At the last CovSoc meeting we heard a presentation from Lesley Durbin about the restoration of the Cullen tile mural in the Lower Precinct. But who was Gordon Cullen and how did he come to be designing a mural in Coventry?
Thomas Gordon Cullen was born in Otley, Yorkshire on the 9th August 1914, the son of a Methodist minister. He studied architecture and draughtsmanship at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London and subsequently worked as a draughtsman in various architects’ offices including that of Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton, but he never qualified or practised as an architect.
He was famous as a writer, artist, planner and urban designer and his book, Townscape, remained in print for over fifty years. Many planning students from the 1970s might still have their copies of this seminal work (the author included)!
Gordon was a key member of a dominant circle of architects, journalists, historians and poets who formed architectural opinion in post-war Britain. His contribution was to develop an eye for seeing the obvious, but invariably overlooked, architectural qualities in British town and cities.
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.
Despite being blind in one eye, he was a tremendous artist and draughtsman. During the Second World War he was declared medically unfit for military service and instead designed factories and Ministry of Information exhibitions, before going to Barbados with the colonial service in 1944 to plan self-help housing and schools in the British West Indies.
On his return to London in 1946 Cullen joined the staff of the Architectural Review where, as Assistant Editor, he became a prominent commentator on post-war development and architecture. In 1947 he published a pioneering pedestrianized proposal for Parliament Square, ‘Westminster regained’ and he also produced a special edition of the Architectural Review in 1955.
Cullen’s skill as an architectural illustrator was greatly admired and he received many illustrative commissions such as the 1943 County of London Plan, Kynoch Press’s 1940 diary and the 1955 Cambridge Christmas Book, as well as some studies of the State Apartments at Windsor Castle.
In the Festival of Britain in 1951 Cullen was in charge of all external public lettering on the South Bank. He was also commissioned to design modern pocket gardens for the terrace outside the Homes & Gardens pavilion.
Shortly afterwards Cullen was commissioned to paint a mural in the reception area of Westville (now Greenside) Primary School in Shepherd’s Bush.
The Coventry mural was commissioned in 1957 by the City Planning & Redevelopment Committee on the recommendation of Arthur Ling, City Architect to the corporation. The mural depicted the history of the City and its post-war regeneration. The mural was relocated from the top end of the Lower Precinct as part of a regeneration scheme in 2002.
Cullen promoted an approach to civic design that led to his book Townscape published in 1961. Translated into several languages and re-titled The Concise Townscape, it has become a standard text for urban development.
In 1972 Cullen was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and in 1976 he was awarded the CBE for his contribution to architecture.
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 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.
Gordon Cullen died in Slough at the age of 80 on 11 August 1994. He was described as 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. He was dubbed ‘Mr Townscape’ in the tribute issue of Urban Design and Townscape (October 1994).