Visions of the Modern Townscape

Mika Mäkelä

John Pendlebury, Erdem Ertem & Peter J. Larkham (Eds.) (2015). Alternative Visions of Post-War Reconstruction: Creating the Modern Townscape. Abingdon: Routledge.

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Research on the reconstruction of Europe in the wake of the Second World War tends to concentrate on the modernist paradigm, which flourished 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 twentieth-century urbanism. The recently published book Alternative Visions of Post-War Reconstruction: Creating the Modern Townscape focuses on 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” – the arguments presented in the other three parts of the book. Part one begins with the editors’ introduction, followed by Wolfgang Sonne’s chapter “The Enduring Concept of Civic Art”. Sonne demonstrates the continuation of urban design tradition, using various examples from Europe and North America.

The second part, entitled“Imagined Townscapes”, examines the alternative visions by demonstrating their historical background. Erdem Erten explores UK’s major architectural journal, the Architectural Review, and its Townscape campaign. Townscape as an ideology in urban planning sought to combine modernity with tradition. In his article, Erten focuses on Townscape’s 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 the reconstruction in post-war Italy, and how the architects tried to find a balance between modernism and conservation. Harriet Atkinson then explains the Townscape ideas in the context of the Festival of Britain (1951), which was located on London’s South Bank. Atkinson describes the connections between the promoters of Townscape and the South Bank Festival design team – an example of Townscape in practice.

In the next chapter, Andrea Yuri Flores Urushima describes the Townscape inspiration in the writings of Japanese planner, Niskiyama Uzö, who was critical against the ideals of international modernism and aimed to improve citizen participation in the planning process.  In the last chapter of “Imagined Townscapes”, Peter Larkham and Keith Lilley demonstrate the concept of scenography, using Thomas Sharp’s English reconstruction plans as examples. Scenography, a three-dimensional view of the city, played an important role in the UK by visualising the reconstruction plans to the public, but it also created false expectations. Following 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 entitled “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. The next chapter, written by Francesca Bonfante and Cristina Pallini, describes examples of 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 combined with a rich urban heritage led to different approaches when compared to other national contexts. In the last chapter of part three, David Snyder looks at reconstruction in Eastern Europe, and specifically at the rebuilding of the totally demolished Old Town of Warsaw after the Second World War. The Old Town was replicated with the help of photographic representations. Outside the Old Town, the new urban structure can be considered as an expression of the communist political message.

The last part is titled “Townscapes in opposition”, which opens with Nicholas Bullock’s examination of the situation in France in the period 1941–56. He demonstrates a division within French architectural journalism, with some journals demanding 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 also the revitalization of culture. Barnabas Calder then compares the idea of Townscape with the “hard” modernism of Brutalism. He 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 American cities. In the last chapter of the book, Eamonn Canniffe writes about Neo-Realism in Italy 1945-75. He argues that, contrary to some other countries, the cultural value of historical places was valued in Italy’s post-war reconstruction efforts.

When it comes to dealing with ideas that run counter to 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 of different planners and thinkers, which have taken place in the background of the mainstream ideology of modernism, although the persons highlighted in the book were still modernists in their thinking. In this sense, Alternative Visions also relates to the humanistic approach of urban planning and the urban layers theme of this issue. Through its different case examples, the book demonstrates how dominant urban planning paradigms are not implemented wholesale, on the contrary: there are variations and different approaches at the same time due to different cultural and geographical contexts. For me, this appears to be the most valuable new approach of the book. In the different articles, the book also describes how things which took place in the margin of modernist urban planning eventually led to a planning ideology change in the late 1960s. This change also took place 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 Eastern Europe and in the Nordic context, instead of devoting three chapters describing the progression in Italy alone. I would also have liked to see more illustrations and examples in some chapters in order to demonstrate the cases. Regardless of these points, I can strongly recommend this book to 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.