Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Concise Townscape

When I was a teenager, bumbling around the local public library, I came across a book called The Concise Townscape, by Gordon Cullen (1914–1994). It caught my eye because of the title: I’d not heard of townscape before but imagined, rightly as it turned out, that it was like landscape, but urban rather than rural. I picked the book up and, somewhat to my surprise, I was captivated.

I’d forgotten about this encounter until a few months ago when I found an old copy of the book in a secondhand bookshop. Opening it, bells began to ring and old connections to be made and it began to dawn on me that this book had been highly influential on the way I look at the world around me. For one thing it was full of things that I still enjoy and find interesting, but which don’t always appear in architectural history books – there’s a double-page spread with illustrations of shops covered with old advertising signs, for example; photographs of seaside fences, steps, lettering, and cobbled street textures; drawings of shelters and different kinds of city square.

Most interesting of all are several groups of pictures (of Oxford, Ipswich, and Westminster) showing the changing view as a person walks along a street, under an archway, through a group of buildings. These sequences, representing what Cullen calls ‘serial vision’, show how the townscape unfolds as one walks, and how new buildings and vistas appear in a series of revelations. In other words that buildings relate to one another and that, when looking at a piece of townscape, it is at least as good to travel as to arrive.

I now realise, of course, that The Concise Townscape is a kind of textbook for urban designers and city planners, and one that must have been very successful. It still seems to be in print, though without the old cover of my secondhand copy, which represents what happens when ‘a victim of prairie planning traces out his public protest, the reminder of a properly concentrated town’. The protest-drawing (which is signed TGC, for Thomas Gordon Cullen) is packed with all kinds of things that I love and that this blog celebrates – a pub, a fish shop, a nonconformist chapel, a church, the hint of some steps leading to a hidden alley. Thank you, Gordon Cullen.


Sarah said...

It was one of my university textbooks - and one of the few I actually bought and kept. I read it alongside Kevin Lynch's "Image of the City" and Lionel Esher's "A Broken Wave".

Philip Wilkinson said...

That;s interesting – I'll look out for those other books, which are just names to me.

Another good thing about The Concise Townscape is that the text is very, well, concise, with whole topics summarized very briefly but informatively, often in one page or one double-page spread. This way of presenting information wasn't that common when Cullen first wrote his book, although it became standard in illustrated books in the later 1970s and 1980, as I found when I got my first job as an editor in the publishing business.