Friday, 12 December 2008

Harlow: Frederick Gibberd (1908 - 1984)

Sir Frederick Gibberd, architect, was born on 7 January 1908 in Coventry. His crowning achievement – apart from Liverpool’s Roman Catholic Cathedral - was as Master Planner for Harlow. The “new town” was designated in 1947, following the Second World War, when there was an acute need for housing. It was part of the so-called Abercrombie Plan (also known as the Greater London Plan 1944) to build satellite towns around London within the Green Belt (a ring of land around the metropolis designated in 1938 to prevent further encroachment into the countryside). Margaretting and Ongar were short-listed but Harlow, or more accurately a 6000 acre site encompassing the parishes of Great and Little Parndon, Netteswell and Harlow was selected.

Frederick Gibberd and his first wife, Dorothy, moved to the outskirts of Harlow in 1957 where he indulged in his passion for gardening at weekends, away from the offices of the Harlow Development Corporation. His garden is open to the public during the summer months: Gibberd wanted it to be a place of recreation and education for the residents of the town. His second wife, Lady Gibberd developed the garden to be one full of sculptures.

Harlow New Town is perhaps not as well known as it should be for its “public realm” – sculptures in the shopping centre and on housing estates. Lady Gibberd, in her earlier years, then Patricia Fox-Edwards, had been a founder of the Harlow Arts Trust, as had Frederick, an organisation that has been instrumental in commissioning work from modern artists.

Harlow is no concrete jungle either. On his appointment as Master Planner, Gibberd cycled and walked the designated area and, in getting to know the landscape, was able to make sympathetic use of it when drawing up his draft plan to house 60,000 people. Later the target number of residents was increased to 80,000, then 90,000 in 1967. Gibberd’s vision, as seen on the ground today, created ‘green wedges’ between four main built-up areas: The High (a shopping area) and The Stow, Bush Fair and Staple Tye, residential areas with their own estates and library, doctor’s surgery and community centre. He conserved old farmhouses and buildings, destroyed as few ancient trees as possible and turned ancient lanes into quiet cycle-tracks. Harlow village became Old Harlow and, with Potter Street, was expanded. Old Harlow still has be air of a small ancient market town on what was once the Epping to Bishops Stortford road. Gibberd’s plans met with little public opposition.

Known as ‘pram town’ in its early years, Harlow has been through its ups and downs but now tired areas are being regenerated and new estates, such as New Hall, following on from Church Langley, created. But the legacy remains. In the Water Gardens, is a blue plaque to Gibberd’s memory. The site itself is new but Gibberd’s words that a town is like “an organism which would go on changing and being rebuilt as the needs of the people altered” is an apt phrase.

Bateman, Linley H (editor). History of Harlow (Harlow Development Corporation, 1969)
Newens, Stan. The Genesis of Harlow New Town (Essex Journal, Spring 2008)
Sir Frederick Gibberd and His Garden (The Gibberd Garden Trust, 2004)

Head of Sir Frederick – Gerda Rubinstein.

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