North West Valley Park
COMMUNITY, PLACE AND IDENTITY IN 21ST CENTURY SUBURBIA
A MARRIAGE OF ARCADIAN LANDSCAPE, TECHNOLOGY AND TRADITION IS THE INSPIRATION BEHIND A CONCEPT MASTERPLAN FOR 800 NEW HOMES IN DIDCOT, OXFORDSHIRE
Didcot was crowned the winner in a 2017 survey “The most normal town in England”. It is the first existing town to get Garden Town status and funding from the Government.
Our 33 hectare (82 acres) site lies on the western edge of the town, near the new residential development of Great Western Park.
Romantic ideas of the countryside and picturesque town planning principles can be seen in the work of John Nash through to the Garden Town movement at the start of the twentieth century. In the 1950s, writers like Nikolaus Pevsner gave ideas about “Townscape” cultural validity by comparing it to the 18th-century picturesque landscape movement, emphasising its very Englishness. North West Valley Park allows people to benefit by being within walking distance of the town centre yet feel like they are living in a rural environment. Small-scale homes nestle along small winding lanes with thick lush planting and represents an Arcadian ideal.
Within this framework, the masterplan is an attempt to create a more sustainable form of suburban development by increasing the intensity of dwellings – pushing the limits of low rise living, whilst keeping the essential benefits of a suburban lifestyle and exploring the complex question of local distinctiveness in the 21st century.
Our client felt strongly that the countryside should be protected, and development is on the basis that all grade 3A agricultural quality land will be preserved. This determines where the public space and homes can be located but also reveals the underlying quality of land – making the invisible, visible.
The next idea is to extend two routes from the existing farm across the site and to the higher ground – suggesting a location for a new visible landmark for the area and establishing a connection back to the historic Wittenham Clumps in the far distance. Roads follow site contours down the slope and create a curved grid of flexible development blocks leading down to a primary school at the bottom of the site.
The massing and grouping of buildings respond to the site topography. The aim is to have a variety of scales and types of dwellings and to use blocks of grand terraces to form strongly defined public spaces. A large crescent-shaped building (the same size as the Royal Crescent in Bath) terminates the view as the land slowly flattens and widens out at the bottom of the site and four storey high terraces step up the hill to help contain the fan-shaped primary open space. The idea is that you might read the landscape in the varied rooflines of each block–so the buildings themselves become a sort of built topography.
The railways that drove the expansion of Didcot and created a strong sense of identity in the late 19th century also allowed building materials to be transported from all over the country, breaking the direct, physical, natural, intimate relationship between landscape and building. Arts and crafts architects attempted to visually re-establish the bond between architecture and landscape. They promoted the idea of a simple rural life, surrounded by nature. “Science Vale” is an opportunity to develop a new version of an arts and crafts garden town and unite science, technology, craft and contemporary society.
William Morris thought it was the craftsman’s skills that needed protection, but the more critical aspect for a craftsman is being able to retain control at the point of production. Some of the high-tech business in Science Vale will be invited to be involved in construction as a way of reintroducing the idea of high-quality craftsmanship by incorporating hand-built products with just a little assistance from robots. Using a combination of factory and hand-built construction we can exploit the benefits of mass-produced customisation to give house buyers a large variety of choice of homes.
The village will be built in small stages so that rapid changes in technology can be accommodated as the project grows to create a “self-learning” and sustainable community, aiding social interaction and developing physical and spatial relationships that will help shape the area’s identity in the 21st century.