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Townscape and the AR: Humane Urbanism in the 20th Century

The Battles of Hastings: as pioneering proprietor and sometimes editor of The Architectural Review, Hubert de Cronin Hastings campaigned tirelessly for a more humane approach to building, planning and townscape; his ideas are more relevant today than ever

Hubert de Cronin Hastings, proprietor and sometimes editor of The Architectural Review for almost half a century, joined CIAM in 1928. Encouraged by Philip Morton Shand, a well-connected, keen-eyed and exceptionally well-travelled architecture critic, then in his mid-thirties, ‘H de C’ steered the magazine into what were for its readers the largely uncharted waters of European Modernism. After Cambridge, Shand had studied at the Sorbonne and Heidelberg; a fluent French and German speaker, he was well acquainted with Le Corbusier at the time of the publication of Vers une architecture, and Gropius during the fledgling years of the Bauhaus.

A charming old-Etonian, Shand was also a passionate pomologist and acerbic writer on food and wine. His A Book of Food − published the same year Hastings joined CIAM and a year after Frederick Etchells had translated Corbusier’s polemic into English − tells us that cod ‘was one of the things which … it must be supposed that the Supreme Marine Zoologist created when, towards the end of the sixth day, he had already begun to nod’; while as for malt vinegar, ‘The administering of this corrosive poison in any form whatever to an unsuspecting husband should be made a ground of divorce (without alimony)’. Shand had wide tastes, but he could abide neither the bland nor the banal. Nor could Hastings, who, soon afterwards, took on the young John Betjeman as assistant editor of the AR.

Portraits

(Top left) private to the point of invisibility, Hubert de Cronin Hastings preferred to pull the strings from behind the scenes. Among his eclectic roster of staff were (clockwise from top right) P Morton Shand, John Betjeman and Evelyn Waugh

Within months, Betjeman − the future Poet Laureate and arch-conservationist − had published an essay entitled ‘The Death of Modernism’, even though he became an early member of MARS, the Modern Architecture Research Group. Meanwhile, his friend, the savagely funny Evelyn Waugh, had just written Decline and Fall (1928), a novel that made a mockery of the very Modern architecture Shand was writing up for Hastings. In it we meet Professor Otto Silenus, a humourless young German architect from a very rich family in Hamburg, who has been commissioned to build a new country house by the intensely fashionable Margot Beste-Chetwynde. He had first attracted her attention, Waugh tells us, ‘with the rejected design for a chewing gum factory in a progressive Hungarian quarterly’. He decides on ‘something clean and square’ for his indulgent English client. ‘The problem of architecture as I see it’, he told a journalist who had come to report on the progress of his surprising creation of ferro concrete and aluminium, ‘is the problem of all art − the elimination of the human element from the consideration of form. The only perfect building must be the factory, because that is built to house machines, not men.’

I hope you can begin to see that the AR’s response to Modernism, and its promotion of the new ‘clean and square’ architecture, was never going to have been a simple affair. Hastings, who acted as the editor-in-chief, or impresario, of the AR, was a complex fellow, at once intellectually curious, witty, civilised and shyly humanistic. He appreciated Shand on Walter Gropius, Waugh on Otto Silenus and Betjeman for his slyly ambivalent take on Modernism. From the late 1920s onwards, the AR was an eclectic and questioning publication. Hasting’s special genius was, as he knew himself, in employing others to do the work for him, that is the bulk of the writing, editing and printing of the AR. So, while Hastings began, with the help − initially − of Betjeman to look further and deeper into matters of history, landscape and the picturesque, from 1935 JM Richards − ‘Grim’ as Betjeman knew him − filled half the pages of ‘Archie’, a frivolous nickname this serious man found annoying, with the Modern Movement architecture parodied by Waugh.

Townscape

Two of H de C’s assistant editors, Gordon Cullen and Ian Nairn, led strident campaigns, respectively titled Townscape and Outrage, against the idiocies of postwar planning

Eventually, Hastings was to employ an extraordinary cast of characters, including Nikolaus Pevsner, Hugh Casson, Reyner Banham, Gordon Cullen and Ian Nairn among others, who imbued the AR with a richness of content almost wholly absent in any other contemporary architectural publication. These rich architectural complexities and contradictions are only reinforced today by the fact that Philip Morton Shand’s granddaughter is Camilla Parker-Bowles, Duchess of Cornwall and wife of the Prince of Wales, a scourge of Modernism, while Mary, his second daughter from his fourth marriage was married to James Stirling, a radical Modern architect of unexpected currents and complex depths.

It was out of this seemingly improbable and very English culture, this journalistic maelstrom and critical zuppa inglese that some of the AR’s most original, provocative and enduring campaigns were to emerge shortly after the Second World War. And, the core of these ideas are, I feel, as relevant to this particular month’s issue of the AR as they are to concerns about architecture and urbanism in general as we clod-hop throughthe second decade of the 21st century like a tribe of witless savages, littering the world with globalised junkitecture, anodyne city centres and relentless suburban, subtopian sprawl while weighed down with a plethora of winking, beeping technology that we have little idea how to use for anything like the common good.

Outrage

Hastings promoted issues and ideas, concocted and realised through the pages of the AR and books from the Architectural Press, that have become familiar in the story of postwar architecture. There was Townscape, ‘the art’, he said, ‘of humanising high densities after the engineers have made them hygienically possible’, published in book form, by Gordon Cullen, in 1961. There was ‘Outrage’ (1955), an attack − written and spurred on by Ian Nairn, another of ‘H de C’s’ young assistant editors, on the kind of lackadaisical design that meant that ‘the end of Southampton looks like the beginning of Carlisle’, a dismal phenomenon recorded in words and photographs as Nairn drove from one end of England to another to make the case for ‘place’, or genius loci.

And then there was The Italian Townscape (1963), a truly eye-opening and beautifully designed book written by one Ivor de Wolfe with lyrical chiaroscuro photography by Ivy de Wolfe and drawings by Kenneth Browne. Ivor de Wolfe was Hastings, Ivy de Wolfe was partly Hastings, but also his wife Hazel (H de C makes Hitchcock-like cameo appearances in some of the shots), and Kenneth Browne, the AR’s long-suffering assistant Townscape editor.

Hastings toured Italy visiting, as far as I can make out 57 towns and cities, a variety that gave him considerable visual ammunition in his assault on the near abject poverty of contemporary English urban design. One town, Sforzinda, he says, ‘even native Italians, and specialists at that, may find hard to place’. Even without reaching for your bookshelf, a mere few seconds with Google tells today’s reader that this is the ideal, and unbuilt, 15th-century town for Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, by Antonio di Pietro Averlino.

The Italian Townscape

H de C’s own book The Italian Townscape (1963) offered alternative visions of a more successful urbanism

Characteristically, Hastings opens The Italian Townscape with scenes of ‘beautiful gleaming human washing’ hanging out to dry in Capodimonte, ‘a reminder that townscape is not town planning, is not architecture, is the urban scene stock-piled with all its impedimenta, toys, trinkets, tools, services, conveniences, shelters, play-pens, people. Its topic, the public life of private lives …’ He goes on to detail the physical and visual planning, the play and details of Italian cities that once upon a time made them not just intensely, viscerally and sensually appealing, but also models of what could be achieved elsewhere in the world, and, inparticular, in England at the very time bypass surgery was ripping the hearts from old towns and cities and new architecture was being plonked down inside them as if airfreighted by giant helicopters from a global warehouse that had once been labelled Bauhaus.

The Italian Townscape

Hastings looked long and hard at traditional Italian cities with their ‘foils, focal points, fluctuations, vistas closed and vistas open, truncations, changes of level, perspective, silhouette, intricacy, anticipation, continuity, space, enclosure, exposure, precinct, profile’ and back to streets within eyeshot of the AR’s 18th-century offices on top of St James’s Park. What he hoped to see was ‘harmony within diversity’, a quality that was being destroyed in London as he toured Rome.

This quality was something Hastings had evoked in the December 1958 issue of the AR through an essay by HB Creswell, author of The Honeywood File: An Adventure in Building (1929), a cautionary and funny tale of a young and Candide-like architect designing an ambitious house for a demanding client. In the AR, Creswell conjured the ‘Townscape’ qualities of an architectural stroll down the Strand in the 1890s: a London thoroughfare hedged by a maze of continuous alleys and courts and ‘fronted by numbers of little restaurants whose windows vaunted exquisite feeding; taverns, dives, oyster and wine bars, ham and beef shops; and small shops marketing a lively variety of curious or workaday things all standing in rank, shoulder to shoulder, to fill the spaces between its many theatres. As shop squeezes shop and shoulder squeezes shoulder, one watches the gaps between the buildings inexorably filling up until the latest oyster bar making its dive between the small shop and the large theatre.’

Koolhaas vs Jen Nouvel

Despite Hastings’ campaigning, the City of London continues to be blighted by monstrosities like Jean Nouvel’s inner-city out-of-town mall. The supposedly self-effacing brown smoked glass is redolent of a ’70s shag-pad; Rem Koolhaas’ HQ for Rothschild Bank is rather more successful, receding behind Wren’s spire for St Stephen Walbrook rather than crowding it out

Sadly, little of this lesson, this way of seeing and of expressing a city street, has been learned over the past 50 years; or, at least, not in London where ever bigger, air-conditioned buildings barge their banal way into what was once such a vivid ‘townscape’, leading to prairie-style streets that, hostile to pedestrians, increasingly comprise just a few monstrous ‘iconic’ blocks designed to maximise lettable floor-space and financial gain. Take a walk down Cheapside in the City of London, a street linking Wren’s St Paul’s with the Bank of England. Its west end begins with a horrible brown shopping mall designed by Jean Nouvel that might be acceptable in an outer-suburb of Paris, yet here is as welcome as a recreation of Pruitt-Igoe would be. The rhythm of this old city street has been lost as has that of all too many others as the City of London − hardly the only villain − has done its best to lose much of its special character, one that could have been nurtured even with the latest architecture as Rem Koolhaas has attempted to do with New Court, a sleekly discreet City headquarters for Rothschild Bank corseted into St Swithin’s Lane, yet sprouting coolly above the medieval streetscape and its ragbag of historic domes, pediments, cornices and shadows.

Manhattan Grid

 

Hastings_09

Instead of the prosaic grid of Manhattan, H de C advocated a more baroque city plan; he married this with the Anglo-Chinese concept of sharawaggi, exemplified by the exquisite gardens of Suzhou, which cram a huge amount of variety into tiny plots

Hastings wanted our towns and cities to have something of the theatrical qualities of the Baroque, too, along with something of traditional Chinese garden design. This apparently exotic marriage is not as odd as it might first appear. Baroque, long thought of as superficial and showy − costume design, architecture in fancy dress − does indeed make magnificent ‘townscape’, as cities themselves are, of course, urban stages for all of us to play on. The style itself has a power beyond its gloriously superficial drama, a quality or force, tautly evoked and beautifully expressed in Baroque, a poem dedicated to Borromini by James Lasdun, whosefather, Denys Lasdun, was a distinguished Modern architect who greatly valued this expressive and compelling style, and way of seeing and feeling:


Spirit and form; to every form its shell;
Sounds their instruments − flute, double bass,
Trumpet, each instrument its plush-lined case,
The flesh its cribs, Death its Heaven and Hell.
Bernini, your lightest-fingered rival,
Built only on the human scale, filled Rome
With wooing, delicious airs; your dome,
Dizzying, serial-spiralled, was a skull
Sucked to the coffered contours of a mind
Breached by infinity …

To achieve such significance, and magnificence, in designs for everyday urban life was never going to be easy for those who neither truly felt for buildings, nor really looked, eyes wide open, at the city streets they rose from and should have adorned however humble or aloof. And, even if, like Hastings, you could see the city through the eyes of a skilled Chinese gardener, it would be just as hard. Even before ‘Outrage’ and ‘Townscape’, Hastings had toyed with the idea of ‘sharawaggi’, an Anglicised term for the traditional Chinese sense of the beauty of studied irregularity. It was a concept first drawn to English attention in the 17th century by Sir William Temple whose Upon the Gardens of Epicurus (1685) was published while Christopher Wren was building his great English Baroque cathedral in the City of London.

Wisely, Temple warned against the practice of sharawaggi by those who might find it a little too difficult, as if the intricate landscapes it encouraged were, in more up-to-date terms, rather like solving a quadraticequation or identifying the Higgs boson particle. ‘They are the adventures of too hard achievement for any common hands; and, though there may be more honour if they succeed well, yet there is more dishonour if they fail, and it is twenty to one they will; whereas in regular figures [or designs], it is hard to make any great and remarkable faults.’

Chinese Garden

Zig-zagging paths cross the Gardens of Shuzou revealing sudden surprising vistas, the variation within these tiny plots exemplifies the Anglo-Chinese concept of sharawaggi

So, better for architects without inspiration and town planners without feeling to lay out straight grids of regular buildings than to play to the rules of sharawaggi, and Hastings’ Townscape. ‘Among us’, continued Temple, ‘the beauty of building and planting is placed chiefly in some certain proportions, symmetries or uniformities; our walks and our trees ranged so as to answer one another, and at exact distances. The Chinesescorn this way of planting, and say a boy that can tell an hundred [count to a hundred] may plant walls of trees in straight lines …’

Much has changed in China since Temple wrote his book on gardens (and, by implication, the city and its buildings): sharawaggi ought to be exported back to Shanghai and the Chinese hinterland before gurning global design − digital, so only able to count up to one − undermines what remains of intelligent Sino city design.

Before retiring to his Sussex farmhouse in 1973, two years after he was awarded the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, Hastings synthesised his ideas on architecture, urbanism, sharawaggi and humanity in one last blast. This was Civilia or ‘The End of Sub Urban Man’ (1971), edited by Ivor de Wofle (sic). It was a thrilling riposte to the soggy Garden City movement and to inherently suburban New Towns − Milton Keynes was under construction at the time − as well as subtopian sprawl.

Milton Keynes

The autopia at Milton Keynes also under construction at the time contrasted greatly to H de C’s Civilia

In the pages of this jack-in-a-box book, a modern English version of an Italian hill town designed to rise from disused quarries near Nuneaton emerged, its architecture resolutely new, formed by collages of the latest buildings cut and pasted − with scissors and glue − by Hasting’s daughter, Priscilla, and the ever-patient Kenneth Browne. Here was a new city of a million people, free from cars − they were parked or driven in the undercrofts of Civilia − and with work, school, shops, entertainment and long views out to unspoiled countryside never more than 200 yards from any home.

Architects and planners looked down sniffily on ‘Civilia’ as if holding a small Seville orange under their collective nose. It was too romantic, and perhaps too ‘Fleet Street’ (a common accusation by architects then for criticism or public discussions they felt uncomfortable with) for the world of unfeeling, professional modernisation, of motorways, passionless system building and smug ‘comprehensive development’. Nor have the lessons of The Italian Townscape or ‘Outrage’ been even half-digested since Hastings willed them into dazzling sunlight. This month, though, The Italian Townscape is re-published with an intelligent introduction by Alan Powers (Artifice Books, £24.95). Perhaps, but only perhaps, the inspired behind-the-scenes editor, publisher and visionary known by John Betjeman as ‘Obscurity’ Hastings will yet re-emerge from the deep shadows of architectural and city paths not taken by the wider architectural profession.

Civilia

 

CIVILIA

H de C proposed Civilia: a Modernist Italianate hill town combining elements of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat ’67 with Venetian canals, improbably situated in Nuneaton

I met Hastings just the once, in 1983 at the end of his life, when I was assistant editor of the AR. He agreed to see me at his romantic, sharawaggi home with its glorious first-floor enfilade of rooms modelled on the Galleria delle Antechita at Sabbioneta and mix of antique and modern furniture. We sat and talked over drinks in the extraordinary 1935 Rolls-Royce Phantom II he had toured Italy with in the early 1960s; at some point he had converted it into a caravan lined with grand French wallpaper. He had recently written a final book, The Alternative Society: Software for the Nineteen-Eighties (1980) that I failed to understand 30 years ago and cannot make head or tail of today. What The Alternative Society showed, though, was that like great architectural critics, urbanophiles and polemicists before him, beginning in England with John Ruskin and Unto This Last (1859), Hastings’ focus shifted to sociology of a sort and then to matters of technology and political economy with the realisation that architects and planners are largely servants of political economies and the fight to make our cities more humane and interesting places is with politicians, corporations, high finance and other ways of thinking, and bullying, that stifle beauty and creativity while paying lip service to them.

Manplan Cover

'Manplan'

In 1969 H de C embarked on a thrilling kamikaze mission, subverting the conventions of architectural publishing with his ‘Manplan’ campaign. (click to enlarge)

From September 1969, and for eight months, Hastings tried turning the AR into a photojournalist-led magazine concerned with such issues. This was ‘Manplan’, edited by Tim Rock and a showcase for brilliant young photographers making memorable use of newly fashionable grainy black-and-white 35mm photography, among them Peter Baistow, Patrick Ward, Tony Ray-Jones and Tim Street-Porter. Imaginatively designed, ‘Manplan’ was a circulation disaster: architects preferred flattering images and ingratiating write-ups of new buildings, as did advertisers. Hastings knew this: he had been with the AR one wayor another since he was 16 years old, minus spells at the Slade and Bartlett schools of art and architecture. He had, though, perpetual curiosity and panache; a sense of devilment, too. Hubert de Cronin Hastings would not have wanted you to know him personally, but you can, and really should try to get to know him anew, eyes open, through his fecund ideas and haunting publications and certainly before every city from San Francisco to Shanghai − despite what decent and talented architects can do − is beaten into a final and gormless global submission.

Manplan Extract

Manplan Extract

The Manplan was beautifully designed and photographed but a total flop, since the industry could not, then as now, stomach real criticism and unflattering photography (click to enlarge)

 

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