Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

This site uses cookies. By using our services, you agree to our cookie use.
Learn more here.

AR 120: Owen Hatherley on Context

January 1967 cover

In the grip of a vernacular revival, the central insight of the AR’s Townscape remains pertinent

One of the most symbolic London buildings of the last decade or so is New Hall in Caledonian Road, a student hall of residence. It came to public notice for its retention of the facade of a mid-Victorian warehouse; in order to force the flats through planning, the building had to remain on the site, in some form, no matter how much the zoning and make-up of the area had transformed since the warehouse was built in 1874. The building type, with its iron frames and large spaces, has after all lent itself to adaptive reuse for luxury apartments. Of late, this has devolved into what you can see there now – a facade held up with a steel frame like a trophy, with system-built student flats beneath, an image of the inadvertent comedy of ‘context’.

‘Context’ is what architects call what non-architects call ‘in keeping’. Similar schemes to New Hall can be found everywhere in the UK, fragments made meaningless by the changes all around them. Context  is a new thing, owing little to neither Modernist nor Classical notions of town planning or architecture over the last hundred years. Context was meaningless to Reginald Blomfield in the 1920s, when he took Regent Street from a raffish conduit that demarcated, but was on the same scale of, bourgeois Mayfair and proletarian Soho, and transformed it into a melodramatic Beaux-Arts boulevard, totally dominating both rich and poor areas with the Piranesian arches of the Quadrant. When Herbert Baker stamped his own design on top of John Soane’s Bank of England, the scale and idiom (from Tivoli Roman to Franco-British Baroque) were totally different, not to mention vastly inferior – the only common factor was the use of Portland stone. It was, naturally, irrelevant in the same decade for Le Corbusier in his plans for Paris and Moscow, where scattered monuments, wrenched from their ‘context’, would be left literally as museum pieces, in park-like settings, while the real life of the city carried on around them – and it had little place in the MARS Group’s idea of the future London. Where did it come from?

Townscape was a mini-movement in favour of architectural and temporal diversity, against masterplans and visual homogeneity’

One possible answer is Townscape, an AR campaign warmly supported by Nikolaus Pevsner, Gordon Cullen, Ian Nairn and Hubert de Cronin Hastings, and equally strongly opposed by Reyner Banham and the New Brutalists. Townscape, like a lot of the British modern architecture of the pre-Brutalist period, was about finding a compromise with pre-Modernist England,  an attempt to make it feel less like an ‘alien’ imposition on an apparently traditionalist country (no matter  how much that was a ‘Functional Tradition’). Best remembered now through Gordon Cullen’s The Concise Townscape, this was a mini-movement in favour of architectural and temporal diversity, against masterplans and visual homogeneity, and unusually, in favour of an elusive ‘homeliness’, praising formerly unpraisable things such as Victorian pubs and even, in Nairn’s case, the odd bit of Mock Tudor. 

The buildings in the average Townscape juxtaposition might all be of different eras and styles but, somehow, they had managed to complement each other, through a common scale and visual interest; they were adventures for the eyes and feet, meant to lead you up unexpected pathways and alleys, through arches and along walkways, towards surprises – but not towards shocks. When ‘townscape’ became ‘context’ it also became more banal. One of Cullen’s Townscape drawings – for the site that would become Paternoster Square, opposite St Paul’s – depicts rough, gridded Corbusian units stomping, Alton Estate style, towards Wren’s dome. This made Townscape sense – totally appropriate in terms of scale, just not of ‘style’, which wasn’t the point – but it is exactly the sort of rude juxtaposition that defenders of ‘context’ hated in modern architecture.

It is the rediscovery of these ideas in the 1970s that is much more the source. When Colin Rowe’s Collage City was published – by an author who, in the ’50s, had nothing but disdain for Townscape, the Picturesque and the ‘Englishness of English Art’ – Reyner Banham drew attention to the link, arguing that Ivor de Wolfe (Hastings’ pen name) was the ‘true author’ of the book, albeit with the slightly blokey chumminess of the AR writers replaced with the austere jargon and high seriousness of the Ivy League. Certain aspects of Townscape can be found in Terry Farrell’s recently listed Comyn Ching Triangle, in Covent Garden, and other early Postmodernist essays in montage, but the listing  of almost the entire district – when the Greater London Council’s plan to level everything but the ‘monuments’ was defeated – was new, and extreme. This could cause havoc on those occasions when context and capital  failed to link up. New Hall on Caledonian Road is its eventual offspring.

‘For a while in the ’90s and ’00s, reference became the new way of “engaging with context”’

One of the jargon words used instead of ‘context’ in the ’70s was ‘vernacular’ – though given that mass-media societies by definition do not have a folk architecture any more than they do a folk language, in practice this meant making new buildings as much like the older ones nearby as possible. Perhaps because of this, for a while in the ’90s and ’00s, reference became the new way of ‘engaging with context’ – as seen in Foreign Office Architects’ Pre-Raphaelite High-Tech John Lewis in Leicester, in the ‘sequins’ of Future Systems’ Birmingham Selfridges, in the lace concrete of Caruso St John’s hyper-Picturesque Nottingham Contemporary, or in any of the hundred schemes where printed patterns on glass or metal ‘paid tribute’ to extinct industries. 

Currently we are in the grip of a vernacular revival, in which brick panels are placed in grids to make speculative towers feel of a piece with historic terraces. What is lost in all this is the central insight of Townscape. You can enhance a historic jumble of buildings, not by genuflection or imitation, but by adding something new that intensifies what is already there, and helps you to see it in a new light, freshly, that makes it unfamiliar. That is what Nottingham Contemporary does to the Lace Market around it. The New Vernacular, though, makes unnervingly new types into reassuringly familiar images.

Collage City

It is in his seminal book Collage City that Colin Rowe introduces ‘contextualism’ but the concept was first introduced in a special issue of the AR, published three years earlier. Here, the scholar exposes his collage-inspired approach to city planning, where the architect-urbanist is viewed as a bricoleur – his ‘savage mind’ in stark contrast with the engineer’s ‘domesticated’ one – and characterised by his ability to deal with a plurality of systems and willingness to embrace uncertain futures. In Rowe’s own words ‘the political implications of total design are nothing short of devastating’.

Aged just 27 when his  seminal piece ‘The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa’ (AR March 1947) was published in the AR, Rowe was a long-standing AR contributor and remains one of the 20th century’s most influential academics – both ‘Chicago Frame’ (AR November 1956) and his revisionary critique of La Tourette (AR June 1961) were essential markers in Britain. In his obituary (AR December 1999), Michael Spens describes his observations as ‘incisive, ironical, witty, sometimes acerbic’, always ‘a rich and compelling synthesis of intellect and imagination’, while in Reputations (AR August 2015) Paul Davies portrays him as ‘an intellectual who wrote like an angel and dreamt of Renaissance Italy’.



Above: ‘Collage City’ by Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, below: ‘Cities of the Mind’, both AR August 1975

Streetscape, inscape and landscape

Rather than viewing architecture as a series of isolated buildings sitting in a vacuum, the AR made its name by attempting to reconcile the discipline’s often vexed relationship with the wider world. Built environment and natural surroundings have inspired numerous features on townscape, inscape and landscape, and encouraged a careful reconsideration of the discipline’s relationship with both nature and society.

In the late ’30s, futurist fantastical cities seemed to suggest nothing was out of reach – not even the sky. Following Norman Bel Geddes’s Futurama model city at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, multi-level cities were a favourite of the avant garde’s social utopians – including Corb and CIAM, and later Team 10. In their 1952 unsuccessful competition proposal for the Golden Lane housing estate, the Smithsons amassed apartments on one side of the floor plate to liberate long streets in the sky. Cars were to remain on the ground level while elevated walkways would provide inhabitants with a place to identify with their environment and partake in communal acitivities – ideas later adopted for the Barbican Estate next door by winners of the Golden Lane competition Chamberlin, Powell & Bon. In much of the Smithsons’ urban planning, connections and routes constitute the schemes’ primary structure, always with the aim of separating pedestrian from vehicular movements. In 1933, London Transport’s chief executive Frank Pick was already admitting that once the street’s primary function is to absorb vehicular traffic all other considerations become secondary, ‘a harmful and tragic fact’.

Alison and Peter Smithon’s Cluster City was a turning point in their thoughts on urban design: they compiled suggestions to make CIAM’s ideals more flexible, rejecting its rigid approach to planning. ‘What we are after is something more complex, and less geometric. We are more concerned with “flow” than with measure’ they write, opposing the concept of the cluster to that of the street. This theory was then applied to projects, such as their Kuwait urban study (AR September 1974), where

the architects attempted to reinstate character and coherence in the old Arab city after the oil boom led to the clearing of large areas and introduction of wide and busy roads, dissolving local identity. The British duo proposed a low-level Mat-building on stilts providing pedestrians with long shaded journeys across the city. Future architecture was envisaged as a dynamic and flexile armature, particularly suited to Kuwait’s hot climate. ‘We are trying to move away from individually designed “blocks” towards the controlled and subtle repetition of the domes in Isfahan, or a composition of tiles …’ 

And while the streets in the sky were rapidly abandoned, the AR’s Townscape campaign constitutes its own response to CIAM’s  inhuman planning. In the March 1977 ‘Streetline’ piece, Kenneth Browne sketches out a series of simple ground perspectives to expose how the main components – proportions, skyline shape, etc – affect a pedestrian’s experience of, and journey through, a piece of city. 




‘The Street’ by Frank Pick, and exploration of the importance of the street and its relationship with architecture, AR December 1933



‘Cluster City’ by Alison and Peter Smithson, AR November 1957

Authoritarian architecture

‘It is a sufficiently astonishing piece of personal history that has placed the amateur architect and watercolourist Adolf Hitler at the head of a powerful totalitarian state.’ In July 1938, the AR featured the content of a sketchbook belonging to ‘a boy from Upper Austria’, who had failed to secure his admission to the Vienna Academy.  The text then elaborates on the Führer: in his speeches, this ‘man-in-the-street’ is the ‘mouthpiece of demos and the declared enemy of cliques, intellectuals, “literati” and “ink-slingers”’. ‘If he is not quite sure what he likes, at least he knows what his uncorrupted audience does not like.’

Five years earlier, in 1933, there was an article on ‘Architecture of the Nazis’, which offered ‘no comment’, but presented images of the work of Albert Speer, Paul Bonatz and others. By 1946, architecture under the Führer was being dissected as the evil product of authoritarianism. The AR said the buildings commissioned by Hitler were of the sort ‘expected of an uncreative architectural student’. In 1983, another shift: Leon Krier makes a bid to save the crumbling ruins of the Nazi state, divorcing architecture from politics. 

It is impossible to read these articles today without thinking of 2016’s wave of populism sweeping the Western world and recent events: the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum. How do we protect a sense of history and prevent the forming of cultural vacuums? Can we detach architectural styles from political parties and ceremonial purposes? What are the effects of tyranny on the arts? They are an important reminder of the wide range of topics that should be tackled by an architectural publication – ‘everything is architecture’.



‘The new Laokoon’ by Francis Watson, AR July 1938



‘The Architecture of Authority’ by Lionel Brett, AR May 1946

Eric de Maré

Commissioned by the AR, Eric de Maré’s images illustrated a series of special issues celebrating canals, the Thames and, more significantly, the buildings of the Industrial Revolution. His stunning and pioneering photographs of docks, breweries and mills influenced architects such as Norman Foster and James Stirling – the latter said of ‘The Functionalist Tradition’ (the book that came out of the AR’s July 1957 special issue) that it showed a world of ‘direct and undecorated volumes evolved from the functions of their major elements’. The powerful architectural forms de Maré immortalised were probably much more inspiring than new work being built in Britain at the time.

In collaboration with Gordon Cullen, de Maré created moving visual polemics on what could be done in the public realm in the Townscape series – de Maré recalls ‘the pleasant summer days Gordon and I spent gliding along the Thames in a cruiser at the legitimate expense of the Architectural Press’. In ‘Buttoning up’, he playfully writes about ‘how essential it is that we should accept, retain and rejoice in the lively multiple use of certain parts of town’.



‘Buttoning up’ (Townscape) by Eric de Maré, AR April 1952

Click here to buy the special 120th anniversary issue