The Landscape Guide

10.7 Context Zones

Contents list

The most comprehensive theory of context, in the West, was based on a zoning policy launched by three English squires in 1794 and known as the Picturesque. This theory was described by Nicholas Pevsner as one of England's major contributions to European culture (Pevsner, 1956). It derived from a century of philosophical debate and artistic innovation. When writing about the theory, in 1986, I found it necessary to assume the role of technical editor for the three squires. Richard Payne Knight, Uvedale Price and Humphry Repton were disputatious gentlemen and did not compile a collective account of their theory. My editorial work was formulated as an opinion on how to plan a country estate. Having created a picturesque transition from foreground to background, the three squires turned to architectural issues:

The principle of association which has helped us to plan the grounds should also be used to guide the design of your house. It should look like a building which belongs to the age, country and place in which it will be built. The materials should be of a colour and texture which suit the style and the site -- preferably a local stone. Since all the rooms and outbuildings should be planned to meet the needs of your family and servants, we think an irregular floor plan is more convenient than strict symmetry.

The next task is to select an architectural style. We often think that an Italian style is best for a Claudian site, a Grecian style for a Poussinesque site and an English style for a typically English site. It is also important for your house to look its part; it should not resemble a church, a university or a temple. Since your estate is near the Welsh border and your house will be larger than a manor house but smaller than a palace, we think the English castle style would be a very appropriate choice.

The picturesque theory established a logical basis for relating architecture to context, embracing such factors as climate, views, age, culture, colour, texture, materials and style (see diagram, above). It was a very grand theory, but with two drawbacks. First, it lacked an urban counterpart: the Welsh borderland had a particular and desirable character; Birmingham did not. Second, it was launched onto unpropitious waters: a rising tide of individualism and romanticism. Architectural style had evolved before 1800, but there had normally been a favoured style at any given historical period. After 1800, style became a matter of individual choice, like the colour of one's neckerchief. Wild eclecticism became the disorder of the day. Mordaunt Crook, writing on style in architecture, mistakenly identifies the only theory that offered a way out as the cause of the problem: "It was the eighteenth-century philosophy of the Picturesque which turned perplexity into dilemma by multiplying the range of stylistic options' (Crook, 1987). Architects were perplexed by the options.