The Planner : Book Review

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In fiction, architects are usually heroic figures – think of Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, played by Gary Cooper in the film; Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) in Towering Inferno; and Will Francis (Jude Law) in Breaking and Entering.

True, some are seriously flawed heroes, such as Seth Pecksniff in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, and the character of David in Michael Frayn’s play, Benefactors, who wants to replace Victorian terraces with tower blocks (it is set in 1968).

But since when was a town planner depicted as the main character and driver of a plot? Stuck for an answer, I consulted Rob Cowan, compiler of The Dictionary of Urbanism (Streetwise Press, 2005), a unique, and excellent, guide to such matters. He came up with We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, a Soviet author who only managed to circulate samizdat copies before it was translated into English and published in the US in 1924.

Cowan reports: “It portrays a planners’ utopia where workers live in glass houses, have numbers rather than names, wear identical uniforms, eat chemical food and enjoy rationed sex. They are ruled by a planner called the Benefactor…” Coincidence? Or was the book known to Frayn?

In Tom Campbell’s The Planner, there are some overlaps. Young town planner James Crawley also enjoys rationed sex, but for chemical food read mind-altering recreational drugs. He leads a humdrum life working for the planning department of Southwark Council, is good at his job, but needs to get out more. The storyline is really a rite of passage (night clubs, football matches, strip clubs, visual arts shows) and the price of getting a life, outside of work, also proves to be a high one.

Boredom and frustration raise their heads: his commitment is admirable but for the most part his output is worthy and dull. He envies friends he does not like, working in the private sector for capitalism (a dirty word) and self-interest, if not outright greed. Some earn three-times as much as his meagre salary. Although still in his early thirties, he realises that mentally he is already middle-aged. When he tastes the forbidden fruit, the viper (which takes different forms) is ready to claim him. The real world proves very different from the idealised version depicted in posters of his master-plan.

There are some shrewd observations and great pieces of dialogue, set against the backdrop of The London Plan, now succeeded by Mayor Boris Johnson’s 2011 spatial development strategy. Architects, engineers, developers are natural adversaries, in fact anybody who is trying to get things done, and he is almost duty-bound to stop them all in their tracks.

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is a foreign land to him – rarely visited and to be admired and copied from afar, its demographic profile of wealthy, educated, culturally-engaged citizens, unlikely to succumb to dangerous drivers, muggers or murderers.

Let’s face it: our conscientious Mr Crawley in Southwark is never going to be able to reshape Paris, like Baron Haussmann, or come up with a millennial plan for rebuilding Berlin, like Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer. The trouble is, he simply cares too much – but the wicked world does not care about him.

By James Pallas

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