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Townscape? Think nuns!

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The reissue of a legendary 50-year-old book on townscape highlights persistent urban challenges, says Jay Merrick

How difficult is the concept of townscape? Ivor de Wolfe, who wrote The Italian Townscape in 1963, thought the subject should be founded on sophisticated visual readings – and imaginings – of buildings, spaces, perspectives, outlines, and activities. Towns were like stage-sets, he argued, and the relationship of foregrounds with backgrounds was of critical importance. So, too, was achieving as much architectural and human congestion as possible.

On the other hand: ‘So vast are the responsibilities it is saddled with in getting the human soul safely through the crises and dangers of daily life,’ he declaimed, ‘that the eye quickly forms habits of selection under which the non-essential visual issues are shelved in favour of the vital ones (delicatessen with spit-chicken, car doing eighty, good legs). From one point of view, valuable, from another a contraction of our legitimate interests in OUT THERE, one of which consists in the making of judgements as to how we want to make OUT THERE look – how, that is, to create our own OUT THERE, build our own world.’

Ivor de Wolfe was 61 when he wrote that; not that he was actually Ivor de Wolfe. He was Hubert de Cronin Hastings, the portly, diffident, Berkhamsted School-educated son of Percy, an ad salesman for the publisher of The Architectural Review, who eventually rose to command the company.

Hastings dropped out of the Bartlett because he hated Beaux Arts ideals, and retrenched at the Slade School of Fine Art before becoming joint editor of both the AR and The Architects’ Journal in 1927. Four decades later, having championed the idea of dense, neo-Picturesque townscapes as a riposte to developments such as ‘monstrous Milton Keynes’, Hastings was awarded the RIBA Gold Medal.

What can we learn from The Italian Townscape today? First, that nothing seems to have changed in the relationship of most architects with most planners and most developers: ‘A bird’s-eye view of town planning in [the 20th] century reveals the richness of our resources and the poverty of imagination in the disposing of them. There is something frightening about a world that combines honest worth, technical know-how, good intentions, a bottomless bank account and an utter bankruptcy of ideas.’

Townscape is not planning or architecture, it is the urban scene stock-piled with its impedimenta

Hastings’ definition of townscape is stimulating, and conjures up a protean situation: ‘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.’

And what better way to demonstrate this meshing of public and private than by taking us on a tour of Italian towns, and refusing to differentiate between the importance of washing lines, Vasari’s ‘evil’ Uffizi Piazza in Florence, and neon lighting in the arcades of Bologna. Hastings’ sections on street types, vistas, and the ‘wonderfully adjusted’ asymmetries of historic town plans remain highly instructive.

A picturesque beggar, he suggests, makes bad social sense, but good townscape sense

He is somewhat barking in other respects. A picturesque beggar, he suggests, makes bad social sense, but good townscape sense, because he is good visual material in theatrical terms. ‘Teddy boys ganging up on a street corner are a pure gift.’ Wandering nuns are ‘sculpture of a high order, with associations which intensify their significance as townscape.’ Whereas, a plump lady in a floral dress in one of his photographs ‘is simple colour and pattern’.

There is something both infuriating and naggingly intriguing about remarks such as these, and there are scores of them; and so, Hastings’ ability to delineate architectural and human hodge-podges can appear simultaneously highly informative and ambiguous: the sheer weight of detailed observations in The Italian Townscape very nearly manages to overwhelm his purpose.

But his rants highlight difficult questions. How much do we need to notice, in any town, before we can consider ourselves to be intelligent townscapers? If we fail to notice enough details of places and lives, will we lose the inquisitive human instinct to look at, and value, the consequential (and apparently inconsequential) physical aspects of our towns?

If our ability, and desire, to absorb and think about the details of our townscapes is becoming pathologically dulled – is your hand-held pixellated piazza more meaningful to you than the piazza you’re actually walking across? – we may lose interest in the specific characters and future potentials of different parts of our towns; this passivity invites increasingly dictatorial demarcations of public and private space, and the gradual erasure of differently inflected places and connections.

The reappearance of The Italian Townscape – with an engaging introduction by Erdem Erten and Alan Powers – coincides with a new book, Cities Are Good For You, by the young historian Leo Hollis. The two authors, half a century apart, share one fundamental accord, despite the different urban scales they’re addressing. ‘A large section of the human race prefers congestion to uncongestion,’ says Hastings. ‘One constant, the hunch that society exists in its communications and congestion makes easier the contacts between man and man… society is its contacts.’

Hollis believes that in the 21st century greater human and architectural densities and complex networks of ‘weak links’, such as shared surfaces, chance conversations and access to data networks, are crucial to fostering a more involved, democratic sense of citizenship. Those statuesque nuns are precursors to Hollis’s weak, but subtly fertile links in the fabrics of our townscapes.

There is something unexpectedly enduring about The Italian Townscape. It is impossible not to be beguiled, irritated, confused, amused, and inspired (often within four or five paragraphs) by this book. You will find no hard and fast answers in it, but there is a great deal of stimulating, still-relevant speculation about the life, potential forms and atmospheres of towns.

Modernist idealism is always at risk of collapsing into sensuality or profound self-doubt

There is another, unintended, lesson in the book: that stringent Modernist idealism is always at risk of collapsing into sensuality or profound self-doubt. Corb’s Villa Savoye, lifted clear of untidy, mortal ground, like a jumped-up concrete and glass 4WD; his tundra-blighted cities, minus people, plus cars; and yet, finally, the numinous, fungoid mystery of Ronchamp, the Cabanon-cum-coffin, and a voluntary death in the amniotic waters of the Mediterranean.

In Hastings’ case, it’s fascinating to read the free-ranging ideas and images in these pages in the knowledge that the Theory of Contacts he presented at the CIAM Paris conference in 1937 proposed social, intellectual and commercial advances based on urban linearity and transport efficiency.

And at that time, Hastings had also been a supplicant to the Significant Form aesthetic proposed by the art critic Clive Bell, who argued that ‘to appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions’.

But Hastings, finally, spoke of townscape as an art, not as a branch of formalist design. How weird that, today, we might expect something very like Bell’s words in the Mein Kampf of a ruthless property developer, or blockheaded urban designer.

  • Jay Merrick is the architecture critic of the Independent

The Italian Townscape, Ivor de Wolfe, Artifice, 296 pages, £24.95


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