Visions of the Modern Townscape

Mika Mäkelä

John Pendlebury, Erdem Ertem and Peter J. Larkham (eds.), Alternative Visions of Post-War Reconstruction: Creating the Modern Townscape. Abingdon: Routledge, 2015. xv + 257pp. 83 figures.

Post-Second World War reconstruction has recently become an important field of research around the world. In urban planning, research usually concentrates on modernist ideology, which flourished into the mainstream from the start of the Second World War to the mid-sixties. However, the practices of modernism also faced opposition and criticism, which is still an overlooked field within the history of 20th-century urbanism. The recently published work Alternative Visions of Post-War Reconstruction: Creating the Modern Townscape focuses on these alternative approaches of reconstruction which occurred at the same time in different geographical contexts. The writers are mainly architecture researchers specializing in post-war urban planning.
The book is divided into four parts containing in total fourteen articles, which primarily demonstrate different case examples. The first part forms the background for the “alternative visions”, namely the arguments presented in the other three parts of the book. Part one begins with the editors’ introduction followed by Wolfgang Sonne’s “The Enduring Concept of Civic Art”. Using a wide range of examples from Europe and North America, Sonne demonstrates the continuation of an important tradition of urban design which persisted throughout the time frame covered in the book.
The second part, “Imagined Townscapes”, addresses the development of alternative visions for the city and the respective historical contextual background for these visions, which have mainly served as theoretical or pedagogical purposes. Erdem Erten explores UK’s major architectural journal, the Architectural Review and its townscape campaign. Townscape was an approach to urban design that sought to reconcile modernity with tradition. Its idea is usually discussed in terms of its use as a visual planning methodology but in this article Erten focuses on its cultural role. The journal had some international influence as well, as described in articles coming later in this section.
Filippo De Pieri writes about the presentation of Italy’s built heritage in Assisi and Urbino through the work of Giovanni Astengo and Giancarlo De Carlo in the 1950s and 1960s. De Pieri demonstrates how the Italian architects sought to balance modernist ideals and the impacts of modernisation with the pressures of conservation of historic cities in post-war Italy. Harriet Atkinson then explains the townscape ideas in the context of the Festival of Britain (1951), located on London’s South Bank. Atkinson describes the connections between the promoters of Townscape and the South Bank Festival design team, which perhaps demonstrated the practical exemplification of Townscape.
In the next chapter Andrea Yuri Flores Urushima describes the Townscape inspiration in the writings of Japanese planner, Niskiyama Uzö. Niskiyama advocated a critical re-evaluation of international modernism against its dogmatic and ubiquitous implementation. Instead, he searched for a language that would visually communicate the possible futures of a plan, inviting citizen participation in the process of city making.
In the last chapter of “Imagined Townscapes” Peter Larkham and Keith Lilley explore the concept of scenography, most particularly as used in Thomas Sharp’s English reconstruction plans. Scenography, defined as a three-dimensional view of the city, has played a crucial role in the conceptualization of ideas in urban planning. Such visualizations were very common in advisory reconstruction plans of the period, although they also created false expectations. After the new generation of UK’s Development Plans, scenographic representation quickly changed back to two-dimensional maps and data tabulations.
The third part of the book is “Townscapes in practice”. This section opens with John Pendlebury’s chapter on the reconstruction plans of Thomas Sharp. As Pendlebury notes, Sharp was a notable reconstruction planner, whose vision captured modernism in acknowledging the demand for improved housing and motor cars, but he also countered mainstream modernism by recognizing the unique character of different places. Sharp’s alternative visions were simultaneously bold and locally focused and his concept of Townscape involved widespread application and the creation of high-quality urban places.
The next chapter written by Francesca Bonfante and Cristina Pallini describes examples of the different kinds of reconstruction in the bombed Italian cities of Milan, Turin and Genoa. In Italy, as also noted earlier by De Pieri, the issue of urbanism and rich urban heritage led to different approaches compared to other national contexts. In the last chapter of part three David Snyder looks at reconstruction in the Soviet bloc with the rebuilding of the totally demolished Old Town of Warsaw after the Second World War. The nature of authenticity was established through photographic representations. Here the alterative visions are inherent in the deliberate presentation of a communist political message, the reinterpretation of the past and the promotion of a new urban future outside the Old Town.
The last part is titled “Townscapes in opposition”, which opens with Nicholas Bullock’s explanation of the situation in France through Urbanisme 1941–56. He demonstrates a division within French architectural journalism, where some journals demanded an accommodation with older traditions of French urbanism and the recognition of conservation, while others expected French city centres to be modernized. Bullock also shows how reconstruction was not simply concerned with the physically urban but also with the revitalization of culture. Barnabas Calder then compares the Townscape with the “hard” moderns of Brutalism. She argues that Brutalism used to some extent the ideas of Townscape, although these ideologies are normally thought of as somewhat contrasting.
Peter Laurence explains how Jane Jacobs was strongly influenced by the Townscape concept in her famous writings concerning big American cities, which altered the idea of city and its planning. Jacobs found support for her own work in Townscape theory, which valued concentration, density, centralization, variety of demand and multiple use above functional zoning and car-dependent suburban sprawl. In the last chapter of the book Eamonn Canniffe writes about Neo-Realism in Italy 1945-75. He reframes Italy’s post-war reconstruction efforts as the stage of a debate where the limitations of universal models favoured by modernists and the approach of Townscape were critiqued by the adherents of Team 10 in an attempt to overcome such limitations by appealing to anthropology. The Italian example is intriguing as the cultural value of historical environments received renewed interest.
When it comes to dealing with contrasting ideas against the mainstream modernistic urban planning ideology from the start of World War II to the mid-1960s, Alternative Visions of Post-War Reconstruction: Creating the Modern Townscape is probably the most comprehensive work to date. As a researcher of Helsinki’s post-war planning, this book offers me valuable information on alternative visions that have taken place in the background of the mainstream ideology of modernism. Alternative Visions reflects on the Urban Layers of Meaning theme of this issue. In the different articles, the book describes how things which took place in the background of modernist urban planning eventually led to a planning ideology change in the late 1960s. This change also happened in Helsinki.
The book is captivating and easy to read, at least for an urban planning enthusiast like myself. However, the weakness of the book relates to the selected geographical context, which from the point of a Nordic reader, is relatively narrow. It would have been interesting to focus also on similar alternative visions which took place in post-war West Germany, other parts of the Soviet bloc and the Nordic context, instead of devoting three chapters describing the progression in Italy alone. Personally, I would have liked to see more illustrations and examples in some chapters in order to demonstrate the case being made. Regardless of these points, I can strongly recommend this book for all those interested in urban planning after the Second World War.

Mika Mäkelä

MSc, MA, PhD Student, Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies, University of Helsinki.