Sir Peter Hall, a champion of cities, died on July 30th, aged 82
ONE of Peter Hall’s earliest memories was being lifted above a wall by his father so that he could see a London Underground train come rattling out of a tunnel. In 1931, a year before he was born, a Tube worker named Harry Beck had designed his now-famous schematic map of the system, the clean lines of which ignored distance and geography in favour of showing only the essential information of how the stations were connected. By the time he was six, Mr Hall later recalled, he could reproduce that map from memory.
That fascination for the hidden structure of urban life never left him. The train-mad child grew into one of the world’s foremost town planners, a profession whose mostly anonymous practitioners shape and direct, for better and sometimes for worse, the lives of the half of humanity that makes its home in the world’s cities.
He was a prolific author, and with a mix of data, tables and a journalist’s eye for anecdote his books charted the post-war history of Britain. They examined the long and fitful decline of the industrial powerhouses of the north—Newcastle and Sheffield and Leeds and Manchester, cities that had, quite literally, built Britain’s old industrial empire. And they studied the rise of London and England’s subsequent transformation from a country into a city-state—a modern version of medieval Florence, as he described it, with London dominating more and more of national life.
His hero was Ebenezer Howard, the founder of the “garden city” movement, whose vision of Utopia was of rationally planned, suburban towns of a limited size, surrounded by countryside and full of green spaces. A couple were built north of London before the second world war. But it was in the war’s aftermath that planning really came into its own. The conflict with Germany had shown just how much the state could accomplish when it was willing to take control of things, and amid the rubble of victory there was a desire to turn that power to constructive ends.
At first, Mr Hall was an enthusiastic supporter of that top-down, rational approach. One of his early books, “London 2000”, published in 1963, argued that London and the south-east should be comprehensively rebuilt, with vast areas of the inner cities bulldozed and replaced by blocks of flats, winding streets by a rectilinear system of motorways and on-ramps, and pedestrians segregated from traffic by walkways in the sky. Detroit, the spiritual home of the motor car, was his guiding light. The planners, in their patrician wisdom, would determine where the people would live, where they would work, and how they would spend their leisure time.
He soon changed his mind. Wherever that approach was tried—in Birmingham, or Glasgow, or around the elevated Westway in north-west London—it caused exactly the sort of ugliness and alienation he had hoped to banish. In the 1970s he began arguing that one way to deal with urban decay might be a bonfire of regulations; the idea, he said, was to “recreate the Hong Kong of the 1950s and 1960s inside inner Liverpool or inner Glasgow”. That sort of fertile chaos, he came to believe, was exactly what made cities so important, and such exciting places to live. He was an early advocate of the view—these days the received wisdom—that by allowing people to form connections with like-minded colleagues, cities are the engines of a country’s economic, cultural and artistic life.
He was, above all, a pragmatist, willing to abandon ideas that didn’t work and to work with anyone who would listen. He pushed for the development of the great orbital motorway that encircles London, and for the Channel Tunnel, which allows passengers to board a train at St Pancras and alight over the sea in Paris. He advised Margaret Thatcher’s government on the (extremely successful) transformation of London’s derelict Docklands into the financial hub of Canary Wharf, and Tony Blair’s administrations on how to rejuvenate struggling northern cities.
Despite his influence over generations of politicians, wonks and city planners, he was never quite happy with how Britain had turned out. These days many of Britain’s cities have grown vibrant and prosperous. But the divide between London and the rest has sharpened, and away from the thriving centres are stubborn pockets of poverty and despair. He criticised his country’s chronic inability to plan for the long term, its cramped and draughty houses, its jammed roads and creaking trains. He pointed out the superiority of the Netherlands and Germany, where modernism was not a dirty word and where planners were trusted to build, if not Utopia, then at least somewhere pleasant to live.
But his enthusiasm was never dampened for long. Besides writing, Mr Hall lectured, read and talked to anyone who would listen about the virtues of cities and about how they could best be built. He took a palpable joy in his work, and his expertise was in demand from America to the Far East. Where other tourists in a new city might head for the town centre or the main shopping street, he would hop on a bus or a tram and ride it out to the suburbs, mapping out the city’s skeleton, studying its circulatory system, seeking to understand how it all worked.