An Expatriate’s Primer on an Urban View

In Gordon Cullen’s epic early-1960s work, The Concise Townscape, he described the visual experience of townscape views through an emphasis on “serial vision,” and on present and emerging views that become revelation while moving from place to place. More than Edmund Bacon, who focused his Design of Cities on similar experiential aspects framed by the built environment, Cullen provided extensive typologies of architecture and street patterns through photographic example, concentrating on the experience of moving from place to place.

For Cullen, passing through the built environment was full of tensions, delight, drama, and contrasts, specifically, the “drama of juxtapositions.” In my book, Seeing the Better City, I also arrived at the same term, juxtapositions, and, since I moved to the United Kingdom early this year, I see juxtapositions as an even more essential element of  urban observation.

For many years, my urban exploration has stressed an experiential approach to urban juxtapositions, overlaps, intersections, and all the other descriptors applicable to urban life. I like to say that it’s a gut-level, observational process, which every one of us has the means to carry out.

I have thought a lot about such juxtapositions, and why they are points of context and focus—catalysts for today’s urban dialogues. In the United States, I became used to these observed overlays forcing contentious discussions about sudden and gradual change, generational differences, public and private preferences, mergers of cultures and business types, and mixing of land uses, transportation modes, and housing approaches.

Notice a juxtaposition, I would routinely say in Seattle, and see debates about use of a place, flashpoints, and ripples in time—all of which are apparent in the spaces and human expressions of everyday life.

In the United Kingdom, I’ve had a different sense, one much more influenced by the backdrop of history that often frames an observed setting.  Here, while crossing the Richmond Bridge in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, we see the intensity of experience resulting from multi-colored  boats in the Thames River, the backdrop of weather, and a time-honored riverfront redeveloped with offices and commercial spaces oriented toward the river view.

Notice how the juxtapositions in these photographs embrace the assets of a place; the power of the images stems from the combination of its subjects, not any one part. The urban observer finds value in the overlaps and blending of boats, sky, and historic setting that create an inspirational experience, over and above viewing each overlapping element individually.

__

This entry is adapted from Seeing the Better City (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2017). Photos in Richmond upon Thames by the author.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.