Heritage Consultant, Brilliana Harley, interviews Associate,Tom Brigden, on his RIBA-commissioned book, Value in the View, Conserving Historic Urban Views.

Associate Tom Brigden works in our Manchester studio and bridges the roles of architect and heritage consultant, believing them to be closely intertwined.

Tom published his RIBA-commissioned book, Value in the View: Conserving historic urban views in November 2018. His book illustrates his fascination with the C18th aesthetic and the picturesque, which stems back to his PhD in which he discussed the picturesque as a tool for a contemporary pottery factory.

Value in the View

With the increasing pressure for adequate housing and suitable development sites,accompanied by the heightened appetite for tall buildings, view protection is particularly relevant. Tom Brigden’s book, Value in the View, addresses the history of the idea of view protection and interweaves the theory of the protected view with contemporary practice and guidance.

Whilst at first glance, our viewing of a city might seem free of agency, Value in the View unwraps the history of the view, inextricably imbued with cultural and political narratives. Ancient temples and theatres, for example, were often placed in elevated positions on rocky outcrops to emphasise qualities of defence, theatricality and sacred authority.

View of the theatre from the Pergamene acropolis, Turkey, showing the site’s outlook

Value in the View follows the development of the C18th picturesque aesthetic and its onward development through the townscape movement of the 1960s, which Brigden demonstrates paved the way for the urban, protected view. Our classical lens of looking is partly due to Grand Tour aristocrats assimilating European artefacts, architecture and scenery into pictorial compositions and landscape paintings.

The advent of rail travel heightened the pursuit of the visual by facilitating the admiration of a sequence of pictorial compositions. Local view frameworks as well as the international body, UNESCO, have absorbed this romantic, picturesque sensibility in their policy. With this specifically western, governing gaze UNESCO increasingly threatens to delist urban World Heritage Sites impacted by the development of tall buildings.

Claude Lorrain, Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, 1666

Value in the View paints vignettes into the history and protection of views in Dresden, St Petersburg, Istanbul and Vancouver, as well as London. It uncovers a decidedly western, approach to view protection, rooted in a detached, external viewpoint of a city’s picturesque skyline or imperial uniformity. This vision often fails to cater to a cacophony of eclectic influences and complex historic and political narratives.

Issues raised throughout are tackled in the last chapter, which debunks the western picturesque gaze and proposes a thoroughly holistic approach to view protection, embracing each urban centre on individual merit. It suggests a specialist consultant leads research and community consultation to find out what people identify as important views to provide a crucial stage in sensitively shaping our city.

Keyhole view of St Paul’s Cathedral from King Henry’s mound, Richmond, one of the LVMF’s 27 protected views

An interview with Tom Brigden, author of Value in the View

Brilliana Harley: Why is the protection of heritage views important?

Tom Brigden: My book talks about the idea of the value in the view. There are values embedded in views, beyond the visual experience, which people don’t completely understand. These can be related to cultural and national identity, as well as artistic movements. The appreciation of the view from Richmond Hill, for example, which was Britain’s first protected vista (1902) is closely tied to the emergence of the picturesque mode of vision in the C18th and it remains a national and cultural possession. View protection is important for our own identity, and that of our cities.

BH: How would you compare your book to the London View Management Framework (LVMF) and English Heritage’s ‘Seeing the History in the View’ and how do you depart from these forms of guidance?

TB: The LVMF and ‘Seeing the History in the View’ methodically lay out the policies of view protection and their application. There was no need for a book that further explained this, what was lacking was a book explaining where all this came from, with its roots in the C18th picturesque.

There was also nothing about different policies elsewhere. The whole episode about Dresden being delisted from the World Heritage list being an interesting angle, for example. It was a challenge to balance the practical side of government policy with the totally impractical academic research but I don’t like to view myself as an architect or an academic - I’m somewhere in the middle.

Jean Nouvel’s One New Change shopping centre is a low-rise development lying beneath the Threshold Plane of the area’s many intersecting protected vistas; a deep chasm cut through the building opens up new vistas of St Paul’s Cathedral

BH: How can we decide today what views are worth listing and protecting for posterity and which are not?

TB: Consultation. Understanding what people identify as important views themselves is really important. One of the criticisms of protected views is that people do not necessarily appreciate them. There are many streets with views across the city of London which locals would campaign hard to protect, but many are not considered as important as ‘protected’ views.

BH: How do you propose conducting community consultation in order to capture this multiplicity of voices and narratives?

TB: There is a new UNESCO approach applied to historic cities and landscapes, ‘Historic Urban Landscape’. They’ve trialed it in Ballarat in Australia, a ‘Victorian’ goldrush town, which they want to develop for the C21st. Locals can post old photos and anecdotes on a website to create an enormous database, which can be used to understand the elements of the city which people treasure and want to preserve, whilst also allowing the city to develop.

Something that consistently recurred, in historic paintings, photos and oral and anecdotal histories, was a view of a big hill aligning with one of the streets, a key landmark in the laying out of the city. It was decided this significant view should filter into master plans for redevelopment the city, delineating where tall buildings could or could not be developed.

Consultation could take the form of public consultation and feedback forms (like those used during Conservation Area Appraisals) but in this day and age it could also be a digital and interactive experience with people volunteering information and creating discussion forums.

Vancouver’s view protection is orientated around its mountainous skyline

BH: Do you think that in London we are protecting our views in the right way with scientific formulas producing precise skyline heights, which shape our city?

TB: I think that view protection is a useful tool to protect sight lines from A to B, say from a particular point to St Paul’s, to prevent a tall building being placed which blocks that view. However, I feel this results in designing a city by negotiation, dependent on these policies, and ending up with a compromised skyline. We don’t have a plan for how London should look in the future, just a city which develops around certain protected view cones. This is interesting, considering the policies’ birth in the picturesque which was rooted in a vision for how a view or landscape should look as a whole, how a new house or garden might feed into an image of classical arcadia. They couldn’t be more different approaches.

BH: How do other countries’ city frameworks of view protection differ?

TB: Vancouver’s protection is as tight as London but unlike London, the protected views are not of historical landmarks but glimpses of the mountainous skyline. Although different approaches, both relate to the cities’ identities and cultural branding. I find Kyoto’s protection most fascinating. Here, view protection is orientated around a festival called the Gozan no Okuribi festival, where bonfires are lit on mountains around the city in the shape of ancient characters. The protected views in the city centre preserve views of this ancient ceremony which lasts only 30 minutes each year.

The fire festival, Gozan no Okuribi in Kyoto dictates the city’s view protection

BH: What are your top views?

TB: The view from the railway viaduct in Durham of the cathedral is one of the most amazing views anywhere and from a picturesque perspective, Rousham in Oxfordshire (a wonderful landscape designed by William Kent). I’m also obsessed with the view from Richmond Hill. Likewise, the view from Richmond Hill in Virginia (America) is fascinating; it took its name from the other Richmond owing to its similarity. There is an interesting history about how the view was important for its role in defining the identity of American ‘South’ in opposition to the ‘Yankee’ North, which was itself contributory to the American Civil War.

BH: For architects, what general advice would you give on designing sensitively within protected views without being dictated by policy?

TB: Built quality is important. I have no problem with a tall building per se, cathedrals, churches with spires are very tall buildings; it’s the quality of the buildings that really matters. We should also fully understand a building’s context, its relationship with surrounding landmarks and its local population and react to this context.