Stephen Mills

The Surveyor 2 (March 4, 1890):5-9.

In January, 1890 John Sulman, the distinguished English-trained architect who practiced in Sydney, read a paper before a section of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science. In it, Sulman criticized standardized gridiron planning that surveyors had used for some many towns in Australia and claimed that architects should be given the main responsibility for town planning. This was printed in The Surveyor, the journal of the Institution of Surveyors of New South Wales. Reaction by surveyors was predictably negative, and in this paper the author attacks Sulman's position and especially his recommendations for town plans based on radial thoroughfares in a spiderweb-like pattern.
A typical Australian town is made up, like a chessboard, of a number of co-equal squares, or, possibly, rectangles. The chief merit of such a plan is its simplicity and the ease with which the work of the surveyor can be performed. The defects are, however, many, and it is a thousand pities that a work of such great importance to the future millions of Australia should be performed with so little thought and care."

With this exordium Mr. Sulman begins, and then passes on to discuss, under the five headings "Location, Utilization, Decoration, Legislation, Realisation," how, in the future, the errors of the past are to be avoided, and more satisfactory results obtained.

Under the first heading, "Location," Mr. Sulman says that "a town should only be laid out where the conditions for its growth are present," and points out that neglect of this first principle must only result in loss, either to the Government, that is to the community at large, or to individuals. This is undeniable, but in such cases it is equally obvious that the system adopted in laying-out is of no moment, since the town is not destined to be populated.

The second leading principle to be regarded in locating a town is healthiness of site, and here the most potent evils to guard against "are swampy or flooded land, and an impervious sub- soil."

Two places, the names of which are not given, but which may be shrewdly guessed, are described as instances in which these "most potent evils" have not been avoided.

In the first case it seems that the Government selected a site on the bank of a river, and laid out a town. This was on rising ground and not liable to flood. So far, so good. But the wisdom and foresight displayed in this selection were doomed to be frustrated by a combination of circumstances against which it were idle for the strongest Government to struggle. On the opposite bank, accessible by a bridge, the land was in the hands of a "drunken old settler." This land was subject to periodical flooding. All might still have been well, but in an evil day, some "ignorant new chums" came along armed with a few bottles of a seductive fluid called rum, wherewith they beguiled the intemperate old settler, became possessed of his land, "and on it the town was built." At intervals, more or less frequent, the town which arose at the bidding of those extremely "ignorant new chums" is covered with mud and water, and the inhabitants are now clamoring for embankment works, which will probably be carried out, at a large expense to the public.

Mr. Sulman's other awful example is "a noted health resort," which has an impervious bed of clay from 8 to 12 feet below its surface. With regard to this place it is asserted that "an expensive system of land drainage at the public cost will be an absolute necessity to palliate the evil of wrong selection, though it can never be a cure." Now what does the author mean here? Is there any town in the world where the existence of a pervious subsoil renders drainage unnecessary or is there any place where a subsoil of clay renders an efficient system of drainage impossible? An affirmative answer to these questions appears to be implied by the text of the article.

The importance of knowledge and judgment in the selection of sites for towns is undeniable, and the mere mention of some of the evils to be avoided may do good, though the illustrations chosen cannot be considered the strongest possible.

Under headings "Utilisation," and "Decoration," Mr. Sulman's paper becomes much more interesting. The author strongly advocates a city plan closely resembling a spider's web, and contends that it "possesses not only the advantage of convenience, but also of variety." There is no doubt that, in such a plan, the centre at any rate, if sufficient space is reserved can be made very attractive. Commanding, as it will, views of so many of the finest thoroughfares, the "vivacity of the street circulations" and its own great central stir and bustle will make it the most interesting point in the city.

At such a centre may be placed a fine monument, which would add immensely to the effect of all the avenues converging on that point. A splendid example of the effects obtainable by this plan is the view from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The matchless Champs Elysée, (terminated at its other extremity by the finest square in Europe, the Place de la Concorde) the main avenue of the Bois de Boulogne, and several other of the noblest streets in Paris are focussed at this spot, and the whole effect is probably, unsurpassed.

It is little to be wondered at that the spider web plan should find favour with an architect, for it provides any number of irregularly-shaped sites, and "in the hands of an architect who knows how to use it an irregular site is a godsend." An American writer, in an essay published a quarter of a century ago, says:-- "It is a great point in the planning of a city to get as many good frontages for architecture as possible; so that, moving through it in every direction, the eye will always be meeting--in square front, if possible--some grandly imposing or beautiful object. A city like Philadelphia (which is laid out on the rectangular plan) has no frontages, and if it were made up of palaces the eye would only look past them, never at them, and they would make but a feeble side-glance impression. On the other hand, a city planned like Edinburgh in the new part, or in the happy combination of the old and the new, would so display its frontages at every turn as to make everything fine even doubly impressive." It is evident that the feeble impression made by buildings in a city of rectangles is made still more feeble when the streets are very narrow, so that one cannot from one side of the street see an elevation on the opposite side without a decided throwing back of the head.[(1)

Mr. Sulman has something to say on the advantages of the use of curves in street planning, and instances the quadrant in Regent-street, London, the High street at Oxford, the Grand Canal at Venice, the Strand, and (to come nearer home) the irregular lines of George and King-streets, Sydney, "In all these," he says, "the continual unfolding of fresh views is the great charm." There is, indeed, in Sydney, one street (Boomerang-street) laid out in curving lines--not mere irregularities--but, as it runs through park land, and the frontages are not built on, the artistic value of its graceful lines is not so apparent. Boomerang-street is, so far as I can recollect at the moment, the only example in Sydney of the judicious use of curving street lines as a means of obtaining an easy grade on hilly ground. The street it joins at one of its extremities--William-street--is one of the worst of the numerous examples we have of senseless adherence to the rectilinear system on steep slopes.

Though Sydney is often spoken of as a city which was never designed, but, like Topsy, simple "grew," anyone who looks at the manner in which almost all the severe gradients have been treated, will have no difficulty in seeing only too plainly, the evidences of design, though it is design of an almost incredibly unskilful and stupid character.

San Francisco, even more than Sydney, has suffered from what Mr. Sulman calls "the cast iron uniformity of the chess- board type."

The American author previously quoted says, "By the neglecting of this very obvious expedient (that is, the use of oblique or curving lines) the noble background of the fine city of San Francisco is sacrificed and for ever lost. Lying in a capacious bowl or concave between the hills and the bay, the city is laid off, as it should be, in parallelograms, with only here and there a deviation from uniformity, and, as everything passing on the concave length of every street is visible, of course, in every part of it, there is a wonderful vivacity in the circulations. But as soon as the rectangular form, pushing up the steep hill sides, reaches a point where the ascent for carriages is no longer possible, the whole space above, which ought to have been covered with residences of the highest character, loses value, and is occupied only by cheap tenements, such as mules and footmen climbing up as they best can, are able to furnish with supplies. So far the rectangular plan is the enemy of all convenience. Nay, it is even the final destruction of the finest possibilities of beauty. Had the engineers of San Francisco, when reaching a certain point, deflected their straight lines, running them into spirals that cut each other obliquely, the plan which now runs out in the background, into a weak and crazy-looking conspicuity, would have crowned itself in a summit of ornament ascended by easy drives, and looking down from its terraces on all the activity of a populous and beautiful city."

In an interesting letter (published in the August, 1889, number of "The Surveyor") Mr. Mocatta speaks thus of the system adopted in the subdivision of Kensington Estate, near Sydney:-- "The idea of attaining the heights by curved roads gradually ascending the hills has been adopted, where the allotments are of such a size that the symmetry is not spoiled. Referring to these curved roads, I have met several surveyors who quite disapprove of them: however, where a road is of sufficient importance to guarantee the extra expense of laying out, and where beauty is desirable the artistic sense will undoubtedly demand a fair proportion of curves. Hitherto we have pretty well confined ourselves to laying out lands for settlement in straight lines, to be relieved in time by a split-rail fence. In Europe and America it is not done so, and we shall have to accommodate ourselves to new and improved ideas. Just now the public is demanding a more artistic style for its houses, which our best men are supplying by adaptations to suite the climate, of the Elizabethan, Queen Anne, and Dutch styles, that demand extends to the surveyor and to the engineer. It is no longer sufficient that his work is useful, for, though that is much, there is no reason that a great deal of it should not also be tasteful."

So far as location is concerned, the exigent demands of commerce, or some chance landing, some haphazard settlement, frequently settle the question of site before any professional man has an opportunity to express any opinion, or to exercise his skill in laying out. And, to lay out a town satisfactorily, to fulfil all the conditions of utility and beauty, is a work demanding considerable thought, sound judgment, ripe taste. One should be conversant with all the various systems, but the slave of none, should lay under tribute all existing plans, or if necessary invent a new plan or a new combination of old plans, in order effectively to deal with new topographical conditions. Neither the "chess-board" nor the "spider- web" nor any other system in use, or yet to be devised, can have a universal application.

The rectangular system has, on suitable sites, many advantages. It is the simplest of forms, and, in many respects, the most convenient and economical. Mr. Sulman's impeachment, is really directed against the abuse of this system, not against the system itself. It would be very easy to show that, evils as serious as those which arise out of the attempted application of the rectangular system to unsuitable localities, would follow a slavish adherence to the spider-web plan. The rectangular system is easily capable of such modifications as will add to its utility, while at the same time enabling it to fulfil many of the requirements of beauty. How greatly, for instance, would Sydney be improved if, at such intersections as those of George-street, with King, Market, and other streets, all the square corners had given place to circular or elliptical curves, forming what is called in London a "circus," such as Regent Circus, &c.

The Government of these colonies have laid out most of the town and will perhaps for some time to come, control the bulk of the work to be done in this way. When we have a Federal Council of Surveyors, the subject of town plans might fitly be discussed, and, probably, some improvement on present stereotyped methods would result.

So far as surveyors in private practice are concerned rarely indeed do they have an opportunity of laying out a town, and, in almost all their sub-divisional surveys, they are, at the demand of the their clients, absolutely restricted to that form of subdivision which will yield the greatest amount of frontage.

Mr. Sulman has "little hope" of the Government improving their methods, and, though he does not expressly say so, has, apparently, just as little hope in the private surveyor. He admits indeed, that surveyors and engineers may have a certain limited and subordinate usefulness, but, "the architect is the man who by training and experience combines in himself a knowledge of all the conditions of town planning, and to him should be entrusted the task of initiation."

Viewed as a literary production, Mr. Sulman's essay is sadly blemished by this method of bringing it to a conclusions. It is too painfully like one of those smart advertising puffs which lure the unwary reader through half a column of romance or tragedy, only to find that the dénouement is inseparably mixed up with "Singheims Soap."

The large claim which Mr. Sulman makes on behalf of the profession to which he belongs may be justifiable as applied to himself, but, if in addition to mastering his own particular profession of house-planning, his "training and experience" have also given him an adequate knowledge of town-planning, then it must be admitted that his "training and experience" have been such as few, if any, of his professional brethren have an opportunity of obtaining, and he himself must be regarded as a man of rare qualifications. It is certain that the training obtainable in the office of the ordinary colonial architect in no way equips a man for the duty of designing a town. To say this is by no means to cast any slur upon the architectural profession. Mr. Sulman earnestly wishes that the planning of cities should be again, as he says it once was, regarded as part of an architect's duties, but at present, it is undoubtedly not so regarded.

The suggestions as to the course which legislation should take would, if carried out, probably prove beneficial, though they involve considerable interference with the rights of individuals. This, however, is only in accord with that tendency of the age which Tennyson long ago discerned when he wrote, "The individual withers, and the world is more and more."

The subject of town planning is one on which, so far as I know, but little has been written, and Mr. Sulman has done good service in bringing it forward.

The bond of union supplied by the Association of Surveyors in this colony, and by kindred societies in other colonies bids fair to render practicable in the near future many reforms connected with the important function of surveyors in the designing of towns, and with the general conduct of all survey business. So mote [must?] it be.

1. The reference is to Horace Bushnell, "City Plans," Work and Play; or Literary Varieties (New York: Charles Scribner, 1864):308-336. Ed. 

Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: jwr2@cornell.edu 
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