Selected Texts by AOC
Selected Texts about AOC
Tom Coward
Geoff Shearcroft
My kind of town – The Thames Valley
Every town needs a good creation myth. On 15th June 1215 in a meadow in Runnymede, at the geographical centre of the Thames Valley, King John signed the Great Charter of Freedoms, Magna Carta. In formally agreeing that his kingly power was subject to the common law of the people, John (of Robin Hood infamy) laid the foundations for contemporary democracy and established the political aspirations for the archetypal democratic urban form of the 21st century. 800 years after this momentous moment in a meadow by the Thames, the 6,629 square miles of the Valley have evolved into a flourishing 'town of towns', providing a home for 13 million people.

For the first half of my life someone else chose the Valley as my home. For the second half I chose it myself. Personal choice is the driving force of the Valley. Choose to live in the 390,179 acres that make up its Greater London area and you get to share each acre with 20 other people. Choose to live outside this sprawl of villages and it's an acre each, Broadacre City writ large.

Choose the historical period you wish to live in, real or recreated, with contemporaneous values optional. You can live in a surviving Tudor townhouse, shop at a mock-Tudor Sainsbury's and drive to the out-of-town retail village on Saturday. Or live in a mock-Victorian townhouse, shop at a Victorian department store and walk to the food market in a warehouse on Sunday. A royal racing town, post-war new town, medieval market town and inner city village have provided a wide enough range of settings for me that I have rarely had to leave the Valley, whatever my changing needs. This diversity of densities, histories and experiences creates both a desire to move within its watery catchment area and a reluctance to leave.

Growing up in the Valley TV was a big influence on what I was told I wanted and that meant California. Everyday snapshots of Los Angeles and Hollywood's meta-narratives provided a constant stream of lifestyle aspirations from the Land of Opportunity. Saturday afternoons watching Knight Rider and CHiPs induced desires to endlessly cruise along smooth freeways beneath eternal sunshine. I remember few of the TV storylines, just the imaginary LA I mentally superimposed over just-detached executive homes as my friend and I cruised the estate, mimicking the Californian Highway Patrol on our bicycles. The continuing success of the Ferrari dealership in Runnymede suggests Valley boys continue to grow up chasing these sun-drenched dreams of mobility.

Yet when the TV is turned off a far more compelling world is waiting a short walk away. Surrounding the estate, out the back of the superstore, at the end of the track lies Arcadia, the English countryside in all its well-managed glory. Living in the Valley Tolkien's Shire and the animal inhabited world of Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows do not seem fantastical, merely a slightly extravagated version of weekends and summer holidays; messing about in boats on the Thames at Cookham, strolling through the bluebells at Bisham Woods, pootling around Mapledurham (the inspiration for Toad Hall) and making camps in the woods at Virginia Water. To live in the Valley is to live near Arcadia, distinctly different to the suburban promise of nearly living in Arcadia. Proximity to nature delivers a heterogeneity that is infinitely preferable to the monotony of compromised immersion.

J.G.Ballard was the Valley's twentieth century bard, and much of his work explores the confluence of Arcadia and Californication. 'Concrete Jungle' or 'Crash' may seem extreme and unlikely to the casual reader but for those of us who enjoyed Friday nights in the Tesco car park at Martins Heron, with three litres of Strongbow Super and mum's Fiesta, it seems remarkably familiar.

This public loitering is part of an honourable democratic tradition. Hundreds of years before Magna Carta, Runnymede had hosted open-air meetings of the Anglo Saxon Council Of Kings. Debating outdoors, sipping mead, surrounded by non-descript vernacular buildings, seems to have caught on. Civic life in the Valley today continues this tradition, occupying the multivalent park rather than the prescribed piazza. In car parks and business parks, village greens and office villages, under town halls and round the back of malls, public life occurs almost in spite of the buildings and their designers' polite intentions.

Revisiting memories of my Valley life the myths and media seem to dominate over memories of actual places or buildings. Is this because the places are of such limited merit that the imagination was a more enjoyable place to remember? Possibly. Like most towns the Valley has its bleak points, and these inevitably occur when the built landscape is at its most monotonous. Yet the eclecticism of this 215 mile long town, its diversity of history, type, density and form, offer the opportunity for everyone to find a place that accommodates both their practical needs and their aspirations and dreams.

Geoff Shearcroft is a founding director of AOC and teaches a design studio at London Metropolitan University.
Published by Geoff Shearcroft
Architecture Today
September, 2009