From a series written for ABC Radio National’s Blueprint for Living. This was first broadcast on the 11th February 2023. You can listen to the audio here.
John Claudius Loudon would have been the first to agree that his name should be better remembered. In 1832 he published a remarkable book, An Encyclopedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture, which would influence the look of towns not just in Britain but across America and Australia, too.
It was a manifesto for change, brimming with practical advice. The main subject was housing for everyone from the humblest farmworker up but it also covered buildings such as schools, oast houses and meeting halls. Loudon had designed a couple of grander buildings but this hefty tome was all about modest structures, with precise details of construction and the various costs involved. His aim, he wrote, was to improve general living conditions and to better inform ordinary people so that they would at least have an educated opinion on what was being built. He thought the public deserved better than the dull buildings architects often churned out which only emulated what had gone before.
Loudon trained in botany and agriculture in Edinburgh and travelled widely in Europe but he became especially interested in urban design after he moved to London. He saw how green spaces and streets lined with trees would affect the wellbeing of everyone. In his article of 1829, ‘Hints for breathing spaces for the metropolis’ he proposed weaving bands of countryside through the city which would improve air quality and where sewage could be used as manure. He thought the new cities planned for Australia might adopt such thinking. He also suggested public parks that would be open to everyone, not just those of a certain class. This was long before city planners would adopt similar ideas for green belts and decades before Frederick Olmsted designed New York’s pioneering Central Park. It was Loudon who first used the term landscape architecture.
Loudon’s encyclopaedia was trailblazing. Architectural books had previously concentrated on antiquity or homes for the very wealthy. Here was someone taking an interest in the common man. Twenty years later, at London’s Great Exhibition, a display of worker’s cottages, commissioned by Prince Albert, and seen as somewhat revolutionary, showed just how slowly architectural thinking evolved. Just as cabinet makers like Chippendale used catalogues to showcase their work so Loudon’s Encyclopaedia demonstrated what was possible in the world of everyday architecture. So when we look at suburban streets in Australia, we see the spirit of Loudon’s idea in the variety of homes where the same essential ingredients of space and style have been mixed and matched to produce something individual. (Something, of course, Robin Boyd would rail against so beautifully in The Australian Ugliness.)
Loudon’s influence on garden design is also notable. With his wife, Jane, he promoted what they called the gardenesque, which was to ensure the garden was seen as something separate to its surroundings through the use of exotic plants and geometric designs, moving away from the more naturalistic style that had become popular thanks to earlier landscapers like Capability Brown. He coined the phrase arboretum for the parks he designed that were filled with trees and dedicated to research, and the one he designed in Derby was a final but lasting great work.
Loudon was a maverick, without a doubt, but he started an important conversation about urban and landscape design that remains current. Without him, our suburbs might be more uniform and our cities less green. And farmworkers everywhere less comfortable.
Love this. So important for everyone but ruch developers giving donations to political parties win out in the lack of amenity and ugliness stakes
Money/ greed always muddies the picture…
Just to say I found this piece really enlightening and was very glad to learn of Loudon’s existence!
Oh, that’s lovely. He was quite a fellow – even lost his right arm and had to train himself to write with his left. His wife was a Gothic novelist, too. Too much information for a single piece.