Gordon Cullen’s Concise Townscape

Gordon Cullen's TownscapeThis is a wonderful description of the components that make cities and towns work, from a point of view that celebrates urban life rather than fears it.

It makes you realise just how much written about the city is a literature of fear. But Cullen seems to get the point, I think:

A city is more than the sum of its inhabitants. It has the power to generate a surplus of amenity, which is one reason why people like to live in communities rather than in isolation.

Now turn to the visual impact which a city has on those who live in it or visit it. I wish to show that an argument parallel to the one put forward above holds good for buildings: bring people together and they create a collective surplus of enjoyment; bring buildings together and collectively they can give visual pleasure which none can give separately. (7)

This is the city as collective enterprise, a collective that becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Like Capra’s theories of connection, a city is not just a collection of discrete things like streets and buildings, but rather embodies the art of relationship: how things fit together, the spaces created between them, how people use and live in buildings, but also move between them.

Gordon Cullen describes three primary ways in which our environment produces an emotional reaction key to the planner or architect:

I. Optics — how we see the environment: I love his description of serial vision — how the town reveals itself in ‘a series of jerks or revelations’, always negotiating the existing view and the emerging view. I love how he cinematically pieces the city together as we move through it, he writes:

Suppose, however, that we take over this linking as a branch of the art of relationship; then we are finding a tool with which human imagination can begin to mould the city into a coherent drama. (9)

II. Place – how we find and feel ourselves within the environment:

it is an instinctive and continuous habit of the body to relate itself to the environment, this sense of position cannot be ignored; it becomes a factor in the design of the environment…

it is easy to see how the whole city becomes a plastic experience, a journey through pressures and vacuums, a sequence of exposures and enclosures, of constraint and relief. (10)

And there is always a ‘here’, where you are, and a ‘there’, it is fascinating to think how we might shape these feelings, make people want to move and explore, fill them with wonder, excitement, peacefulness.

III. Content – ‘the fabric of towns: colour, texture, scale, style, character, personality and uniqueness.’ (11)

So much of this, of course, a direct response to Le Corbusier — who I am reading now, and only now realising just how he declared war on all of these ideas. Here is Gordon Cullen’s riposte, and plea for a new kind of design of spaces for life and living:

Statistics are abstracts: when they are plucked out of the completeness of life and converted into plans and the plans into buildings they will be lifeless. The result will be a three-dimensional diagram in which people are asked to live. In trying to colonize such a wasteland, to translate it from an environment for walking stomachs into a home for human beings, the difficulty lay in finding the point of application, in finding the gateway into the castle. We discovered three gateways, that of motion, that of position and that of content. By the exercise of vision it became apparent that motion was not one simple, measurable progression useful in planning, it was in fact two things, the Existing and the Revealed view. We discovered that the human being is constantly aware of his position in the environment, that he feels the need for a sense of place and that this sense of identity is coupled with an awareness of elsewhere. Conformity killed, whereas the agreement to differ gave life. In this way teh void of statistics, of the diagram city, has been split into two parts, whether they be those of Serial Vision, Here and There or This and That. All that remains is to join them together into a new pattern created by the warmth and power and vitality of human imagination so that we build the home of man. (12, New Delhi 1959)

What follows are wonderful sections collecting images and ideas around each of the three aspects.

Gordon Cullen's TownscapeOptics is brilliantly cinematic, trying to capture movement. Wonderful photographic montages show how a pedestrian moves through space, the changing views of the city, the changing feel of space, the momentary mysteries, the vistas, the partial and full closures, the gateways or walls that can frame infinity.

But the other two evoke a kind of poetry, a word invoking an idea, with pictures and text. My favourite words from the section on Place:

Possession: (and here he is talking about possession from a positive standpoint, a Lefebvrian standpoint where people creatively occupy space and make it their own through their daily lives) … Occupied territory, advantage, enclosure, focal point, indoor landscape, and so on, are all form of possession… (21)

here and there: The first category of relationships (pinpointing, change of level, vistas, narrows, closure, etc.) is concerned with the interplay between a known here and a known there. The second category will be concerned with a known here and an unknown there… (35)

Again this connects to narrative, to safety or excitement, to movement and adventure on the one hand, or a place that holds you, allows you to reflect or be at peace…

silhouette… By now we are all pretty conversant with the slab block building with its uncompromising roof line…whereas the tracery, the filigree, the openwork ridge capping all serve to net the sky, so that as the building soars up into the blue vault it also captures it and brings it down to the building. this capacity to net the sky is particularly rewarding in the fog and mists of England. (40)

I have been wandering the streets since then, staring up at buildings against the sky…

grandiose vista: …it links you, in the foreground at Versailles, to the remote landscape, thus producing a sense of power or omnipresence. (41)

In a sentence, what I hate about Versailles (and what have gone on and one about in ‘A Hatred of Gardens‘ and that little walk to Chatsworth. He continues with categories

handsome gesture, projection and recession, incident

fluctuation: … The typical town is not a pattern of streets but a sequence of spaces created by buildings.

undulation: Undulation is not just an aimless wiggly line; it is the compulsive departure from an unseen axis or norm, and its motive is delight in such proofs and essences of life as light and shade (the opposite of monochrome), or nearness and distance (the opposite of parallelism). (46)

Delight is exactly the word for this sentence and undulation itself

anticipation: We now turn to those aspects of here and there in which the here is known but the beyond is unknown, is infinite, mysterious, or is hidden inside a black maw. (49)

infinity: I love how he shows visually the difference between the sky and infinity, and how this sense is created through framing. I love how he values mystery.

the maw: Black, motionless and silent, like a great animal with infinite patience, the maw observes nonchalant people passing to and fro in the sunlight. This is the unknown which utter blackness creates. (52)

Amazing.

And then there is Content – he talks about a great levelling, changes in the city after WWII

This explosion resembles nothing so much as a disturbed ant-hill with brightly enamelled ants moving rapidly in all directions, toot-toot, pip-pip, hooray. (57)

More categories and text:

juxtaposition, immediacy

thisness: Here and throughout the next fourteen pages we try to establish the idea of typicality, of a thing being itself…That character may be rich and very variously expressed — secrecy, entanglement, exposure, illusion, even absence…(62)

intricacy: This quality is perhaps least understood (or the least demonstrated) in present day building, which seems to stop dead at the obvious, the slab block, the gridiron of curtain walling, the banality of pastel-shaded surfaces giggling down from the sky. But the quality of intricacy absorbs the eye. It is an extra dimension… (65)

I had to stop reading there and have a bit of a moment. Giggling down from the sky. My heart fluttered.

propriety, bluntness and vigour, entanglement, geometry, relationship

And then we are back in the more solid world of prose, but I learned something about the changes in post-war Britain and how much I take for granted now that perhaps I shouldn’t:

Town squares, once the preserve of privilege, have since the wartime salvage of railings become public spaces. (97)

One of the war’s advantages was that the removal of many kinds of not strictly essential fencing had something of the effect of the removal of restrictions; they opened out prospects of a more freely flowing world. (123)

I also love that he pays attention to the most basic thing of all — what he calls ‘the floor’. This is the space that belongs to all of us as residents of the city, in my own words it is all truly public space. So it needs paying attention to, especially the ways that cars and increasing traffic have transformed it and

severely restricted the right of free assembly. To congregate, to be able to stop and chat, to feel free out of doors may not seem very important compared to the pressing needs of transport, but it is one of the reasons people live in town and not by themselves — to enjoy the pleasure of being sociable. Whereas the distinction between in and out doors should be one of degree and kind, it has now become the difference between sanctuary and exposure.

From the visual standpoint the greatest single loss suffered is neutralization of the floor, the space between buildings, which has changed from a connecting surface to a dividing surface. (128)

This is, I think, another of those things we take for granted now, that we should not. This includes a devastating, rather hilarious critique of what he calls prairie towns. More planning issues I haven’t thought about enough, like street lighting — so much that I did not know!

Recent (post-war) installations in Great Britain are based on the principle of silhouette vision or surface brightness of the road. To imitate daylight — whereby the road surface and objects on it are seen three-dimensionally and in colour — being economically impossible the alternative is to use a lower intensity of light, to reflect light off the road surface evenly so that any object on it is seen as a silhouette which the eye can interpret as man, dog, car, hazard, etc. (144)

That made me ponder a bit about the cinematographic use of light, about noir, the use of light and shadow, I thought about the Third Man in particular, thought about our lights today which I think now do better at showing things three dimensionally.

There were some awesomely creative ideas for living more outdoors despite the English climate, domes, personal and otherwise. Doors that slide. Clear roofs and ways to enjoy being outside even in winter, I loved it. And two potential field trips to what he considers town planning that worked — Well Hall Estate in Eltham built in 1915 and Redgrave Road, Basildon built in 1953. I rather want to visit both.

And his final message:

Even if you lived in the prettiest of towns the message is still just as necessary: there is an art of environment. This is the central fact of TOWNSCAPE but it has got lost on the way…On the one hand it has devolved into cobbles and conservation, and on the other it has hived off into outrage and visual pollution. (193)

From what base do we set out? The only possibly base is to set down the ways in which the human being warms to his surroundings. To set down his affirmations. Not the grandiose views on Art or God or the Computer, but the normal affirmations about our own lives. It may help to observe human response to living itself. (194)

This joins the cannon I’ve been reading on what makes us love the places we live in, from Gehl to Appleyard to Whyte on planning public spaces to Yi-Fu Tuan’s Topophilia.

[Gordon Cullen (1961) The Concise Townscape. NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.]

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