Sunday, June 12, 2016

Gordon Cullen and the Outdoor Floor

Oceans of asphalt: 2400 block of Cypress.
My friend Bill Marston loaned me a book called The Concise Townscape, by Gordon Cullen. We had been looking at some of the illustrations over coffee, and I had expressed an interest in reading the text.

I was intrigued by the thought that I might have read this book, or parts of it, more than forty years ago. I wasn't sure until page 82, when I ran across this phrase: "... today the tree is more usually accepted in its own right as a living organism which is pleased to dwell among us." Some things you never forget.

The book has quite a few well-turned aphorisms. Here's another, from page 46: "The typical town is not a pattern of streets but a sequence of spaces created by buildings."

It turns out that Gordon Cullen was quite influential in his day. Many young architects interested in urban design studied his book. I called up my brother and asked him if he recalled Gordon Cullen. The answer was an immediate yes, along with the news that he still has his copy of the book on a bookshelf in his apartment.

Think of Cullen as the English Jane Jacobs - their careers were contemporary, involved magazine journalism, and centered on the harm that automobiles were doing to cities.

Asphalt Is Boring
I was particularly taken with Cullen's thoughts on treatments for the street surface - what he calls "the floor." Here's what he has to say on page 53: "Buildings, rich in texture and color, stand on the floor. If the floor is a smooth and flat expanse of greyish tarmac then the buildings will remain separate because the floor fails to intrigue the eye in the same way that the buildings do."

He comes back to this idea on page 121: "Instead of walls and floor being in harmony, the floor linking or separating architectural elements and expressing the kind of space which exists between buildings, it is as though the buildings were models plonked down on a blackboard."

And here he is on page 128: "From the visual standpoint the greatest single loss suffered is neutralization of the floor, the space between buildings, which has changed from a connecting surface to a dividing surface. ...  Buildings are gathered together but they do not form towns; one might almost as well build houses facing across a railway line."

I recently posted a story on The Pavements of Asbury Park. I wonder if my interest in the visual effect of paving treatments stems from some long-forgotten passages in a dimly remembered book.

What an Illustrator!
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Cullen's illustrations, which manage to be both highly informative and utterly charming. They put me in mind of David Macaulay and his many books. I stumbled across this wonderful TED Talk that Macaulay did a while ago. I haven't found anything comparable for Cullen, so I thought I'd share. You can find some of Cullen's illustrations online, but I think the best way to see his work is to get your hands on the book.

I'm thinking a sidewalk would help.
See also A Tale of Three Alleys.

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