© 2013 Diana

Cullen – The Concise Townscape (1961)


There are advantages to be gained from the gathering together of people to form a town. A single family living in the country can scarcely hope to drop into a theatre, have a meal out or browse in a library, whereas the same family living in a town can enjoy these amenities. The little money that one family can afford is multiplied by thousands and so a collective amenity is made possible. 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. One building standing alone in the countryside is experienced as a work of architecture, but bring half a dozen buildings together and an art other than architecture is made possible. Several things begin to happen in the group which would be impossible for the isolated building. We may walk through and past the buildings, and as a corner is turned an unsuspected building is suddenly revealed. We may be surprised, even astonished (a reaction generated by the composition of the group and not by the individual building). Again, suppose that the buildings have been put together in a group so that one can get inside the group, then the space created between the buildings is seen to have a life of its own over and above the buildings which create it and one’s reaction is to say ‘I am inside IT’ or ‘I am entering IT’. Note also that in this group of half a dozen buildings there may be one which through reason of function does not conform. It may be a bank, a temple or a church amongst houses. Suppose that we are just looking at the temple by itself, it would stand in front of us and all its qualities, size, colour and intricacy, would be evident. But put the temple back amongst the small houses and immediately its size is made more real and more obvious by the comparison between the two scales. Instead of being a big temple it TOWERS. The difference in meaning between bigness and towering is the measure of the relationship.

In fact there is an art of relationship just as there is an art of architecture. Its purpose is to take all the elements that go to create the environment: buildings, trees, nature, water, traffic, advertisements and so on, and to weave them together in such a way that drama is released. For a city is a dramatic event in the environment. Look at the research that is put into making a city work: demographers, sociologists, engineers, traffic experts; all co-operating to torm the myriad factors into a workable, viable and healthy organization. It is a tremendous human undertaking.

And yet … if at the end of it all the city appears dull, uninteresting and soulless, then it is not fulfilling itself. It has failed. The fire has been laid but nobody has put a match to it.

Firstly we have to rid ourselves of the thought that the excitement and drama that we seek can be born automatically out of the scientific research and solutions arrived at by the technical man (or the technical half of the brain). We naturally accept these solutions, but are not entirely bound by them. In fact we cannot be entirely bound by them because the scientific solution is based on the best that can be made of the average: of averages of human behavior, averages of weather, factors of safety an”: so on. And these averages do not give an inevitable result for any particular problem. They are, so to speak, wandering facts which may synchronize or, just as likely, may conflict with each other. The upshot is that a town could take one of several patterns and still operate with success, equal success. Here then we discover a pliability in the scientific solution and it is precisely in the manipulation of this pliability that the art of relationship is made possible. As will be seen, the aim is not to dictate the shape of the town or environment, but is a modest one: simply to manipulate within the tolerances.

This means that we can get no further help from the scientific attitude and that we must therefore turn to other values and other standards.

We turn to the faculty of sight, for it is almost entirely through vision that the environment is apprehended. If someone knocks at your door and you open it to let him in, it sometimes happens that a gust of wind comes in too, sweeping round the room, blowing the curtains and making a great fuss. Vision is somewhat the same; we often get more than we bargained for. Glance at the clock to see the time and you see the wallpaper, the clock’s carved brown mahogany frame, the fly crawling over the glass and the delicate rapier-like pointers. Cezanne might have made a painting of it. In fact, of course, vision is not only useful but it evokes our memories and experiences, those responsive emotions inside us which have the power to disturb the mind when aroused. It is this unlooked- for surplus that we are dealing with, for clearly if the environment is going to produce an emotional reaction, with or without our volition, it is up to us to try to understand the three ways in which this happens.

1. Concerning OPTICS. Let us suppose that we are walking through a town: here is a straight road off which is a courtyard, at the far side of which another street leads out and bends slightly before reaching a monument. Not very unusual. We take this path and our first view is that of the street. Upon turning into the courtyard the new view is revealed instantaneously at the point of turning, and this view remains with us whilst we walk across the courtyard. Leaving the courtyard we enter the further street. Again a new view is suddenly revealed although we are travelling at a uniform speed. Finally as the road bends the monument swings into view. The significance of all this is that although the pedestrian walks through the town at a uniform speed, the scenery of towns is often revealed in a series of jerks or revelations. This we call SERIAL VISION.

Examine what this means. Our original aim is to manipulate the elements of the town so that an impact on the emotions is achieved. A long straight road has little impact because the initial view is soon digested and becomes monotonous. The human mind reacts to a contrast, to the difference between things, and when two pictures (the street and the courtyard) are in the mind at the same time, a vivid contrast is felt and the town becomes visible in a deeper sense. It comes alive through the drama of juxtaposition. Unless this happens the town will slip past us featureless and inert. There is a further observation to be made concerning Serial Vision. Although from a scientific or commercial point of view the town may be a unity, from our optical viewpoint we have split it into two elements: the existing view and the emerging view. In the normal way this is an accidental chain of events and whatever significance may arise out of the linking of views will be fortuitous. 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. The process of manipulation has begun to turn the blind facts into a taut emotional situation.

2. Concerning PLACE. This second point is concerned with our reactions to the position of our body in its environment. This is as simple as it appears to be. It means, for instance, that when you go into a room you utter to yourself the unspoken words ‘I am outside IT, I am entering IT, I am in the middle of IT’ . At this level of consciousness we are dealing with a range of experience stemming from the major impacts of exposure and enclosure (which if taken to their morbid extremes result in the¬†symptoms of agoraphobia and claustrophobia). Place a man on the edge of a 500-ft. cliff and he will have a very lively sense of position, put him at the end of a deep cave and he will react to the fact of enclosure.

Since 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 (just as an additional source of light must be reckoned with by a photographer, however annoying it may be). I would go further and say that it should be exploited.

Here is an example. Suppose you are visiting one of the hill towns in the south of France. You climb laboriously up the winding road and eventually find yourself in a tiny village street at the summit. You feel thirsty and go to a nearby restaurant, your drink is served to you on a veranda and as you go out to it you find to your exhilaration or horror that the veranda is cantilevered out over a thousand-foot drop. By this device of the containment (street) and the revelation (cantilever) the fact of height is dramatized and made real.

In a town we do not normally have such a dramatic situation to manipulate but the principle still holds good. There is, for instance, a typical emotional reaction to being below the general ground level and there is another resulting from being above it. There is a reaction to being hemmed in as in a tunnel and another to the wideness of the square. If, therefore, we design our towns from the point of view of the moving person (pedestrian or car-borne) 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.

Arising out of this sense of identity or sympathy with the environment, this feeling of a person in street or square that he is in IT or entering IT or leaving IT, we discover that no sooner do we postulate a HERE than automatically we must create a THERE, for you cannot have one without the other. Some of the greatest towns cape effects are created by a skillful relationship between the two, and I will name an example in India, where this introduction is being written: the approach from the Central Vista to the Rashtrapathi Bhawan(1) in New Delhi. There is an open-ended courtyard composed of the two Secretariat buildings and, at the end, the Rashtrapathi Bhawan. All this is raised above normal ground level and the approach is by a ramp. At the top of the ramp and in front of the axis building is a tall screen of railings. This is the setting. Travelling through it from the Central Vista we see the two Secretariats in full, but the Rashtrapathi Bhawan is partially hidden by the ramp; only its upper part is visible. This effect of truncation serves to isolate and make remote. The building is withheld. We are Here and it is There. As we climb the ramp the Rashtrapathi Bhawan is gradually revealed, the mystery culminates in fulfilment as it becomes immediate to us, standing on the same floor. But at this point the railing, the wrought iron screen, is inserted; which again creates a form of Here and There by means of the screened vista. A brilliant, if painfully conceived, sequence (2) (illustration, page 20).

3. Concerning CONTENT. In this last category we turn to an examination of the fabric of towns: colour, texture, scale, style, character, personality and uniqueness. Accepting the fact that most towns are of old foundation, their fabric will show evidence of differing periods in its architectural styles and also in the various accidents of layout. Many towns do so display this mixture of styles, materials and scales.

Yet there exists at the back of our minds a feeling that could we only start again we would get rid of this hotchpotch and make all new and fine and perfect. We would create an orderly scene with straight roads and with buildings that conformed in height and style. Given a free hand that is what we might do … create symmetry, balance, perfection and conformity. After all, that is the popular conception of the purpose of town planning.

But what is this conformity? Let us approach it by a simile. Let us suppose a party in a private house, where are gathered together half a dozen people who are strangers to each other. The early part of the evening is passed in polite conversation on general subjects such as the weather and the current news. Cigarettes are passed and lights offered punctiliously. In fact it is all an exhibition of manners, of how one ought to behave. It is also very boring. This is conformity. However, later on the ice begins to break and out of the straightjacket of orthodox manners and conformity real human beings begin to emerge. It is found that Miss X’s sharp but good-natured wit is just the right foil to Major Y’s somewhat simple exuberance. And so on. It begins to be fun. Conformity gives way to the agreement to differ within a recognized tolerance of behaviour.

Conformity, from the point of view of the planner, is difficult to avoid but to avoid it deliberately, by creating artificial diversions, is surely worse than the original boredom. Here, for instance, is a programme to rehouse 5,000 people. They are all treated the same, they get the same kind of house. How can one differentiate? Yet if we start from a much wider point of view we will see that tropical housing differs from temperate zone housing, that buildings in a brick country differ from buildings in a stone country, that religion and social manners vary the buildings. And as the field of observation narrows, so our sensitivity to the local gods must grow sharper. There is too much insensitivity in the building of towns, too much reliance on the tank and the armoured car where the telescopic rifle is wanted.

Within a commonly accepted framework-one that produces lucidity and not anarchy-we can manipulate the nuances of scale and style, of texture and colour and of character and individuality, juxtaposing them in order to create collective benefits. In fact the environment thus resolves itself into not conformity but the interplay of This and That.

It is a matter of observation that in a successful contrast of colours not only do we experience the harmony released but, equally, the colours become more truly themselves. In a large landscape by Corot, I forget its name, a landscape of sombre greens, almost a monochrome, there is a small figure in red. It is probably the reddest thing I have ever seen.

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 the 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. That is the theory of the game, the background. In fact the most difficult part lies ahead, the Art of Playing. As in any other game there are recognized gambits and moves built up from experience and precedent. In the pages that follow an attempt is made to chart these moves under the three main heads as a series of cases

New Delhi 1959


The message of this book is that there is a lot of fun and a lot of drama to be had from the environment. The reader may reply, ‘Yes, but you have combed the world for examples. Come and see where I live in the overspill housing of Liverpool or Manchester, in the new suburbs of Paris or the gridirons of American cities. See what you can make of that.’

Agreed. But I have not combed the world just to make a picture book that can be picked up and put down. The examples are assembled for a purpose. The purpose is to expose the art of environment which, had it been understood and practised, could have prevented the disasters mentioned. The reason for this book is to reach out to people like you to try to show you what you are missing and to try to implant a growth point of what could be.

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 TOWNS CAPE but it has got lost on the way, the environment gladiators have cast lots for it and parted it amongst them. On the one hand it has devolved into cobbles and conservation, and on the other it has hived off into outrage and visual pollution. Neither of these, if! may be allowed to breathe it, is germane to the art of environment. And consequently, ten years later, it becomes necessary to start again. Now is the time to fashion a much more realistic tool. Thanks to the aforementioned gladiators the subject is now not unknown. But it is linked to constraints and exhortations. What is missing is the central power of generation. The art of putting the environment together has now to be more clearly defined, its rules stated and its typical products familiarized over a broad field of the lay population. This will be the subject of my next book.

There is an attitude of mind which recoils from the systematization of aesthetics, believing that the bird on the wing can never be the same when caught. There is another attitude which inclines to the view that unless you define your notes and establish a musical grammar you will never be able to play a tune, even a simple tune let alone Mozart. This seems to me to be self-evident. At the risk of repetition let us get the field of activity defined.

A. The environment is put together in two ways. First, objectively, by means of commonsense and logic based on the benevolent principles of health, amenity, convenience and privacy. This may be compared to God creating the world as someone outside and above the thing created. The second way is not in opposition to this. It is a fulfillment of creation by employing the subjective values of those who will live in this created world. Without disrespect this may be compared to God sending his Son into the world to live as a human, find out what it is like and redeem it. Both these attitudes are complementary. To take a simple analogy, commonweal lines of latitude which are parallel on the map diminish to vanishing points when observed by the individual. There is no moral distinction involved, both observations are true. The truth is where you are. In these studies we shall not be concerned with objective values, which appear to be thriving. But we shall be concerned with the subjective situation which is disturbing.

What we are witnessing is the extreme difficulty of switching from one kind of truth to another, i.e. from the objective benevolence of the town hall to personal response and experience especially when, in this mad world, there is usually so little time to adjust.

The main claim of TOWNSCAPE is that it has assisted in charting the structure of the subjective world. For unless it is charted to what can you adjust? To opinions, to fashion or to personal morality? How difficult it is to adjust to vagueness and how time wasting.

B. From what base do we set out? The only possible base surely 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. The baby is born, it has arrived, it is hungry, it cries, it sleeps. It is utterly helpless and utterly arrogant. Later the growing child begins to discern things outside itself, some things are hot and others cold, sometimes it is light and sometimes dark, some big things move about singing. The youth grows up in the family and learns the do’s and dont’s of family life. When not to ask questions or stay up late, how to get on the right side of dad and so on. Still later as an adult he decides to make his own life, marries and becomes responsible for the organisation of his family.

Our response to the environment is very much the same and can be expressed in four affirmations:

1. I am Here, I am in this room, it is now. Awareness of space.

2. They are There. That building is charming or ugly. Awareness of mood and character.

3. I understand Behaviour. We walk about inside a web of perspective that opens before us and closes behind us. There is a time structure.

4. I Organise. I can manipulate Spaces and Moods, knowing their Behaviour, to produce the home of man. All very fine and large. But what happens if we simply brush all this to one side and get down to a bit of designing?

anti I. There is then nothing to belong to, nothing but waste-land. Non-homes stretching to the horizon and a continuum of emptiness. The Expulsion from Eden.

anti 2. There is nothing to communicate with. We turn this way and that but all is faceless and mindless. Nobody laughs or weeps. We hold out a hand but there is no response from the silent army.

anti 3. An environment as ignorant and clumsy as a crashed gear change, scenery as catastrophic as the implications of a remand home for girls.

anti 4. Chips with everything. Shove in a couple of silver birches.

C. Our first move in creating a system must surely be to organise the field so that phenomena can be filed logically in an Atlas of the environment. So far we have a column of affirmations on the left hand side. Across the top we can set down the differing dimensions of the environment in which they operate. First there is the physical world of length, breadth and height. Second is the dimension of time and third is the dimension of ambience. From these two breakdowns, vertical and horizontal, we can construct a grid or elementary Atlas which, if the premises are sound, should be capable of immense growth.

Having arrived at the concept of an Atlas we now consider the fourth affirmation, that concerned with organisation or manipulation. If we consider the Atlas as a reference library of (visual) words then organisation is the art of putting this word with that to make a lucid statement which is inherent in the particular design problem. And it is this glorious sense of communication that we all need. For God’s sake say something!

You can see that it is no more complicated than a cookery book: first you list your ingredients, then you describe how they behave in heat or water or whatever and then you put them together and there it is, a loaf. The only difference between the two is that most people have a lust for eating which justifies the apparently inexhaustible supply of cookery books whereas the environment is, at the moment, a lust-vacuum. It isn’t really surprising. The dialogue stopped when they killed off the environmental virtues of Victorian architecture and substituted a lot of personal virtues such as truth, honesty and self-expression. You can see where that’s got us, everybody is bored stiff. We’ve lost our audience. We have to join, separate, divide, conceal, reveal, concentrate, dilute, trap, liberate, delay and accelerate. Throw the ball about, get those stiff muscles working. There is much to do.

Human life apart, there are few things more poignant than the stillbirth of an idea in the human brain. Suddenly in the rich humus of the mind an idea pushes up into the light of comprehension. The telephone rings, no we haven’t got anthracite grains only nuts. And the idea has gone. Quite often gone forever. The Gods who threw the dice groan in frustration. Our world is continually throwing up concepts, ideas and solutions but a vast amount withers and dies whilst the rest recedes into the paper mountain. What is needed is a frame of reference in which these homeless ideas can be housed: an environmental equivalent to ‘Shelter’, the British organisation that is privately tackling the housing problem. It is my view that there is an incredible waste of fertility and that this should be halted by the creation of a collecting, sorting and retrieval agency. And so we end up with a box of concepts and a range of gambits, the whole being co-ordinated and internally self-justifying like a crystal. A weapon with which we can hack our way out of isolation and make contact with the educators, with the mass media and so to the point of the story, the public.

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