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The 1959 Civic Scheme and its Relevance Today. Holly Sandiford.


Bass-filled reggae at The Regency nightclub, grunge and indie music at Fat Pauly’s snooker club in the 1990s and bargain shopping in QDs and Miahs International food shop for my young family in the 2000s. Magdalen Street is a hive of individual and collective memories, my own included. Taking part in this project has made me appreciate its rich history and architectural gems as well as its importance to north city folk, many of whom seldom travel over the river to the city centre.

I researched the 1959 Civic Trust[1] scheme in which Magdalen street was given a makeover, an experiment which was then replicated in other towns and cities and generally considered a great success. You can still see clues evident today; street lamps bracketed to buildings as opposed to freestanding on paths, the original aim being to reduce road casualties and strip away what it called ‘unnecessary clutter’ e.g. advertising and road signs, fascias, and cables. The Civic Trust saw the potential of the area and decided to bring out its original character rather than replace it. I find this an interesting decision in a time of rapid post-war reform and regeneration and modernist architecture. The ethos of making the best of and appreciating what is already there and reigniting shoppers love affair with the street. The owner of Howard and Son fish shop said about the completed scheme ‘What is most notable is the average person tends to glance upwards instead of carrying on the street.’ 

Shop fronts were stripped of (what was then considered) clutter and painted in pastel shades from a palette of 18 colours and 13 alphabet fonts were selected for signage by the architect, Misha Black. His slogan for the scheme was ‘If in doubt, throw it out’. He was well regarded and also the coordinating architect for The Festival of Britain. Overall the response from shopkeepers, the press and public was positive. This extract from the Evening News supplement (May 8th, 1959) is scathing about shopkeepers and owners that didn’t want(or could afford[2]) to take part  ‘While the few businesses which have been unable to co-operate will now have cause for regret. One chain store in particular looks like a bad tooth in a healthy mouth.’ It doesn’t tell us which shop this is though!

There are echoes of gentrification  in the 1959 scheme with its limited colour palette and restricted fonts used for signage  ‘the signs which gave the buildings much of their charm have been vacuum-cleaned away in the interests of tidiness.[3]Architectural critic of the time Ian Nairn wrote that ‘the pastels were “cruelly out of touch with the local colour-range, and after five years it looks as jaded as last year’s fashion.”

The 1959 scheme was more than just a makeover though, the buildings and yards were assiduously restored which must have helped prolong their life. The street was also made safer, lighter and more accessible; Magdalen street was well known for its high number of traffic accidents. The scheme showed a vision for how the built environment can enhance community and how heritage can be nurtured and preserved. This makes the decision to run the inner ring road straight through Magdalen street, just a few years later, even more bizarre. The loss of the ‘Dolls Hospital’ which stood where the flyover is now, was a particular loss, based in a 17th Century timber building and ingrained in the childhood memories of many older Norwich women. It is frustrating that the newly proposed development threatens this again. The dazzle of outside investment and development seems to have blinded the council into being able to see how this will adversely affect the area. It feels as if the mistakes of the past have paved the way for further insensitive and damaging investment. I am hoping that history doesn’t repeat itself and that community and heritage are at the core of any new design.

Norwich’s 1945 City Plan is still relevant today and that the 1959 scheme was, unlike current plans, much in line with its ethos ‘It has a number of attractive 17th and 18th-century buildings, some of them suffering from neglect and others from the bad restoration. In spite of recent neglect, bad new buildings and also war damage, this street is so important to the general character of Norwich, and in particular to the quality and appearance of the north side of the city, that the authors feel every effort should be made to preserve it and to control restoration and development’.

The Trust worked in co-operation with the council and 80 shopkeepers and tenants in the street and the scheme led to the reformation of The Magdalen Street and District Traders Association. Mr. Cross, chairman of the association said at the time ‘It has been well worthwhile and has bought publicity to the street that we have never had before. In my opinion, Magdalen Street was, perhaps a trifle unfair to say a dying street, but decaying and this scheme has stopped that decay and we are now making progress’. The Magdalen Street Traders Association (MATA), which was set up in 2015 is its current incarnation, an indication of a strong sense of community which continues.

The streets independant character also comes from the architecture, antique, vintage, international shops and cafes and the north Norwich folk for whom it is the centre of community. Magdalen Street has gone through cycles of disrepair and regeneration but it is now a thriving and unique street, just about holding back the gentrification creeping towards it. The success of the 1959 scheme was to acknowledge and build on this individuality. Let’s hope that we get a more imaginative and individual redevelopment which takes this into account in the near future.

It will be seen that Magdalen street cannot be ignored for it is the way to the Broads and holidays and happy days. It is a busy, bustling shopping centre of people, prams and bicycles. It has the worst accident rate and the best place in the affections of Norwich Folk’ Eastern Evening News supplement ‘Street of history and pageantry’ May 8th 1959.

[1] The Civic Trust was founded in 1957 by Mr Duncan Sandys (the then minister of housing and local government). It was an unofficial body whose funding initially came from leading industrial firms, it claimed to be independent of these. The object was to improve the standards of design throughout Britain. One of Norwich’s MPs happened to be Duncan Sandy’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, Geoffrey Rippon.

[2] The cost to Property owners and occupiers was £5000(divided accordingly by how much work was done).

[3]  From ‘Monuments to 25 Years of Muddle’ by Deyan Sudjic. Published in the Sunday Times Magazine, April 25th, 1982.

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