site in North Hertfordshire.

Fig. 1 The Three Magnets of Ebenezer Howard’s ‘Town meets the country’ 1898

When Letchworth Garden City was founded in 1909, the A1(M) and its constant hum of exhausted/ing traffic was more than fifty years in the future (the North Hertfordshire sections of the road were constructed between 1962 and 1967). The hum of southbound and northbound commutes was as yet an unimaginable audio track from a second-millennium EP which slowly cancels the future. The A1(M) artery with its Brutalist aggregate concrete flyovers and exits to Stevenage New Town,  junctions 7, 8, 9, would perhaps have been seen by both Bellamy and Howard as more the material of a dystopian sci-fi novel. Indeed, in 1974, JG Ballard’s Concrete Island picks up this theme with his late 20th century Robinson Crusoe character, Robert Maitland. marooned on an intersection of London’s Westway, after crashing his car. Maitland’s story echoes with the hum and detritus of the experience of 21st century concrete hinterlands and is far from Howard’s utopian dream.

What resonates here is the sense of absurd isolation and crisis which Maitland experiences within a landscape which has become ecologically and socially alienating, invigorating him to act in a network of interconnecting transportation technologies connecting the commodified world.(2) The setting is carefully chosen, located between the ‘produced’ space of the spatial network of roads and flyovers (one of which is the cause of the initial car crash which places him on the ‘island’) and the spaces of urban wilderness ‘created’ by nature; between produced and created space, created because it has, ‘…no why or wherefore…’ (p.70, 1991).

What connects Maitland’s story with the protagonist’s experience in Looking Backward is a sense of disquieting dislocation, a kind of liminal parallel space and place, a time-travel trompe l’oeil effect of three-dimensional illusional space within a two-dimensional confined surface.

These out-of-space and -time experiences in Looking Backward are often referred to by Mark Fisher in his book, Ghosts of my Life, as a ‘jumbling up of time’, and that what has actually occurred may be the burying of a stasis, ‘…interred behind a superficial frenzy of ‘newness’, of perpetual movement.’ (2014, p.6)

For although Letchworth Garden City and Stevenage New Town remain (along with other satellite new towns and garden cities), the inhabitants are now more often engaged in a ‘backward-in-time’ journey southbound down the main A1(M) artery into London and other cities for work, along the commodity-connecting networks in the daily 21st century ‘frenzy of newness’ which Fisher wrote about in the first decade of this millennium:

“There and back, along the artery, the junctions become markers, time is stretched or contracted; the route is an analogue, time-travel clock. The hum of repetitive journeys which tending to induce a stasis; a looped crackle of concrete aggregate megalithic forms which peripheral vision catches fleetingly as they fly past, retina imprinted neo-brutal fragments. Indelible graffitied memories. Northbound and Southbound day-dreaming, perpetually moving there and back again, suspended in a concrete aggregate artery. Stevenage South, junction 7.”

Fig. 2-4 from the series Neo Brutal Spaces, 2023. Camera-less photographs on Ilford pearl paper (12 x14 inches)

Stevenage New Town (chief architect, Leonard Vincent) with its post-war Brutalist town centre and extraordinary telephone exchange, located in the Bedwell district (Figs. 5-10) with a population of nearly 90,000, (3) lies just off junction 7 on the A1(M). Stevenage was the place originally designated as the site for the first New Town by Lewis Silkin, and resulted in the passing of the New Towns Act in 1946 (4)  which built on Howard’s Garden City movement and ideals, and aimed to offer a solution to London’s East End slum conditions and the post-2nd World War housing crisis.

The Stevenage telephone exchange is nestled between new-town housing estates and a rather overgrown and unused playground in Bedwell. It was designed by Edwards, Tory and Associates in 1975 and replaced a small ‘house-sized’ exchange which is still in use today by BT Openreach. The building bears all the radical hallmarks of Brutalist architectural ideas: simplicity of form, and exposed unfinished material surfaces with traces of the wooden shuttering used in the concrete pouring process. In places, incidental wounds of the slippage in this process are visible.(Fig. 5 & 6)

These ‘beton brut’(a term coined by the French architect Le Corbusier in1952) marks somehow appear as a physical manifestation of the attacks to which Brutalist architecture has often succumbed; the term is often erroneously quoted.(Fig. 9). Le Corbusier designed the Unite d’Habitation  housing project in Marseille in 1952 to accommodate 1,600 residents of the city, displaced by the World War 2 bombings.  Le Corbusier’s political views did not bear wider scrutiny until much later on, and ‘copies’ of Le Corbusier’s designs were implemented by governments seizing opportunities to cut costs, and omitting or “forgetting about” the gardens, so crucial to the original designs such as Unite d’Habitation, and which reflect the utopian ideas of Ebenezer Howard’s Town-meets-the-country fifty years earlier.

Wandering around the telephone exchange exterior, details catch your eye. For as much as the Brutalist architectural canon has been described as functional, raw, ugly, minimal, there are points at which it becomes so obvious that an intuitive minimal designed hand and eye has been at work, albeit quietly and reticently and for sheer enjoyment it seems. On the east side where the elevation is just about to turn a corner, walls and perspectives shift and tilt, an external wall becomes the surface of a super-huge space object. Nothing here moves that we can perceive, but ideas shift.

The edifice continues; the rhythm of the perfect triangle, fashioned, as if in quiet play, by the maker against the gradually curving shutter-cast wall. An intuitive personal interpretation within a hand-built shuttered concrete surface married with a functional solution. Softer, under-looked-at; a poetic underbelly. Lyrical concrete. (Fig. 7)  Scale shifts, and the micro becomes macro; an incidental concrete spillage of pouring becomes a vast crater – a birth-wound in the surface of the architectural body. The concrete wounds fixed in time; things of quiet beauty in the fading spring light (Fig. 9).

A short walk along Bedwell Crescent and Cutty’s Lane towards Stevenage New Town centre is the church of St. Andrew & St. George, consecrated in 1960. A Rattee and Kett project, and a Grade II listed building, it is the largest church to have been built in England after the 2nd World War and was designed by Lord Mottistone.

Aggregate flint and concrete sections (Fig. 10) decorate the external walls of the building, which boasts large load bearing concrete arches supporting the roof and an impressive steel and glass front. Looking outwards geometric stained-glass windows with a varying overlaid palette of blue and purple glass are framed by the shadows of the exuberant Brutalist arches (Fig. 11). The Stevenage Museum, located at the rear of the church, displays photographs, plans, re-creations of 1960s domestic interiors; a yellow Formica time machine. Elsewhere at the touch of an analogue button intriguing samples of 1970s television theme tunes play out. The road adjacent, St George’s Way, connects Bedwell to the distant humming of the A1(M).


1.  Fisher, M, Ghosts of my Life, 2014, UK

2.  Lefebvre, H, The Production of Space, Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, 1991, UK

3.  2021 ONS census survey

4.  New Towns Act, 1946


Ballard, JG, Concrete Island, 1974

Brott S, The Le Corbusier Scandal, or, was Le Corbusier a Fascist?, 2017

Fisher, M, Ghosts of My Life, 2014

Lefebvre, H, The Production of Space, 1991

New York Times

BBC News

Concrete Reality: The Posthuman Landscapes of J.G. Ballard

Mark Hausmann text=english_theses

Fig. 5 & 6 Stevenage telephone exchange, 2023 (Multiple in-camera exposures on 120mm Kodak colour film)

Fig.7, 8 & 9 Details of Stevenage telephone exchange. 2023 (120mm Kodak colour film)

Northbound again, during rush hour as the A1(M) traffic grinds to very slow crawl at junction 7, the sprawling retail parks and over abundant half empty office spaces come into view. The junction 7 flyover of the A602 comes into view full frame, close up. Built to pass over and under with speed and ease, cars now more often momentarily stationary underneath, the brutal raw texture, structure and form slowly come into focus; a startlingly pleasant daydream interlude, a temporary hypnotic effect.

The ‘under-looked-at’ flyover, brutal raw design and material. An aggregate aesthetic based on the exposure of the building’s components and displaying features of simple truth to material and the exposed processes of beton brut.

Fig. 10 Concrete, Flint, 2023 (120mm colour film)

Fig. 11 Glass, Concrete, Dust, 2023 (120mm colour film)

The flyover structure becomes something other, a majestic megalith, an awe-inspiring, under-viewed henge stone (Fig. 15) or Egyptian temple roof. The aggregate gravel surface; Cotswold gold, Yorkshire cream and Staffordshire grey. Tiny erratic disruptions of 1960s aggregate composites; time travel rocks fixed in stasis, almost. The surface details clearly visible now the traffic has stopped. Mesmerising millennia flint and rock, miniature time capsules held together in a brutal dream.

Fig.12, 13, 14 Cotswold, Pembroke, Limestone Aggregate, 2023 (Digital collage from wholesale online gravel photographs)

Fig. 15 A1(M) Southbound, 2023 (Digital collage from wholesale online Cotswold gravel photographs)

Fig.16 A505 Southwest, 2023 (Digital collage from wholesale online Cotswold gravel photographs)

Fig. 17 Northbound, Southbound A1(M) Trompe L’oeil, 2023 (Digital collage from wholesale online Cotswold gravel photographs)