Raymond Unwin

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Sir Raymond Unwin (1863-1940) was a British architect and planner, who, with Ebenezer Howard, was responsible for popularising Garden City developments worldwide and who helped shape the built environment of the United Kingdom for much of the twentieth century.

Early life

Born in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, Unwin became an engineer for the Staveley Iron and Coal Company in Derbyshire, where he was responsible, among other things, for constructing miners' housing. Inclined towards Christian Socialism, he came under the influence of John Ruskin and William Morris, and also the early utopian socialist Edward Carpenter, visiting him the utopian community Carpenter had founded near Sheffield. In 1893 his marriage brought him into close contact with Barry Parker - the two men married sisters - and they set up an architectural practice together. Their 1901 book, The Art of Building a Home, gained them the attention of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The following year, Unwin and Parker were commissioned to design a model village at New Earswick, near York, for the Quaker Rowntree family, philanthropic chocolate manufacturers in the city. This created a stir, not only for the quality of the workers' housing provided, but for the innovative layout of the estate, with curved streets, much tree-planting, and a low density of development.

The Garden City

In 1903 Unwin and Parker were selected to lay out the site of the First Garden City at Letchworth, Hertfordshire, along the lines recommended by Ebenezer Howard, the settlement's founder. In 1905 they became planners of Hampstead Garden Suburb, on what was then the northern edge of London, and a development at odds with Howard's beliefs that large cities should not be encouraged to expand further. In fact, Unwin's principles, which postulated a low density of housing, at twelve dwellings to the acre, were to lead to an unprecedented expansion of London and other British cities in the first half of the twentieth century.

'Twelve to the Acre'

These principles were enshrined in an influential pamphlet by Unwin entitled 'Nothing to be Gained from Overcrowding', and he was shortly to be in a position to make them official policy. In 1914 he joined the civil service and in 1915 became chief planner to the Ministry of Munitions, where he was able to influence the design of several housing developments builtto house armaments workers and himself designed the townships of Gretna and Eastriggs in Dumfriesshire, south-western Scotland. In 1917-18 he was a member of the Tudor Walters Committee which made recommendations on future housing policy, and in 1918 became Chief Architect at the new Ministry of Health, which had responsibility for housing issues. The Design Guide which he wrote for the MoH laid down rules for municipal housing based on his 'twelve to the acre' rule of thumb, and private developers (who weren't bound by these rules) felt that their estates, designed for the growing middle classes, could not appear to be more cramped than the municipal estates built for rehousing the working classes and slum-dwellers. Thus Unwin's beliefs led to a huge expansion of low-density suburbia in the period between the First and Second World Wars.