Obituary: Gordon Cullen
Wednesday 17 August 1994
GORDON CULLEN was a key member of that magic circle of architects, journalists, historians and poets who formed architectural opinion in post-war Britain.
This circle revolved around the inspirational editor of the Architectural Review, H de C. Hastings, and had as its heart the ideal English pub H de C. had created in the bowels of the AR offices in Queen Anne's Gate, St James's. The circle, which was formed just before the Second World War and which flourished in the late Forties and through the Fifties, included, from time to time, such clubbable characters as Sir John Betjeman, John Piper and Sir Hugh Casson along with the more acerbic Sir John Summerson, the somewhat ascetic Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, the cheerfully abrasive Peter Rayner Banham and the legendary Ian Nairn.
All played their parts in the great architectural adventure that unfolded in Britain after 1945 as Modernist ideals were merged with traditional architectural and artistic values: Casson masterminded the Festival of Britain in 1951, Pevsner gave the English an incomparable survey of their architectural achievement in his 'Buildings of England' series for Penguin, while Summerson produced the most exquisitely written architectural histories ever to appear in the English language.
Cullen's contribution was equally important. He developed an eye for seeing the obvious, but invariably overlooked, architectural qualities in the British town and city. He saw that places of great beauty and of strong and picturesque character had been created over the centuries by builders and architects working in unselfconscious harmony with the landscape and he set about identifying and analysing these qualities. The aim was to get to the essence of the British town and to teach lessons that could be learnt and applied by contemporary architects and planners.
The culmination of this investigation was Cullen's instructive and seminal book Townscape, first published in 1961. This determination to see the ordinary afresh with an inquisitive eye was an abiding passion with Cullen. One of the earliest manifestations was the infant Cullen's attempt to walk upstairs backwards by the use of a mirror. A hazardous activity but, as Cullen observed, the usual suddenly became fresh, unusual and visible for the first time.
Cullen had begun his townscape studies in earnest in 1949 when he joined the staff of the AR. The ideas were developed in close collaboration with Hastings, who had a finely developed appreciation of the urban qualities of Italian hill-towns, which he wrote about enthusiastically under the challenging pseudonym Ivor de Wofle.
Cullen and Hastings also collaborated on the making of the AR's basement bar, The Bride of Denmark. This, besides being an attempt at the creation of an ideal English pub, was also a demonstration of the principles of townscape - it is an ideal English town in miniature. The pub possesses alcoves that give a sense of enclosure, passages that offer vistas (distorted and extended by the clever use of mirrors) and which end in surprises, a genteel saloon bar and the rougher workers' quarter represented by the public bar - one a dark and glittering gin palace with exotic paint finishes (which Hde C made his young editors apply under the expert guidance of seasoned pub painters), and the other scrubbed and beery. All this survives, although long abandoned, beneath the feet of those scurrying past the AR's old offices in Queen Anne's Gate. It is a great shame that this monument to a great moment in English taste is not saved for the nation.
Cullen left the AR in 1959 - a wise move since prolonged exposure to H de C. tended to have an unsettling effect on men made of even the sternest stuff. This intellectual detachment paid off for it was during the next decade or so that Cullen produced a series of articles in the AR which first laid down the framework for Townscape and which then developed its ideas. These articles had a profound influence on the way towns were perceived and, gradually, on the way more sensitive planners and architects attempted to remake town centres in the architecturally troubled decade of the 1960s.
Cullen continued to write and act as an influential planning consultant throughout the 1970s but it was not until 1983 when he started an architectural practice with the young David Price that Cullen really began to turn his own theories to practical use. There followed a series of important planning studies which showed the principles of townscape at work. The scope was vast, from Docklands in London to Edinburgh, Glasgow and even Oslo, where Cullen was commissioned in 1984 to create a ceremonial route to link the palace with the harbour.
Before joining the staff at the AR, Cullen had spent the war years working for the Colonial Service in the West Indies, where he designed the first building of his to be built - a highly Modernist school on St Vincent. Apparently it survives. The Modernism of this structure was no doubt due to the young Cullen's pre-war employment with Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton. While working with this pioneering team of modern architects and engineers Cullen participated in the design of buildings for Dudley Zoo, near Birmingham, on the Highpoint apartments in Highgate, north London, and on the Finsbury Health Centre, where Cullen painted the now lost murals that originally graced the curved wall behind the reception desk. It had long been one of Cullen's ambitions to repaint these murals from memory.
Gordon Cullen was born in 1914, the son of a Methodist minister 'mansed', as Cullen put it, in Otley, Yorkshire. At the age of 18 Gordon escaped to London where he enrolled as a student of architecture at the Regent Street Polytechnic. Here he stayed until 1934. He secured a place in the office of the eminent architect Raymond McGrath and then joined the MARS group - a breeding ground for modernist architectural theory and design which also boasted the young Betjeman as a member.
Cullen was a delightful man to meet. He had an impish, indirect good-humour which even survived intermittent bouts of gout and, more seriously, deteriorating vision during the last decade of his life.
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