City as Visual Language

Raymond Curran’s 1983 book “Architecture and the Urban Experience” asked “Why do many cities of earlier eras appear visually rich, meaningful, and ‘legible’ while many modern cities appear stark and confusing?”


His studies describe “the city as visual language and its effect on inhabitants.” Cinematographer Russell Fine applies that term to his work on television series “White Collar.” Embroidered streetscapes and colossal skyscrapers in spectacular wide-angle present New York so beautifully you won’t immediately understand what is happening on screen. NewcastleOnHunter is not making a TV show, but I now enjoy our city’s vistas with new insight.

Image of City

Kevin Lynch’s ideas on urban life in his book “The Image of the City” said people understand their surroundings in consistent and predictable ways, with mental maps of five elements:

  1. paths, streets, sidewalks, trails - channels in which people travel
  2. edges, or perceived boundaries - walls, buildings, and shorelines
  3. districts, or relatively large sections of the city, distinguished by identity or character
  4. nodes, focal points, intersections, or loci
  5. landmarks, readily identifiable objects which serve as external reference points.

Lynch created the terms "imageability" and "wayfinding" to describe how a citizen perceives the physical and social environments. However, anyone - including us lay ‘urban scientists’ - can have equally creative and valid ideas about our city, or any city.

City in Image

NewcastleOnHunter portrays our beautiful city by categories peculiar to how its citizen photographer apprehends his favourite place. And slightly pretentious labels are much too useful to shun in sorting photographs.

  • Social – people things, like festivals, events., venues.
  • Space – parks, lakes, harbour, locale. Streets are spaces too, but have a special section.
  • Street – Streetscapes, vistas that we live in when not at home or work. Most of our photographs are of streets.
  • Structure – Generally, buildings, but landmarks are here too.
  • Street Art – sadly, copyright allows only uninteresting “locale” viewpoints.

Sections wander into suburbs, streets, skylines, landmarks, construction and dereliction, grand and humble, transport, parks, harbour and lakes – wherever interesting places in or near Newcastle attract the aiming of my lens, some maybe too often but always deserving.

Last Word

Newcastle’s 1989 earthquake set off a spree of controversial demolitions and many city treasures that might have been saved were lost. Memorable news vision showed a wrecking ball unable to easily topple a damaged Carrington Chambers in Bolton Street.

Older buildings, notably the George Hotel, Carrington Chambers, Kings Hall, and the Century Theatre, while damaged, were demolished immediately after the quake, without proper assessment. Many historic buildings, including the Anglican Cathedral and the Customs House were threatened with partial demolition. ~ National Trust

They were extraordinary times. Cities move on from disasters, and wealthy citizens are always around to profit from circumstance. Such is life. And yet..

Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? ~ Jackie Onassis (Kennedy).

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