In his contribution to Non-Plan: Essays on Freedom, Participation and Change in Modern Architecture, Chinedu Umenyilora explores the promise and feasibility of “self-build” – the policy allowing people in developing countries to construct their own homes, closing with a remark that encapsulates much of Non-Plan’s approach, “There is uncertainty as to whether one can effectively design good communities, but we can assist and enable communities to design themselves.” (221) Umenyilora underscores much of the Non-Plan movement’s intentions while acknowledging its faults.
Emerging in the mid-late 1960s through the journal New Society (“a weekly magazine of social inquiry” established in 1962), writers such as Peter Hall, Paul Barker, Reyner Banham, Cedric Price among others put forth an iconic issue known as Non-Plan. Provoking outrage and indignation among urban planners and architects, Non-Plan dismissed centralized urban planning as beset with damaging consequences. What the field claimed to be innovations were really repacked plans from earlier decades and centuries, “The point is to realize how little planning the accompanying architecture have changed. The whole ethos is doctrinaire; and if something good emerges it is a bit of a bonus.” Instead, the writers advocated a free wheeling development dictated by local communities rejecting the values or intentions of planners, “physical planners have no right to set their value judgment up against yours, or indeed anyone else’s. If the Non Plan experiment works really well, people should be allowed to build what they like.” (from the original New Society issue 20 March 1969, 443) . Agency for communities and individuals from the state emerged as one the movement’s central tenets, establishing what Peter Hall called participatory architecture. Non-Plan allowed for freedom but offset such liberties with a cost, “The balance of costs and benefits to the individual is not the same as to the community. If there are social costs, the people who are responsible pay them. If low density development is expensive to the community, the reaction should be to make it proportionately expensive to those who live in it; not to stop it.” (443) Reacting to centralized urban planning, Non-Plan practitioners demanded greater community involvement encouraging the architectural profession to change its ways, becoming as much facilitators as designers. Social engineering through architecture and planning emerged as anathema to Non-Planners who refuted such efforts arguing “architectural schemes associated with Modernism, and which were designed to resolve social problems exacerbated them.” (32)
Of course, as several contributors to this collection of essays notes, Non-Plan, though perceived as a fundamentally centre-left enterprise at the time, has been appropriated by conservative forces pressing market based deregulated development and the like. Though critical of the urban planning and architectural professions, Non-Plan failed to consider the strength of capitalist economies to dictate development and building standards. Ben Franks addresses this subject in his essay “New Right/New Left” arguing that the late development of a formal New Right movement allowed many future conservatives to remain tied to a broad New Left that was beginning to fragment. Thus, Franks concludes, “Non-Plan has much more in common with the New Right then the New Left, and shares many key characteristics with Friedrich Hayek, a writer who is not only unequivocally of the New Right, but is regarded by both the new Right and their opponents as exemplifying their creed.” The rise of squatting illustrated the more conservative elements of the Non-Plan approach, “Social divisions and hierarchies were rejected by the squatters but not by the planners (who wanted to save their professional role) or the Non-Planners (who wanted to keep the division between those who build and the consumer who will use the building). The division of labour and primacy of the individual as consumer was also maintained by Hayek.” (41) Other contributors such as Clara Greed suggest, even Non-Plan reified binaries such as man/women and plan and non-plan, clouding alternative approaches with false frameworks or ways of thinking about planning. Simon Sandler acknowledges the nominal impact Non-Plan has had on construction practices but does note its influence on more avant-garde planning and architectural approaches, “The impact of ‘non-planning’ upon a mainstream construction in the 1960s, as era of high rises and city centre reconstruction, was marginal at best. But in experimental work, non-planning was played out upon the printed page and in the studio with a fervency unmatched before or since, spurred on by the social and cultural debates about the nature of freedom that characterized the period.” Ultimately, Sadler applauds Non-Planner efforts to undermine fixity and monumentalism, but he laments its inability to transcend the academic, “the relationship between architecture and event became in turn reified. Non-planning’s ambition to create ‘event spaces’ and new types of living was sincere, but its legacy was very largely one of tremendous images, representations and simulations of architecture as a process.” In fact, Sadler labels Non-plan an extreme expression of “modernism’s ‘openness’” as it placed overwhelming faith in “a slightly fantastical imagining of contemporary society as one of the exponential economic growth, liberalization, and technical innovation … “ while attempting “to make architecture seem relevant by subjecting it to the vicissitudes of the moment rather than the solid ground of Gestalt …. “ (154)
Johnathan Hughes comes to similar conclusions in his evaluation of architectural practices and concerns following Non-Plan’s emergence. Though acknowledging increased attentions by architects to alternative solutions and to promoting agency for the public, the responses to “Non-Plan” were often “contradictory and occasionally ineffectual … although developers and the State have ultimately ceded little power to the public: the power brokers and professionals have listened, if not always talked, to the public.” (166) Critical of the urbanism built on automobility promoted by Banham (Los Angeles: The Architecture of the Four Ecologies) and the authors of Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of the Architectural Form ( Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour), Hughes argues “it was urbanism for those with mobility and the resources to consume.” (175) Hughes points out that “Non-Plan’s” “leave cities alone” approach found allies in the Thatcher government who put “laissez faire ‘enterprise zones’” into practice. Of which Hughes documents the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) which from 1980 on resulted in testimony to the failures of free market non planning efficiency as the area resembles an ugly melding of architectural styles built on short term self interest. Moreover, in an American context this “hands of urban areas” meshed well with shrinking federal aid to American metropolitan regions. [note: the book really focuses primarily on England’s example though there are chapters such as one on Buckminster Fuller (which discusses the cleavage between his ideas and followers who consisted of tied died hippies and crew cut military leaders) which might apply to the American scene]
Non- Plan: Essays on Freedom Participation and Change in Modern Architecture and Urbanism re-evaluates the controversial Non-Plan movement of the 1960s. Though the movement’s intentions lay in promoting agency, freedom, and a participatory architecture in the face of an overbearing state backed urban planning system, its libertarian impulses found themselves appropriated by conservative forces. Its impact on more experimental forms, representations, and simulations remained more prominent than its tangible results in construction, though it at least helped to encourage developers and planners to consider alternative approaches and to listen more attentively even if not devolving much power to the public. Non-Plans critics suggest, its largest failures as movement reside in its naïve optimism regarding economic expansion, faith in technocratic leadership, and unconscious acceptance of capitalist market based norms. As the opening quote suggests, Non-Plan placed faith in the individual and the community to plan their own development but its own libertarian approach encouraged capital flow dominance and conservative appropriation, which may or may not have served the very interest Non-Plan hoped to promote.