Towns, townscapes

An appreciation of landscape – the aesthetic quality of the countryside – has been part of our culture for at least two hundred years, but its urban equivalent – townscape – is a relative newcomer. The urban theorist and graphic delineator of towns Gordon Cullen drew our attention to ‘townscape’ in a series of articles in the Architectural Review about thirty years ago. His subsequent book, The Concise Townscape, remains a valuable introduction to the subject. What Cullen and others have sought to show is that towns have aesthetic qualities just as rich as the countryside, and that the recording and preserving the poetry of the urban scene is as important as protecting the beauties of the landscape.

What, then, makes up the beauty of towns, both ancient and modern? Different theories prevail, especially between urban theorists of a European as against American bent. On the whole, we are dealing with the following key qualities, each worthy of exploration through the sketchbook:

  • squares, enclosed places and centres of activity;
  • routes through the town such as streets, alleyways, lanes and footpaths;
  • landmarks of varying types such as church spires, high office buildings and transmitter masts.

These important elements of urban character are supported by a secondary layer of features that provide rhythm, patterning and changes of scale or punctuation. Hence we may find that a pattern running through the glazing of an office building is echoed in the paving of a square at its base: façade and space are thus united by a commonality of line.

The sketchbook is a useful tool for understanding towns and cultivating an awareness of the complex visual language of the city. Unlike the countryside, many cities, especially big ones, are very complicated; their spatial structure may be disjointed and the skyline a battleground for different styles. In spite of this, the freehand sketch is a useful starting point for analysis. As when drawing a landscape, one has to be selective, and it is best to avoid a too literal representation of the urban scene. A good townscape drawing focuses upon relationships and highlights the crucial elements such as the street line, silhouette and entry point.

Whether one is drawing countryside or a town, establishing the structure of the view is of great importance. The relationship of hedges and trees to a field in the landscape sketch is analogous to that of buildings and towers to a street in the townscape drawing. To focus upon the windows and doors of the buildings is akin to a precise rendition of the leaves and branches of a hedge – such detail may not be necessary to your analysis.

Rather than seek to sketch the full complexity of a town, it is best to concentrate on the key elements listed earlier. In this way the artist or student will better understand the main factors that shape our perception of cities, and, as an urban designer, will be better informed as to how and when to change their form or structure. Let us begin by looking at the first of the key elements: squares, enclosed spaces and centres of activity.

Cities do not contain an even distribution of social or commercial activity. Most towns have squares where people meet, civic functions are held and where railway and bus stations often make their presence felt. As focal points, ‘squares’ come in many forms and sizes; some are regular, others charmingly irregular and uneven. As our perception of cities is shaped by our memory of squares (such as Trafalgar Square in London, Times Square in New York or George Square in Glasgow), they perform a vital function in making one place feel different from another.

Squares are essentially enclosed spaces, though they can be partly open at the edges and partly filled by buildings. The degree of enclosure is important, however, for a real civic focus requires a space that is ‘contained’ by the surrounding buildings. Containment places a responsibility on the enclosing structures to be of sufficient size to prevent the space spilling out. If the square is very large then the surrounding buildings need to be fairly high, and any breaks in the continuity of the façades filled, unless the breaks lead to further events of interest such as a secondary square or a public building set back from the main square.

The relationship between densely packed private houses, the castle and topography is the subject of this study of an Italian hill town. Here ‘townscape’ is analogous to ‘landscape’.
The relationship between densely packed private houses, the castle and topography is the subject of this study of an Italian hill town. Here ‘townscape’ is analogous to ‘landscape’.

It is important when drawing squares and courtyards to allow some of the character of the place to invade the sketch. For example, if it is a residential square then to incorporate such details as washing lines or children playing would not only enliven the sketch, but inform its content as well. Alternatively, if the subject is a public square then elements of a civic nature such as statues or trees planted in formal lines should be included. You may wish to add people since this gives life to the square, but be careful to draw people appropriate to the location and select such details as local costume to bring a touch of genius loci.

Whatever type of square or courtyard you decide to draw, ensure that the sketch has a focus. Drawings of squares tend to be sketches of spaces (not objects) and hence can have a vacuous quality. The reality may be that the square itself lacks a focal point, but often you can overcome the problem by drawing a length of building façade to provide a point of interest around which to compose the sketch of the square. The building façade will probably be the principal frontage facing the square – perhaps a town church, market building or railway station. A great deal of effort will have to be devoted to sketching this properly as it is likely to be the major event within the space.

The Placa Reial in Barcelona
The Placa Reial in Barcelona is an even-shaped square surrounded by buildings of consistent style and filled with splendid palm trees. Openings into the square at regular intervals allow it to connect with the older pattern of streets outside. By selecting certain elements, this elaborate civic space becomes manageable to draw.
Derek Fraser
This sketch shows the main elements that make traditional city form. Notice how the different typologies provide different levels of townscape enclosure and scale. (Derek Fraser)
The courtyard formed at the rear of ancient tenements in the Old Town of Edinburgh offers a quiet space to experiment with sketching.
The courtyard formed at the rear of ancient tenements in the Old Town of Edinburgh offers a quiet space to experiment with sketching.

Once the focal point has been fixed, the rest of the sketch should fall into place with railings, fountains, statues, steps and walls providing useful articulation of the space. Often squares have more interesting paving details than do the surrounding roads, and these should be included in the sketch. Such details bring the foreground towards the viewer, and help establish the shape and configuration of the square. Equally, squares are frequently planted with interesting trees and shrubs whose foliage can provide much fascinating detail to set against the hard-edged buildings. Your sketch should demonstrate how good urban design consists of considering the buildings, spaces and landscape of the city as one, rather than as separate entities.

Squares that are distorted or uneven in shape can be more taxing to draw than regular ones. Remember that although the walls are not parallel, they have vanishing points along the same eye level. You may find, however, that one side of the square is strictly geometric in layout and often has buildings of fine proportion. You should exploit the differences in your sketch – contrasting the regular with the unplanned, thereby capturing the charm of the place.

Squares come in all sizes, from small domestic courtyards to broad civic spaces. The latter are the hardest to draw since they contain much complex detail and are often so wide that the sketches become panoramas. Beginners should start with small spaces and only attempt scenes such as London’s Parliament Square after much practice.

If you do attempt a big public square then a grasp of perspective is essential. However, scientific perspective may not provide all the answers in terms of composition or for capturing the action within the square. Here you may choose to adopt a more personal system of representing space, not unlike the Oriental system of perspective, which sets images (represented with no regard for geometric accuracy) layered in front of each other so that they become larger the nearer they are to the observer. With large squares, no matter which technique of perspective is employed, it is often instructive to try to enter into the space through the medium of drawing. If the artist chooses a position, not so much on the edge of the square looking in, but within the square and surrounded by its action, then something of the character will come through. Photomontage can also be employed to represent the background architecture, thereby allowing you to focus upon the activity in the square.

The most interesting urban spaces are those surrounded by buildings such as shops, cafés or bars. If the activities of these places are encouraged to spill out on to the square, so much the better. In addition, the square will frequently be edged by an arcade containing shops and restaurants. Hence it is surrounded by buildings that respond in form to the activities that it encloses, providing a richness of visual and social detail at the perimeter of the space. It is unfortunate that these traditional qualities have been eroded by the ubiquitous presence of the car, which in many European cities has usurped the city dweller from many areas.

Squares with much activity around the edge often have a focus of attention in the centre. Fountains, seats, an area for gossip under a few trees form the centre of many European civic spaces. In Britain it is more common to find a group of large plane trees growing within a railed- off enclosure. The relationship between the geometry of the space, its activities and planting are excellent subjects for a sketchbook analysis. Often there is room within the square for the internal activities of the enclosing buildings to spread well into the space. If a railway or underground station is located on the edge of the square then its influence will be felt more directly than in the case of a café. Now there will be bustle and bursts of movement – at rush hours and when trains arrive. A similar situation can occur if a theatre faces a square; the times of the performance will be reflected in an increase of activity.

One lesson to be drawn from this exploration is the need to allow perimeter functions to influence the design and layout of the square. A circulating system of roads prevents the peripheral traffic from spreading into the centre, leaving the space free for, and enriched by, social interaction. Those who design public buildings and railway stations have a responsibility to provide related urban space for this essential human need. It is a daunting task to try to draw a busy square, but to demonstrate the relationship between physical form and civilised values through the carefully drawn sketch is useful, even if the drawing itself is a failure artistically.

Since squares are generally enclosed on all sides, the artist should employ shade and shadow to create the impression of spatial containment. You can use your imagination when portraying the direction of light in order to express the quality of the square in the most favourable way. A deep shadow to left or right allows figures, statues or trees to be set against it, thereby standing out and creating a real feeling of occupying the space. Shading should not generally be drawn upon the focal building – the intention is to direct the eye towards it by masking out surrounding buildings. The focal building (say, a theatre or church) can have broken shadow or shade beneath lintels and cornices, but the principal structure in the square is best bathed in sunshine (even if this is not present in reality) and framed by other buildings and trees in shadow.

Sometimes a mixture of wash or Conté crayon and fine line are the best materials to delineate such spaces. The wash or crayon depicts the shadows, while the line work can be employed for portraying decorative or principal elements. With complex urban spaces it pays to simplify the subject as far as possible, and to build up the sketch gradually, aiming to stop before the subject becomes overworked.

As squares are one of the chief attractions of towns, it is worth spending more time in them than elsewhere. The culture of cities often resides in the squares – a culture not just of but of people and public functions. Lesser squares and domestic spaces are also valuable and provide important social centres for smaller districts. These secondary spaces may be a useful starting point for those intent upon understanding urban design, as drawing skills can be learnt in them unimpeded by the bustle or embarrassment that can arise in more central locations. For the lessons provided by urban spaces – those of entry, containment and perimeter activity – are to be gained equally well in small squares as in large ones.

These lesser squares show that a hierarchy of urban spaces exists in most towns. The civic square is a truly public space, while domestic squares set back from the street edge are more intimate in character, though often different again from semi-private squares landlocked within the middle of a city block. Hence the different types of enclosed urban spaces have distinctive qualities that relate to their levels of privacy and need for security. A design sketch should communicate some of these differences in character, as in the proposal for a new university campus in Dublin by Metropolitan Workshop Architects.