A Readers Guide to Unwin’s Town Planning in Practice – Part 2 – the Individuality of Towns

Today well cover chapter 2 of Raymond Unwin’s ‘ Town planning in practice; an introduction to the art of designing cities and suburbs‘  of 1909.  This chapter looks at the history of development of cities.  Again it is important to note that this was an issue that Unwin placed up front prior to considerations of the survey of cities etc.  And its a huge chapter,100 pages, because Unwin had collected so many sketches and drawings on this topic.

Unwin was ‘astonished’ at the variety of towns plans he found and the “marked individuality which characterises …different town plans”

To the lover of cities this individuality is a very real quality, and one of the dangers of town planning schemes, gainst which we should guard, is the tendency to efface this individuality and to drill all town plans into a similar type and pattern. This tendency can only be avoided by a very thorough appreciation of the individuality — one might almost say the personality — of towns. There are in each cert«n settled characteristics arising from the nature of the scenery, the colours of local building materials, the life of the citizens, the character of the industries prevalent in the district, and numerous other circumstances, which taken all together, go to make up that flavour which gives to the town its individuality.

Unwin hoped that is future the study of the ‘the complete history of town development and town planning’ would take place understanding how towns developed the forms they did.  Lewis Mumford took up this challenge as did the yet to emerge discipline of urban morphology.

For Unwin the starting point was why a town sprung up where it did, in and/or around some centre like a fortification, or around a confluence of major roads, an industrial site, medicinal springs etc.

Unwin sketches out at some length different formative studies of historic town plans made by architects and archaeologists, then a fairly new object of study.

Unwin was clearly gaining inspiration from this this work in particular informing the contrasts and interplay between formality and informality which would form the centrepiece of later chapters, planned growth around grids and more informal irregular growth.

 Camillo Sitte deduces from the fact that in most such medieval towns the irregularities appear to have so much system and art in them that there must have been much more of conscious planning and designing in the laying out of these towns than we have been accustomed to think. This may well be the case, and that the general lines in their irregularity and want of symmetry suggest natural growth may at least to some extent be due to the fact that probably the setting out of the buildings was done largely on the ground by the eye, and not transferred from a paper plan by means of an accurate survey with careful alignment ; but whether the designing was conscious, as Sitte and his school think, or the imconscious result of the influence of the guiding tradition in which the whole building profession was steeped, is very difficult to determine.

Today with steeped in the ideas of Historical Emergent Urbanism, especially that codified in the Mediterranean World, we can understand how organic growth can be prefigured by a complex set of informal cultural rules and norms within a society,  see Hakim’s work for example, on such simple things as an arch needing to be high enough to knock to knock someone head when rising an Donkey, or that houses overlooking a harbour needed to be able to see a ship arriving from sea.  These were codified in the Arab and Mediterrainian world (via the Byzantine Empire and then later Islamic Jurists adopted them in the Arab World), but similar social norms and negotiated rules must have existed in northern Europe and we can see in histoiric towns directly to the north of the Alps, such as Rothernburg, which so fascinated Unwin the cultural diffusion of traditional urbanist norms from the Mediterranean.

Unwin then preceeds to the grand formal lines of Renaissance Planning then C17th and C18 Town Planning.  Unwin called this the ‘Renassance School of Town Planning’

Such town planning as took place was chiefly on the land of individual owners of large estates, and was generally rigid and forma!, until the influence of the landscape gardening school began to extend to the planning of streets.

Where there was not unity through a single landowner Unwin bemoans the

haphazard manner, [with which] each individual owner developing his own land on the lines which suited his own interest or fancy. Too often the only consideration has been to find a plan which would give the maximum number of building sites at the minimum cost. In the main it is true to say that the newer portions of our English towns represent a hopeless jumble of unrelated groups of streets.

To this he contrasted the Haussman/Deschamps plan for Paris, rightly giving credit to Deschamps for the actual designs and delivery.

The plan of Paris as left by Baron Haussmann is a mass of geometrical pattern-work, consisting almost exclusively of straight streets very cunningly disposed to show up all the public buildings from the maximum number of points of view, and so make the greatest possible use of these in glorifying the city. No doubt the strategic convenience for the control of revolutionary mobs may have had something to do with the choice of the straight street style of planning, but a high appreciation of the value of long vistas and of the use to be made of public buildings and monuments in beautifying a town must have been at the bottom of the way in which the work was carried out.

Then Unwin turned to the ‘rigid grid iron’ planning of American Cities.

The inconvenience and monotony of this arrangement are, however, now compelling the Americans to consider new systems.Diagonal streets are being arranged, and in some cases cut through the existing blocks, so that it will not be necessary on so many occasions to travel two sides of a triangle in order to go from point to point. .. Special attention is being devoted to the provision of parks to break up the monotony of the towns and provide breathing spaces, also to the arrangement of wide boulevards and strips of parkway to link up the parks and so provide walks and drives about the town, passing through belts of park or garden.

Philapelphia is given as a classic example.  With the ‘French System; taken as a model for the planning of diagonal streets.  But

The modern German school of town planners point out with much truth that this arrangement of diagonals crossing a square trellis system of streets, leaves numerous acute-angled plots which do not lend themselves to the production either of very successful groups of buildings or very useful open spaces. Too often a regular system of streets, once started, is continued quite regardless of the contours of the ground, and not only entails vast expense in levelling, but destroys any interesting character that may spring from a more perfect adaptation of the town plan to the conditions of the site.

Unwin also outlines the infleunce of Sittee on contemporanious German Town Planning

Impressed by the picturesque and beautiful results which sprang from devious lines and varying widths of streets, and from irregular places planned with roads entering them at odd angles, the Germans are now seeking to reproduce these, and to consciously design along the same irregular lines.

Kufstein (Tirol) and Pforzheim (Baden Wuttenburg) are given as examples.  Pforzheim was 83% bombed out during WWII was was replanned with wide modernist vistas.  Kufstein however remains untouched and we can see in its layout how its town planning scheme ws deliberately design to avoid overly rigid grids north and south of the Altstadt, with key streets design to meet others at acute angles but without creating too many overly acute blocks.

Part of the Planned Expansion of Kufstein, note the  deliberate variance between the curb line and the building line

Another example of planned urbanism at Kufstein, note the alignment of the entry street with the Mountain and the concious height of the roofline


it is particularly evident from [these examples] how the earlier geometrical and more regular planning has given place to much more carefully considered but altogether irregular systems….the plan of Kufstein, with its very carefully worked out building lines designed to produce picturesque street pictures and closed vistas, shows perhapsbetter than any other the extent to which the modern German School of town planners are trying to embody in their present work suggestions which they derive from their older towns.

Unwin was much impressed by the thoroughness of what he termed the ‘modernist’ school of German town planning, as opposed to the previous geometric school.

no labour seems too much for them, no number of revisions too great to be made so that they may bring their plans up to date and in accordance with the best style that is known and approved by the skilled town planners of their country

But Unwin was a perfectionist and a sythesiser and this wasnt enough

While, however, the importance of most of the principles which Camillo Sitte deduced from his study of medieval towns may be as great as the modern German school thinks, it does seem to me that they are in danger of regarding these principles as the only ones of great importance ; nor do they appear to realise how far it is possible to comply with these principles in designs based upon more regular lines. Some of the irregularity in their work appears to be introduced for its own sake, and if not aimlessly, at least without adequate reason; the result being that many of their more recent plans lack any sense of framework or largeness of design at all in scale with the area dealt with.

He gave Rothenburg as an example where

the scale of the principal places and streets is sufficiently large for them to dominate the town, and to provide for it a frame and centre points which render the whole really simple and easily comprehensible to the stranger

He criticised the plans of Pforzheim as one where ‘ It would be very easy for a stranger to get lost in such a town. ‘  Here we have the first setting down of the principle of legibility to enable the plan of the town to be readily grasped.

Another plan criticised by Unwin is Grünstadt in Rhineland Palintanite.  Unwin had little faith in modern builders being able to reproduce the irregular features necessary to create teh detailed needed to make interesting ‘small , irregular places and road junctions’  and indeed in the layout of Grünstadt today we can see many of the Awkward blocks left were simply left as car parks are developed with conventional lots which did not ‘turn the corner’.  Unwin stated that as in Wrens plan for the City there needed to be a reorganising of plots, and indeed post war German and Japanese planning have elaborate procedures so that plots are reorganised following an urban plan, these being based on the system praised by Unwin in Frankfurt the ‘ lex Adickes’

The deliberately irregular street lines of Grünstadt which Unwin correctly predicted builders would not follow.

Where land is held in small lots, some such power of rearranging boundaries seems necessary for good planning to be possible ; but there is much discussion among town planners in Germany on this point. Camillo Sitte and those who follow him argue that the necessity chiefly arose owing to the particular geometrical type of planning which was in vogue previous to his day, and that a freer type of planning, in which greater consideration could be shown for the existing conditions of the site for existing roadways and property boundaries, would render needless very much of the rearrangement of properties which the geometrical school of town planning found so necessary.

The question ofininformalism versus formalism would be the subject of the next chapter

Before the architect can properly weigh the arguments on both sides of this and, indeed, many other questions which town planning raises, he must think out for himself the abstract question of formalism as opposed to informalism, and must adopt for his own guidance some theory by which he can weigh the relative importance of carrying out some symmetrical design, and, on the other hand, of maintaining existing characteristics of the site with- which he is dealing. Some preliminary consideration of this rather difficult subject will be found in the next chapter.

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