Canned designs: Cars on roofs in Staines


Urban planning is full of 'what ifs': designs for future cities that never materialised. In the third of a series, Christopher Beanland revisits plans in the home counties for sky-high motorways 

5th January 2016
3D visualisation by Playdead, from the BBC series Unbuilt Britain

After World War II ended, Britain was in many ways a highly progressive country where nothing was deemed to be out of reach. From 1946, entire new towns were designated, and by 1959 many were well on the way to being completed – places like Stevenage, Harlow, Crawley, Peterlee, Basildon, Bracknell and Welwyn Garden City.

Geoffrey Jellicoe, architect and town planner, had masterplanned one of these new towns, Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire – though only portions of his plans there were eventually acted on. But as the 60s were about to begin, Jellicoe had an even more bonkers scheme for a new town up his sleeve: Motopia.

This ruse had been funded by the (wait for it) Glass Age Development Committee, which claimed to be pushing for futuristic building techniques yet was funded by (wait for it) Pilkington Glass, and was essentially set up to try and flog as many panes of the transparent stuff as they possibly could by getting architects to draw up plans which required glass. Lots of it.

Jellicoe, a mild-mannered sort, had come up with a city made out of one giant 10-storey high superblock running in up-and-down rows like a noughts and crosses grid. The walls would (naturally) be clad in glass. But the real shocker here was putting the roads on the roof. Ramps at the ends of the blocks would raise traffic from ground level, then it would circulate around Motopia on motorways in the sky. God forbid if your bedroom was a few feet beneath the carriageway.

Ramps at the ends of the blocks would raise traffic from ground level, then it would circulate around Motopia on motorways in the sky

But we're splitting hairs. In the 60s anything would be possible! As this Pathé news report breathlessly states, "The ceilings of flats below would be insulated against traffic noise". Well that's that then, nothing to worry about.

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Further plans show cars descending spiral ramps at the roundabouts where the axes meet and parking at car parks within the structure of the building. Considering the huge amount of pollution all these knackered Morris Oxfords and Ford Anglias would have kicked out into the air (remember this is the era before emissions standards), it's perhaps surprising to note that Jellicoe was more known for his bucolic garden designs than his town planning per se, and indeed the imaginary landscaping of Motopia looks lush and verdant.

Jellicoe was adamant that the whole idea was about giving people the freedom to enjoy nature and banishing cars away from the ground. Although it sounds like a bizarre idea, land near Staines in Middlesex, south west of London, was identified and there appears to have been some will to build Motopia at an adventurous time for town planning.

However, it's apt that Motopia would have been within spitting distance of the great modernist laureate JG Ballard's house at Shepperton. You can imagine Ballard thrilling at Motopia, if it was ever built – before immediately devising some kind of catastrophic situation for a future novel involving cars crashing off roofs and inhabitants driven crackers by the noise of a motorway a few feet above their heads.

More in this series
Canned designs: Berlin's paths not taken
Canned designs: rip it up and start again in Paris
Canned designs: Manhattan's doomed domed city
Canned designs: Two sides of Glasgow
Canned designs: Tokyo's floating city


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