W. Edwards Ltd built the Allen’s Cross estate for Birmingham Corporation in the early 1930s. This photograph was commissioned from Midland Air Services and it shows the brand new estate as an island in a sea of rolling countryside. Whilst serving as an advertisement for Edwards’ work and promoting the achievement of Birmingham’s housing policy, the photograph also raises issues of suburban despoliation of the countryside and of the isolation of decanted townspeople.
Allen’s Cross was part of a major construction programme, intended to ease Birmingham’s chronic housing problems. The aerial perspective shows key features of inter-war municipal design: geometric street patterns, private gardens and public open spaces.
An aesthetic imperative for the street pattern was to avoid the rigid monotony of terraced streets. Practical benefits included the reduction of through traffic, with community bonds being encouraged within closely defined areas. Gardens and open spaces reflected the desire to provide tenants with space, light and air which were lacking in inner city areas.
These perceived benefits can be contrasted with contemporary fears about suburbanisation, including destruction of the rural landscape and the social costs of displacing residents without due provision for their practical and communal needs. Transport, retail and ‘civic’ infrastructure were often not provided until much later and the sense of community developed over generations in the central districts was not easily replicated in the new estates, at least in the short term.
This photograph illustrates these issues well, but ironically it is only partially useful for Allen’s Cross itself. In common with commercial photographic practice at the time, the item being promoted is highlighted over the surrounding ‘visual clutter’. The bright, raw texture of roads and houses have been ‘encouraged’ to dominate the surrounding landscape. This tonal adjustment is reinforced by the actual framing of the photograph. Whilst the west facing prospect presents rolling countryside, neighbouring suburban developments along the Bristol Road Tramway are not shown, which would have reduced the impression of the estate’s isolation.
Also just out of view are Frankley and Bartley reservoirs. The land between these and Allen’s Cross belongs to Birmingham Water Supply Department and is reserved for future expansion of waterworks and to prevent residential contamination of the water supply. Lying just to the south of the estate is North Worcestershire Golf Course. Both of these types of land use reflect suburban infrastructure rather than a traditional rural model.
This photograph therefore represents a fascinating, but partial record of Allen’s Cross and its position in the inter-war landscape.
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