A Readers Guide to Unwin’s Town Planning in Practice – Part 3 – Formal and Informal Beauty

Today well cover chapter 3 of Raymond Unwin’s ‘ Town planning in practice; an introduction to the art of designing cities and suburbs‘  of 1909.  Chapter three follows on from the themes of Chapter 2 which looked at different forms of town plan through history.

There are today two schools of town designers. The work of one being based on the conviction that the treatment should be formal and regular in character, while that of the other springs from an equally strong belief that informality is desirable.

He also stated that landscape architecture had exactly the same division between formality and informality.

In a key passage Unwin then sets out how nature far from being ‘random’, disordered and wild is the outcome of natural laws and evolutionary processes

[the] vague belief that the beauty of wild nature arises from the fact that it is free, not subject  any constraint, and that the fault of formalism lies in its imposing order, and introducing fixed rules which must be obeyed. It is true that the beauty of wild nature is usually informal in the sense in which we have used the term, but this does not mean that it is the result of chance, or of freedom from restraint. On the contrary, the forms which we find beautiful in wild nature are the result, so far as we know, of obedience the most perfect to laws the most complex, so much so that we may call the forms inevitable. Th…the slopes of the hills and valleys, the bend of the river, the curve of the bay, and the forms of the trees and the  shrubs could not have been otherwise than as we see them…It seems probable… that adaptation to place and function or, as we have called it, rightness of form, if not necessarily resulting in beauty, is at least the basis upon which it is most likely to flourish.

We saw in previous chapters how modernist were Unwin’s ideas rather than backward looking as some caricature him.  Design was about unifying creativity and production of space.  But it was a particular brand of modernism, here we see how it equally was based on designs that grew from place rather than from the Zeitgeist view of modernism of an imposed industrial design everywhere.

As in the previous chapter where Unwin Criticises informal housing layouts for the sake of it Unwin now attacks a similar vice in landscape architecture.

beauty which we find in many landscape gardens arises mainly from the successful accomplishment of definite purposes ; not only does it not depend on the informality of the forms and lines, but in many cases arises in spite of this…The most beautiful gardens of all I believe to be those in which some of the aims of the landscape gardener have been carried out on a simple and orderly plan, where the formal frame or setting has been provided for the display of the informal beauties of trees and blossoms and still or running water. …

The formalist needs to remember that his design is subordinate to the site, that the undulation of the ground and the presence of natural features of beauty worth preserving will frequently require some departure from the regu- larity of his treatment. His formalism must be regarded as a method of carrying out definite ^ms, and not as an end in itself justifying either the destruction of existing beauty or the creation of formality for its own sake.

Then Unwin sets out how to unfiy these approaches in town plan design

If the designer is to go to work in a right spirit, he must cherish in his heart a love for all natural beauty, and at the same time have always in his mind a clear appreciation of the beauty of the definite design which he seeks to develop. His regard for a type of beauty which it is beyond his power to create will cause him to approach his site  with   reverence, will fit him to receive from it all the suggestions which it has to offer. It will help him to realise the importance of incorporating his design with the site and of so arranging his scheme of laying out that it may serve as a means of harmonising his buildings with the surrounding country. It will save him from rashly destroying trees or other existing features which, with care, might be preserved and incorporated in his design. At the same time, his belief in the rightness and the importance of definite design will prevent him from sacrificing it unduly to quite minor features of the site, which, however charming they may be in their present state, may either lose their value in the new conditions to be imposed or may be of less importance than the completion of the scheme. The designer who approaches his work in this spirit may — no, I would say must — be left to decide for himself in each case how far the lines of his site must be followed and how far his design must prevail where the one or the other must give way.

As well as aesthetic considerations Unwin also considered issues of practicality

a certain degree of orderly design in the main lines of a town plan undoubtedly helps materially to the easy understanding and following of it, and in a town so planned a stranger would more readily find his way about, more easily grasp the main lines of direction. But the practical advantages of such an orderly arrangement of the plan do not require exactitude of symmetry, which often could not be attained without considerable sacrifice of convenience or natural beauty. In such cases it would seem foolish to pay heavily for securing a degree of symmetry only appreciable on a paper plan or from the car of a balloon. The eye with difficulty measures distances and angles, and very great departures from regularity in certain directions may be made without being noticeable.

Unwin stressed the where a place was viewed from would effect the perception of symmetry and regularity.  Unwin was particuarlry concerned with rooflines.

On sites much overlooked from high ground, roofs and roof lines become matters of the utmost importance. In fact, the beauty or otherwise of towns, seen from a distance, depends very often muchmore on the roofs than upon any other part of the buildings.

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