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Townscape: the AR's campaign to alter the perceptions of planners and politicians

Peter Davey reappraises the great mid 20th-century campaign that saw the AR challenge the perceptions of planners, politicians and engineers

Townscape was the AR’s great mid 20th-century campaign: an attempt to alter perceptions of planners, politicians and traffic engineers, who had allowed ribbon development, sprawl and inner urban decay. A recent symposium, sponsored by the ATCH Research Centre of the University of Queensland, the Bartlett School of Architecture and the AR, was held at University College London to examine Townscape as a set of ideas. Was it more than a wilful reinterpretation of the Picturesque by Hubert de Cronin Hastings, the AR’s eccentric proprietor? Has it had any impact on the real environment? Can it hold relevance today?

Mathew Aitchison of ATCH set the scene with a brisk overview of the Picturesque movement, from its origins in 18th-century English painting and theory (seen in the works of clergyman William Gilpin, author Uvedale Price and artist Thomas Gainsborough) to Hastings’ attempt to revive Picturesque sensibility as a tool in town planning. Hastings collected a formidable group of contributors, among others the painter John Piper, Hugh Casson (later architectural director of the Festival of Britain), the Anglophile German scholar Nikolaus Pevsner, the formidable propagandist Ian Nairn and the brilliant illustrator Gordon Cullen.

This team mounted the longest-lasting architectural campaign of the 20th century. Its aim was to free planning from the cold embrace of Beaux-Arts Moderne and to devise new ways of generating cities, partly based on informal compositional principles, which, as Ákos Moravánszky of the ETH Zürich would explain, were first championed in the late 19th century by Camillo Sitte and Hermann Maertens.

For all Sitte’s insistence that a psychological basis for aesthetics could be found, Townscape’s lack of a rigorous core theory was attacked by young architects like the Smithsons, soon to be joined by the AR’s Reyner Banham. Colin Rowe described the AR’s campaign as ‘degenerate’ and a ‘kind of visual rubbish heap’. As Barnabas Calder of the University of Strathclyde astutely pointed out, until the rise of Architectural Design, Townscape and Banham’s New Brutalism were simultaneously championed in the AR’s pages (H de C loved conflict and controversy). Calder argued that Brutalism had a lot more in common with Townscape than its protagonists would admit: for instance, Chamberlin, Powell & Bon’s Barbican development in the City of London ‘grew from Townscape’, with no discernible influence of Brutalism.

In fact, although Townscape was a quintessentially English movement, its influence was wider than is often thought. Gillian Darley explained thelinks between Ian Nairn and Jane Jacobs, the great mid-century New York urban theorist. Erik Ghenoiu of the Pratt Institute suggested that Townscape’s visual approach was to some degree related to the emergence of Postmodernism in the 1970s work of young American architects, such as Robert Venturi and Charles W Moore.

For all its past influence, the Picturesque movement is often seen today as no more than bedraggled clumps of cobbles and bollards lost in decaying 1960s housing estates. Now, when architecture is dominated by object buildings, and urbanism by traffic engineers, Townscape’s humanism and respect for context deserve reappraisal.

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