Grand designs for Welwyn Garden City

Sue Armstrong reveals the story behind Welwyn Garden City's distinctive style and explains why it remains such an inspiration to current designers

FIRST time visitors to Welwyn Garden City will quickly sense that there's something very special about this town, with its elegant red brick buildings and wide, tree-lined boulevards. Delving a little deeper, the story behind its distinctive style is fascinating. The town was born in 1920 from the visions of Sir Ebenezer Howard, the son of a London baker and confectioner. He wasn't a wealthy man and had no worldly advantages, but he was extraordinarily persuasive and determined. His dream was of a garden city that would combine the benefits of living in a town with those of living in the country, a town with open spaces, good design and architectural harmony. And with a lot of hard work and brave decisions, his dream became a reality. Sceptics thought Howard's idea to build another new town, in an isolated area of more than 3,000 acres, was reckless. Everything seemed stacked against its success. World War I had just ended, economic conditions were unstable and prices were high. But Howard was undeterred and the building of Welwyn Garden City began.With no local labour or accommodation, 200 workmen were brought in and a temporary camp of huts was constructed on what is now the Campus. Louis De Soissons was appointed as Welwyn Garden City's architect and town planner, with a brief to create a beautiful but industrially efficient town, socially acceptable to all classes.All the houses were to have both front and back gardens and the existing hedgerows and trees were to be conserved wherever possible. One of the chief aims was to take advantage of the main railway line and the area's road conditions. The finished plan was seen as a masterpiece with the design more or less in a circular form, with roads radiating out from two bridges in the middle. Even now, architects and town planners from around the world visit Welwyn Garden City to see the design. De Soissons was empowered with architectural control over this garden city for 42 years. Although many other architects have contributed to the town over time, the influence of his style is still echoed everywhere. Looking around today, the quiet roads and cul-de-sacs have the characteristic red brick houses and pavements bordered with generous grass verges and mature trees.Howard lived here himself, at 5 Gussens Road, from 1923 until he died in 1928. The graceful fountain and tended public gardens, with the countryside beyond, all add to the calm atmosphere in this garden city - unusual in a town with so many thriving industries and an extensive indoor and outdoor shopping centre.The outstanding designs of Louis De Soissons and the original ideals of Ebenezer Howard have been carefully respected over the years. The heritage of Welwyn Garden City is now in the hands of new generations and it is hoped they will be as determined to preserve it as their parents and grandparents have been.