In 2015, the University of Westminster acquired the archive of Gordon Cullen, an alumnus and renowned illustrator, urban theorist, planner and architect. In the last 5 years University Records and Archives have been working on making the collection more accessible.
Born in Yorkshire on 9 August 1914, Cullen moved to London to study Architecture at the Regent Street Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster) in 1932. Although he did not complete the course, he worked in the field of architecture and urban design his entire professional life.
Cullen first worked at Berthold Lubektin and Tecton. There he was involved in projects such as the Highpoint housing complex in Highgate, and the Finsbury Health Centre where he painted the murals in the foyer.
During the Second World War, Cullen was unable to serve in the Armed Forces due to poor eyesight. Instead, he worked in the planning office of the Development and Welfare Department in Barbados and was involved in building a modernist school on Saint Vincent.
On his return to the UK he started working for The Architectural Review and produced influential editorials and case studies on planning theory and urban design.
In 1958 Gordon Cullen and his family moved from London to Wraysbury in Berkshire. After a couple of years working in India advising on the planning of Ford Foundation work in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and New Delhi, Cullen worked from his office in the garden of his Wraysbury home for the remainder of his career.
Other projects included work on the post-war reconstruction of Liverpool and Peterborough, the Festival of Britain in 1951 and the Swedish Quays development in the London Docklands. In 1985 he set up a practice with David Price and worked for Price and Cullen until his death in 1994.
Perhaps Gordon Cullen’s most significant achievement was his work to do with the townscape movement. In 1961 he wrote Townscape, regarded by many as his seminal work. This has since been republished as The Concise Townscape (Architectural Press, 1961) and continues to be used by students all over the world. In 1978 Cullen was awarded a CBE for his contribution to architecture.
Cullen died on 11 August 1994.
The Cullen Archive is very diverse and rich, including drawings, plans and sketches, audiovisual material, papers and publications.
Prior to coming to the University of Westminster, the collection had been kept in plan chests and plastic crates in Cullen’s former office in the garden. We transferred a lot of the drawings into archive boxes on-site. Nevertheless, our first job once we got the collection back to the University was to transfer everything from the crates into archival boxes and folders. The archive now consists of 125 boxes.
Cullen drew a lot of his drawings and sketches in pencil and crayon on tracing paper. Consequently, the next priority was to put every drawing in clear archival polyester pockets to make handling possible. Polyester pockets not only protect the drawings from smudging and keep researchers’ hands clean but also prevent the fragile tracing paper from being torn when handled.
The drawings in the collection range from preliminary sketches and finished drawings of projects to doodles and paintings he completed for pleasure. They date back to 1934. In the last 12 months, with the help of 2 architecture students, we have digitised this section of the archive and 2,424 reference images can now be found on our archive catalogue to aid researchers. This has been a substantial piece of work that has really opened up the collection to researchers worldwide. It has also made our job as archivists considerably easier. Now when someone asks if we have a specific drawing we can simply check our catalogue rather than look through 30 boxes of drawings.
The photographic material includes negatives, disc films, slides and reference photographs Cullen took to help with his work. For example, there are contact sheets devoted to railings and lettering. There are also photos of his time in India, Barbados and France as well as photos of the UK. We have digitised the slide collection, and hope to make these available on our catalogue in the autumn 2020.
His papers have yet to be catalogued in detail, but highlights include diaries of Cullen’s time in India; records relating to Townscape, for example drafts, correspondence and translations; and records relating to various redevelopment projects in the UK including Westminster, Buckinghamshire, Liverpool and Llantrisant.
Claire Brunnen, August 2020