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Protected views and the living city

Robert Tavernor

This analysis of five contemporary cities raises the question of whether Unesco's protection criteria need a rethink

Vancouver view corridors as drawn by Tom Brigden
Vancouver view corridors as drawn by Tom Brigden

City-image matters. Historically, landscapes and townscapes were painted to convey enhanced realities of authority, order, wealth and a specific visual identity to go with the name. Similarly today, and more so, digital photographic city images are used to attract workers, visitors, and inward investment from around the globe: the city as ‘brandscape’. The most successful global cities present themselves as investable stable cultures that balance history and modernity. London is of course one such city, where St Paul’s Cathedral and its World Heritage Sites are seen in the context of rapid urban growth and increasingly tall buildings.

The value of global status for a city’s and a nation’s wealth is considerable, and maintaining the delicate and often conflicting demands of heritage and commercial investment is a theme that Tom Brigden explores well in his stimulating book, Value in the View: Conserving Historic Urban Views. As he explains, when the balance favours commercial expansion at the expense of heritage, Unesco has stepped in to exert its considerable international influence on governments, threatening to place cities on the ‘in danger’ register and having their World Heritage Status removed where it is perceived that urban growth has inflicted ‘visual damage’ on their settings. In an attempt to maintain and demonstrate equilibrium in London, a complex and technical ‘View Management Framework’ has been developed that identifies key views requiring protection, and a network of viewing corridors that criss-cross the central area from vantage points on hills and along the River Thames, whereby new development is strictly controlled or corralled into ‘clusters’: an approach that has its origins in the first legally protected view, from Richmond Hill looking towards the River Thames, defined by an Act of Parliament in 1902.

To understand how painted and now photographed views have acquired such value, Brigden begins by sketching out the visual and intellectual history of city views, starting in Rome, which provided the visual climax of the Grand Tour for northern Europeans. The images produced in the 17th and 18th centuries were frequently idealised, with underlying narratives reinforcing classical themes and a heightened sense of ‘natural’ order – social and political – for the returning gentry: hence Canaletto’s beguiling and popular paintings of Georgian London as the ‘Venice of the North’. From these painterly beginnings the aesthetic ideal of the picturesque was developed in 18th century Britain, in which there was a conscious manipulation and perfection of nature to create framed, static and layered perspectival compositions, from which any real life ugliness was excluded.


A deep chasm cut through the building opens up new vista of St Paul's Cathedral
A deep chasm cut through the building opens up new vista of St Paul's Cathedral Credit: Tom Brigden

Brigden then selects five contrasting contemporary cities – London, Dresden, St Petersburg, Istanbul and Vancouver – where the English picturesque movement has had an influence and where view protection has developed into a major issue for Unesco. Istanbul provides a particularly interesting contrast to London and Dresden, as it highlights what Brigden identifies as a fundamental flaw in Unesco’s emphasis on view management, since European conventions of pictorial composition were a religious taboo for a significant part of Istanbul’s history. As Brigden explains, ‘Ottoman architectural spaces and languages reveal a much more multisensory understanding of the view, where the colour, sound and activity of the water, or the qualities of light at different times of the day formed the focus’. This leads Brigden to question the fundamental intellectual basis for Unesco’s ‘policing’ of the world’s most famous historic views. Is it, he asks provocatively, ‘just the latest example of the western colonial project – the colonial tyranny of the protected view?’

Even, in London, where view protection started, its validity and success are questioned as the modern city exerts itself on the old. Unesco is among those which consider that the settings of the Palace of Westminster and the Tower of London are being harmed by tall buildings, while pro-development groups – including the British Government – regard them as a sign of success and as a positive modernising addition to the picturesque skyline of the 21st century. Certainly, successful vital cities do adapt and change as they grow, and how we view the balance of old and new in cities – kinetically and virtually – will no doubt keep pace with them. As Brigden concludes, we need to look beyond the picture-image to find a way forward.

Value in the View: Conserving Historic Urban Views by Tom Brigden, 160pp, RIBA Publishing, 2018

Robert Tavernor is emeritus professor of architecture and urban design at the LSE and a director of the Tavernor Consultancy.