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ISU professor’s new book explores influence of British architectural draftsman Thomas Gordon Cullen on image making in postwar consumer culture

November 12, 2015


Professor Mira Engler with copies of her new book, "Cut and Paste Urban Landscape: The Work of Gordon Cullen." On her desk are bound volumes of "The Architectural Review," the London-based journal for which Cullen served as art director from 1947 to 1959.

AMES, Iowa — In the present era of consumer-driven economies, image making and visual marketing are enormously influential. The success or failure of products and ideas is in the hands of artists and designers whose images and visual strategies directly affect how consumers make purchasing decisions or commit themselves to intellectual and cultural trends.

One of the leading postwar image makers who influenced the design of the postmodern city—and arguably, the methods used to promote everything from appliances to lifestyles—was the British architectural draftsman, Thomas Gordon Cullen (1914–1994).

Cullen worked in some of the best modern architects' offices in Britain and freelanced for manufacturers, government agencies and publishers before becoming the art editor of the London-based journal "The Architectural Review" in 1947. Over a decade he produced hundreds of illustrations and dozens of covers for the magazine and wrote nearly 60 illustrated essays.

The cover of Engler's book pays homage to the cover of Cullen's "Townscape" (1961), a collection of essays he wrote for "The Architectural Review."

Mira Engler, professor of landscape architecture at Iowa State University, has published a new book on Cullen's work, titled "Cut and Paste Urban Landscape: The Work of Gordon Cullen," part of the Routledge Research in Architecture series.

Cullen's primary task was to promote the journal editors' ideas about a postwar city, a modern–picturesque approach to urban design that became known as Townscape. He gained acclaim following the publication of his book "Townscape" (1961)—abridged as "The Concise Townscape" (1971)—a collection of essays he wrote for the "Review" between 1947 and 1959.

Cullen's association with the Townscape movement has led scholars to place him in the history of urban design and planning ideas, but until now none has undertaken an in-depth study of his printed images and modus operandi. In this new approach, Engler examines Cullen's drawings and his process of image making to explain his continuing popularity and influence and to elucidate his importance.

"I use Cullen as an example to demonstrate the power and the changing role of image makers, such as illustrators and photographers, who in the postwar period were becoming the mediators between different ideas and the broader public," Engler said.

"This was a time when visual consumer culture was exploding; print media became profuse and personal cameras became affordable: the importance of the image took off. People like Cullen shaped architecture and design through images that, like advertising, were intended to appeal to an expanding market. Cullen did this better than many others."

One of Cullen's serial vision drawings from "Townscape," 1961.

In "Cut and Paste Urban Landscape," Engler describes Cullen as a bricoleur who "brought together imagery and techniques from a variety of genres—modern art, animated cartoons, comic books, advertising, theater—with traditional architectural and landscape architectural techniques to build a new pictorial style."

Cullen also employed "cut and paste" techniques to produce his drawings, "piecing together images from the various sources of 'ready-made' pictures, photographs and drawings from his and others' repertoire,” Engler said. His work was downplayed by scholars and theoreticians at the time for being commercial rather than intellectual, but he successfully reached a broader audience.

"Cullen's drawings were fun and accessible to mainstream professionals and lay people. Done fast, they're both modern and cartoonish and have an uplifting quality, a far cry from the austere professional drawings of contemporary architects," said Engler.

One of Cullen's best-known drawing techniques was "serial vision," which he borrowed from colleagues, improved and popularized. "It became a method with which to explore and design the urban landscape as a series of views and spaces from the viewpoint of a moving pedestrian," Engler said. Together with his rapid, cartoon-like sketching, this technique was adopted widely and is commonly used today.

Cullen shaped a global generation of architects and landscape architects educated between the 1960s and the 1980s "to see the world at eye level—as mobile, pedestrian and spectacular." Mostly without knowing the source of their method, many draw or design using "Cullenesque" techniques.

No less a figure than Sir Norman Foster, the prominent British architect, cites Cullen as a key influence. "Foster wrote a piece in a Cullen monograph saying he acquired a way of seeing the world and designing through Cullen," Engler said. "I was also influenced by him and didn’t really recognize it."

In 1989, as a new faculty member at Iowa State, Engler and two colleagues who were teaching the introductory design studio in landscape architecture took their students on a field trip to Minneapolis to study the urban public landscape. Engler photocopied a page of serial vision illustrations from Cullen's "Townscape," gave it to her students and told them to “draw like this. So as we walked along Nicolet Mall my students drew serial vision drawings and came to understand the city through Cullen's eye."

"This was the first tool that I gave my students to learn to draw," Engler said. "Who would have imagined 25 years ago that I would have written a book about it now?"

"Cut and Paste Urban Landscape: The Work of Gordon Cullen" is available in hardcover and as an e-book online.

Engler holds a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture (1982) with honors from Technion, Israel Institute of Technology; a Master of Landscape Architecture (1989) from the University of California, Berkeley; and a PhD in architecture (2013) from the University of California, Los Angeles. She teaches landscape architectural design history and theory classes and serves as the director of graduate education for the ISU Department of Landscape Architecture.

Her previous book, "Designing America's Waste Landscapes," explores societal and professional attitudes towards waste and the design of dumps and sewage grounds. She currently studies the relationship between landscape architecture, mass media and visual consumer culture.

Mira Engler, Landscape Architecture, (515) 294-8937,
Heather Sauer, Design Communications, (515) 294-9289,