Visual Planning and Urbanism in the Mid-Twentieth Century
Newcastle upon Tyne
11-13 September 2007
Report by Dr. Erdem Erten
While planning or urban design may not be reduced to its visual aspects, planning attitudes that have a particular focus on visual and three-dimensional planning has remained an understudied if not an undermined episode in histories of modernism. This conference focused on "a strand of more practical urbanism, modernist in flavour but historically informed [which sought] to recover positive conceptions of the city and town after the perceived deprivations of the nineteenth century." Sharing a similar timeframe with narratives of modernist planning which targeted a radical reformation of the city—such as the CIAM doctrine codified by the Athens Charter and Ebenezer Howard's Garden City or the deurbanist proposals of Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City, and Okhitovich and Milyutin's interpretations of the linear city—most of the attitudes presented by the conference papers remained critical of such radical restructuring. Facing demand for speedy transformation and the postwar need for reconstruction and conservation, they were formulated in order to mediate pressures exerted by twentieth century modernization.
The conference opened with a keynote speech by Heleni Porfyriou of Centro di Conservazione delle Opere d'Arte, Rome. Providing a historical introduction to visual planning, Porfyriou's talk titled "The Legacy of Camillo Sitte from Civic Art to Visual Planning" recontextualized Sitte's oeuvre with reference to the 19th century scientific foundations that governed his analysis of cities. Porfyriou noted that epistemological discoveries of subjective vision had a fundamental influence on Sitte's formulation of an art of urban space. Addressing the uninformed criticism that dismissed the work of Sitte as result of aesthetic preference based on scenographic arrangement, Porfyriou stated that Sitte was interested in "the act of seeing," that is "the physiological mechanism that gives rise to the perception of space on which all architectural effects are based" in order to explore the ramifications of scientific discovery in urban design.
Porfyriou's talk was followed by the historical reevaluation of a tradition of pictorial composition in British architectural practice. Studied via "sketchbooks of collages of details and scenes" to serve as inspirational precedents for future work, Manchester University's Michael Hebbert and Andrew Crompton argued that such practices, and knowledge acquired via such practices, are as valuable for the design of urban spaces as theoretical explorations in architectural education. Jos Bosman of Eindhoven University of Technology evaluated the "German stadtbild discussion applied to English pastoral imagery" in the postwar reconstruction work of Werner Hasper in Kassel and of Rudolph Schwarz in Cologne regarding "the visual role of modern architecture in a cityscape with historical fragments." The opposition to CIAM in visual planning attitudes was further demonstrated in the work of Gaston Bardet and his supporters in France by Nicholas Bullock of Cambridge University. Bardet was in vigorous and successful antagonism to Le Corbusier's urbanism in demanding a reconciliation of modernism with older French traditions and conservation of heritage. Bullock argued that by presenting an alternative approach in journals like Architecture Française and Urbanisme Bardet's approach was most influential in French post-war reconstruction.
Francesca Bonfante and Christina Pallini of Politectecnico di Milano pointed to the wealth of theoretical publication produced after WWII in response to the urgency of maintaining the historical dimension and geographical context of cities, for which the idealized planning criteria of the Modern Movement and other radical models remained a threat. The growing awareness among Italian architects for a unified approach to architecture and town planning that is structurally, functionally and morphologically flexible and adequate for city reconstruction was further clarified by Filippo de Pieri from Politecnico di Torino, who focused on the increased use of visual media in promoting urban conservation and redefining national identity. Eamon Caniffe of Manchester Metropolitan University concluded the session on Italian reconstruction by pointing to the division between those who saw the potential of the Italian urban environment for tourism and those who claimed to see beyond that for an underlying structure, like the adherents of Team X.
The two sessions dedicated to work on Thomas Sharp opened with the personal reflections of Kathy Stansfield, (now editor of The Structural Engineer), author of the only MA thesis on the life and work of Thomas Sharp, a version of which was published as a chapter in Gordon Cherry's Pioneers in British Planning (1981). In his keynote speech Stephen Ward of Oxford Brookes University presented a reassessment of Sharp's planning and writing career; and pointed to the need for repositioning Sharp more centrally in the history of the planning discipline and profession, especially of the 1930s and 1940s. According to Ward, British planning history told largely in terms of the garden city and modernism does not do justice to Sharp, although his critical impact on both camps is visible. John Pendlebury added that although visual planning was central to Sharp's approach he was antagonistic towards the garden city and suburb as well as social segregation and functional zoning. Sharp privileged the pedestrian, mixed use and the street as the urban building block, principles which seemed anachronistic at the time but have become commonplace now. His emphasis on the conservation of urban character came into conflict with local and national priorities at the time when he undertook his plan for Chichester, according to the detailed and lively account of Peter Larkham of Birmingham City University. Erdem Erten of Izmir Institute of Technology presented the results of his research on the Sharp collection that focused on Sharp's close collaboration with The Architectural Review in the development and dissemination of Townscape especially during the publication of his plans for Durham, Exeter, Oxford and Salisbury by the Architectural Press, the printing press that also produced the magazine edited and half-owned by H. de C. Hastings.
Nadia Fava, from the University of Girona, Spain introduced her research on Leon Jaussely's Romulus plan for Barcelona of 1905. As an earlier case of Sitte's principles put into practice the French architect accompanied his plans with 21 perspectives to depict the quality of urban space. Andrea Yuri Urushima from Kyoto University and Keiichi Kobayashi from Tohoku University of Japan presented their research on the echoes of Townscape in Japanese urbanism. Urushima focused on Uzo Nishiyama's role in opposing mainstream planning currents and his distrust of grandiose modernist planning schemes while looking for alternative approaches to city form.
Gordon Cullen's work for Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the 1960s was presented by Monica K. Bhargava of the Centre of Built Environment in Calcutta, India. Bhargava, a collaborator of Santosh Gosh who worked with Cullen at the time, showed sketches of Cullen that remain unpublished to illustrate Cullen's townscape proposals for the city. Narrating the conflict between Denys Lasdun and Thomas Sharp stemming from Lasdun's proposals for tower blocks in Cambridge, Barnabas Calder focused on the bad blood between advocates of New Brutalism and those of Townscape. Calder argued that this antagonism was not as radically apparent in the New Brutalists' design principles and that the New Brutalists had shared and individual debts to Sharp and his contemporaries.
Alluding to Robert Venturi's remarks on American Main Street, Eleanor Smith Morris's (Commonwealth Human Ecology Council) paper titled "Is New Urbanism almost all right?" established affinities between Thomas Sharp's approach to New Urbanism and sparked discussion in the audience on whether Sharp would have approved of New Urbanism. Aidan While and Malcolm Tait of the University of Sheffield reflected on Sharp's response to Princesshay in his plan for Exeter with reference to the dynamics of contemporary conservation practice and how Sharp reconciled the demands of reconstruction and pedestrian experience with the memory of the blitzed city and its loose fragments. Adding the final touch of theory, Andrew Law of Newcastle University argued that the language of Townscape including the writings of Thomas Sharp share an "Anglo-American romantic language of organicism and landscape that has its roots in a philosophical and ideographic movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century." Law warned that Sharp's language sometimes borders on an "urban organic essentialism" connected to a "twentieth century imaginary of the urban as a living organism that could be growing in both 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' ways."
The conference was closed by a final discussion chaired by Laura Kolbe, President of the International Planning History Society. The conference also included a screening of the film When We Build Again and was accompanied by an exhibition of Sharp's personal papers, drawings, and books catalogued and conserved in the collection by the project, hosted by the University Library who also generously hosted a reception. Delegates were also able to attend one of two field trips based on Sharp's planning career. One party visited Durham, the spectacular cathedral city of the north for which Sharp's plan was published in 1945 and the second a number of villages from Northern England analysed for his classic The Anatomy of the Village (1946). The visit included the village at Kielder, built and only partially realized according to Sharp's designs for the Forestry Commission.
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