Catherine Annabel on Ivor Wolfe, The Italian Townscape

 Ivor de Wolfe (Introduction by Erdem Erten and Alan Powers) The Italian Townscape (Artifice Books, 2013)

This is an odd book in so many ways.  To begin with, its author’s name is not Ivor de Wolfe but Hubert de Cronin Hastings, a major figure in architectural publishing and yet ‘one whose life story and ideas have been difficult to reconstruct’.   The photographs are credited to Ivy de Wolfe, in reality Hastings’ wife Hazel.  Why the pseudonyms?  We are not told.

The design and typography – jarring to contemporary eyes – are exactly as they were for the original publication in 1963.   There is no index or bibliography, and the headings range from the general (‘The Street’) to the mysterious (‘Fire’) or baffling (‘Constipation’).    It’s not a coffee table book – the images are often beautiful, but not glossy, and are composed to show us what Hastings wants us to see – not buildings per se but ‘foils, focal points, fluctuations, vistas closed and vistas open, truncation, change of level, perspective, silhouette, intricacy, anticipation, continuity, space, enclosure, exposure, the precinct, profile’.

The introduction is at pains to emphasise what we should not be looking for in this book, asking us to take it not for what it might have been but for what it is, a visual polemic, a challenge to professionals who forget what really matters – what the result of their planning looks and feels like ‘when the statistics are converted into buildings in 3D and the citizens have moved in’.  As such, its relevance today is obvious,  as we continue to seek ways of ‘living at high density in walkable cities with high quality public space’.

It’s strange that people are absent from or incidental in most of the images.  Yet in Hastings’  towns, trades, cafés, paths and people are elaborately and productively interlaced (he reclaims not only ‘congestion’ but ‘constipation’ as positive ways of describing that interlacing), in ‘subtle harmonies’, where the streets belong to those who are on them rather than those who are merely going through them.   We see those people in the corners of images, clambering over statuary in the town square, or asleep on a step.  And his first profile is of washing – ‘ beautiful, gleaming, human washing’ – which he associates with the first view of the town, the public life of its private lives.

The text is sometimes arch, straining for humour or controversy, and betrays its age both in style and cultural assumptions.  However, one forgives these faults each time one stumbles across moments of fascinating perspective and insight.   As the (often highly critical) introduction says, ‘the vision is still a compelling one’, and the book remains ‘the most lucid, illuminating and entertaining product of one individual’s quest for an elusive Utopia in which man and nature would exist in a harmonious dynamism.’   A recent article in Hastings’ journal, The Architectural Review, whilst acknowledging the limitations of the Townscape movement and the peculiarities of the man himself (variously described as wilful, eccentric, and a lover of conflict and controversy), also sees it as a  cause that deserves to have another moment:  ‘For all its past influence, the Picturesque movement is often seen today as no more than bedraggled clumps of cobbles and bollards lost in decaying 1960s housing estates. Now, when architecture is dominated by object buildings, and urbanism by traffic engineers, Townscape’s humanism and respect for context deserve reappraisal.’[1]

For Hastings, ‘Townscape’  was ‘an art which is open to anyone to practise, innocent as it still is of professors and hence of expertise.  …  Sole requirement, non-blindness – curiosity of eye (one’s own) – directed towards the greatest of all artefacts, town (the humanae environment) as opposed to nature (the world without man). ‘  These Italian towns, upon which standardisation has never been imposed,  are places in which people did once enjoy living, maybe still do, and through wandering around them with that curiosity of eye, rather than seeing towns as places to get out of or to Hausmannise, we might rediscover the pleasures of urban life.

Ivor De Wolfe, The Italian Landscape (Artifice, 2013).

RRP £24.95 / €29.95 / $39.95

ISBN 978 1 908967 09 1

The Italian Landscape

Visit Artifice’s website to purchase The Italian Landscape 


One thought on “Catherine Annabel on Ivor Wolfe, The Italian Townscape

  1. Interesting review, but makes absolutely no mention that Hasting’s writings, editorial efforts, and support of Gordon Cullen was paramount in initiating the Townscape movement, theory and methods, which were extremely influential in British planning and urban design.

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