Last Updated on November 6, 2023
Unsure what ‘serial vision’ means? Wondering how understanding serial vision in urban design can enhance project outcomes? Need to prepare high-quality serial vision sketches or imagery for an architectural or planning project? Gordon Cullen’s work has significantly influenced the way urban environments are planned and perceived; however, surprisingly little has been published about him online. This resource attempts to remedy this and presents a thorough introduction to Cullen’s concept of serial vision, with both traditional and contemporary serial vision examples illustrated.
This material is written by Dr Ben Guy, a civil planner who examined Cullen’s ideas during his doctoral studies and has over 20 years of experience using modern technology to illustrate serial viewpoints in urban infrastructure projects.
CONTENTS: Serial vision definition | The importance of serial vision | The benefits of utilising serial vision | Gordon Cullen's urban design principles | Serial vision examples | Skyline, rhythm, and grain | Thresholds, transitions, and permeability | Light and shadow | The digital simulation of serial vision | Dynamic viewsheds
What does serial vision mean?
A definition: Serial vision refers to the changing perspectives and sequential views experienced as you move through space. It is often explained as the unfolding visual experience – the way our perception alters and morphs as we journey across a landscape. A street may turn and reveal new geometries; a sudden vista may open up; a scenic landmark might appear over the horizon; emerging views and visual stimuli are revealed and concealed. This continually evolving visual experience is what is known as serial vision.
Gordon Cullen’s serial vision
The term ‘serial vision’ was first coined by British architect and urban designer Thomas Gordon Cullen, in his seminal work Townscape[iii] (a shorter version of this book was later published as The Concise Townscape).
According to Cullen, serial vision was more than just a visual experience; it encompassed the emotional and psychological journey undertaken when moving through space. Cullen emphasised the dramatic and theatrical aspects of traversing an urban environment, focusing on the relationship between the places and things that one might encounter along the way (trees, built forms, traffic, and so on). Cullen believed this sequence of visual events could be woven into a rich narrative, evoking powerful emotional responses. He felt that urban environments held the potential to deliver experiences of discovery and intrigue, achieved through a series of “jerks and revelations,” unfolding vistas, surprises, and “sudden contrasts.”
Serial vision sketches often resemble a storyboard or a sequence of three-dimensional illustrations depicting urban scenes from a human vantage point. These sketches encapsulate the views experienced within a real or envisioned journey, including changes in lighting and weather conditions. A map often plays an integral role in this process, orienting the illustrations and indicating the relationship between the captured views.
The importance of serial vision in urban design
Serial vision theory is deeply rooted in how humans perceive and navigate their surroundings. As we move, we continuously process new information, updating our mental map of the area. Architects, city planners, and urban designers must carefully plan these visual sequences to ensure interesting, engaging, and easy-to-navigate urban spaces.
Cullen emphasises the importance of designing cities with serial vision in mind, noting that people “apprehend urban environments through kinesthetic experience.”
Valuing serial vision in architecture and urban design ensures that new proposals are evaluated in context rather than from an isolated perspective. This approach considers the impact of natural and manmade surroundings, topography, local culture, climate, geology, and history and can be a critical part of formal Landscape and Visual Impact Analysis.
Serial vision analysis helps us appreciate how humans experience space, illustrating the way new design proposals are perceived from the human viewpoint, positioning designers and planners to create enjoyable urban spaces that are desired and sought out.
The benefits of utilising serial vision include the following:
- Improved human experience: Serial vision lets you envision how a space will look from different angles, viewpoints and times of day, fostering the creation of designs that deliver a sense of discovery and delight, with a deeper emotional connection.
- Enjoyable narrative and journey: Just as a story unfolds chapter by chapter, urban spaces can be ‘read’ in sequence. Utilising serial vision, urban designers and planners can craft journeys that evoke specific emotions or reactions, enhancing the overall experience of space and creating a coherent urban narrative.
- Engagement and discovery: Evaluating serial vision encourages the creation of urban spaces that promote a sense of exploration, with new vistas or scenes revealed, keeping the visual journey engaging.
- Celebration of notable features or landmarks: By understanding how serial vision works, urban designers can integrate strategic placement of landmarks or focal points, helping with orientation and memorability.
- Smooth spatial transitions: Understanding serial vision aids in transitioning between different urban contexts or zones, respecting the existing vernacular and ensuring that new proposals contribute rather than detract.
- Safer environments: Serial vision helps you to create well-designed spaces, avoiding low-visibility areas and hidden corners, contributing to safety and security.
- Distinct sense of place: By creating a sequence of engaging spaces, serial vision can reinforce the unique sense of place, making areas more identifiable and recognisable.
- Increased ROI: Spaces that offer visual satisfaction and perceptual delight tend to foster well-being and are more likely to be revered, protected, and desired. Such harmonious environments contribute to physical, social, and economic sustainability, boosting return on investment and benefiting society for generations.
In short, utilising the concept of serial vision by Gordon Cullen can lead to urban environments that are visually engaging, emotionally resonant, and imbued with a deep sense of place, improving the quality of life for inhabitants.
Gordon Cullen’s urban design principles
In addition to introducing the concept of serial vision within his book, Townscape, Cullen discussed several design principles and concepts such as:
- Place: When buildings come together, the spaces between the buildings can take on a life of their own. This is the genius loci – which may be considered the “guardian spirit of a place” (Conzen 1975; Norberg-Schulz 1980). Cullen’s concept of ‘Place’ relates to our constant awareness of our position in the environment, and involves distinct, identifiable areas within the city that have their own unique character and atmosphere. Placelessness emerges when there is no defined space, when no beginnings and endings occur, and there is no structure to the outdoor public room.
- Here and There: This phrase relates to creating a sense of depth and layering in the urban environment, with a clear distinction between foreground, middle-ground, and background elements. Cullen’s concept of Here and There connects to ideas about narrative, movement, and adventure.
- This and That: Cullen uses this phrase to refer to the content within an urban environment, including the meaning or significance of a place, often rooted in its history, function, or the cultural values of its inhabitants.
- Now and Then: Cullen understood that cities are dynamic and change over time, but also need a degree of consistency to provide a sense of coherence.
- Mystery, surprise, and concealment: People are often drawn to scenes that evoke a sense of mystery – the promise of new possibilities and discoveries. This intrigue can be sparked by navigating through twisting turns, enclosed or defined spaces, or following deviations from the expected path. Such journeys can create a series of gradually revealed spaces, fostering curiosity and anticipation for what comes next.
- Punctuation: Distinct moments or pauses can be achieved in an urban environment through the careful placement of buildings, landmarks, open spaces, or other features. These elements add rhythm and clarity to the journey through a city or town, serving as visual punctuation marks, guiding the observer’s attention and breaking up the monotony. This can be achieved through contrast and comparison, juxtaposing differing elements, such as modulated façades and new buildings, adding visual impact and interest to the urban fabric.
- Irregularity, pattern, and coherence: Visual perception is based on the difference between what is known and what is new. Comparisons and contrasts between visual elements such as colour, tone, line, shape, size, and texture capture attention, help you to discern form and meaning. Humans are attuned to regularities, patterns and rhythms – seeking spatial coherence and linking elements to make sense of the world. Too much randomness creates visual ‘noise’ – disparate elements, with no way to unify or assimilating the parts into a whole. Conversely, too much sameness leads to boredom. A balance of pattern and spontaneity is required to capture visual interest – a tension between coherence and contrast, pattern and variety.
- Enclosure and exposure: Enclosure in this context refers to partial or complete containment of space by walls, gateways, and other structures or landscaping elements that frame, define, or segment the environment into “visually digestible and coherent amounts,” as Cullen puts it. Enclosure is necessary to cultivate the unfolding aspect of serial vision, without which there is nothing to frame or conceal the view. Enclosure helps to segment a journey, providing a sense that you are transitioning between spaces – departing and arriving. People often enjoy urban environments with variations in exposure level – such as little alcoves, nooks and crannies, and semi-enclosed spaces where you can sit and look out across larger areas without being seen – secure and sheltered, with a wall at your back. Humans like a certain level of enclosure, but not too much – with openings offering ‘escape routes’ and sightlines to new locations. These glimpses provide directional cues for orientation and navigation, ensuring that the enclosure does not lead to feelings of entrapment or claustrophobia.
- Possession: This term implies a sense of ownership or belonging towards a space. Cullen believed that the design of urban environments should be human-centred, aligned with human perception and needs, making them more inviting and comfortable. Possession can be seen as part of Cullen’s broader emphasis on making urban environments more humane and engaging, connecting on a deeper, more personal level.
Cullen’s ideas about urban design, including serial vision, markedly shaped the course of town planning in the 1960s.
Drawing serial vision: examples
Skyline, rhythm, and grain
Undulation is not just an aimless wiggly line; it is the compulsive departure from an unseen axis or norm, and its motive is delight in such proofs and essences of life as light and shade (the opposite of monochrome), or nearness and distance (the opposite of parallelism).– Gordon Cullen, The Concise Townscape (1961)[iii]
Thresholds, transitions, and permeability
The dance of light and shadow
The benefits of CGI simulation for serial vision
The late urbanist and educator David Gosling once pointed out rather explicitly that Cullen’s serial vision could be seen as “a prophesy of present-day computer animation systems in urban design” (Gosling 1994). We believe that an even stronger link could be made between Townscape and the recent developments on Virtual Cities, which provide not only animation but also user-centred navigation.– Chengzhi Peng, Serial Vision Revisited: Prospects of Virtual City Supported Urban Analysis and Design, School of Architecture, The University of Sheffield, UK (2003)[vii] [emphasis added]
Although static images depicting sequential views are helpful, it is only with the simulation of movement that we can begin to appreciate the true nature of an urban setting – witnessing the evolving perspectives and changing lighting conditions in a way that closely mirrors reality.
Based in Australia, Urban CGI has spent the last 20 years creating realistic and immersive digital simulations for urban development and infrastructure planning projects. Using CGI digital twin technology, we model urban spaces, environments, and precincts – or even an entire city (see our pre-loaded urban BIM city models) – transforming design proposals into virtual 3D replicas that can be explored in real-time by architects, engineers, designers, planners, and other stakeholders, facilitating live serial vision analysis and synthesis.
Our CGI simulations offer the following advantages:
- Infinite serial views: Rather than making decisions based on isolated snapshots that may not accurately reflect the true conditions of an environment, our simulations allow for unlimited virtual journeys through a new precinct or proposal.
- Dynamic viewpoints from moving vehicles: Clients want to see design outcomes from 1,000 locations under 100 options – our technology lets you walk, bike, fly or drive through the simulated environment from any angle or direction. This makes our technology useful for a range of purposes, such as testing views from new highways while driving at speed, or signal sighting workshops for railways.
- Physics-based precision: This enables accurate modelling of sightlines, lighting and weather conditions, vehicle and pedestrian flow, vegetation, and surrounding infrastructure. Getting the balance of enclosure, mystery, concealment, and openness right is difficult – hence why digital simulations that combine all these different factors are so valuable.
- Rapid design iteration and optimisation: This lets you quickly modify and test various design alternatives, showing how changes affect the overall spatial experience. Our 3D simulations are easily understood by experts and non-experts alike, ensuring all stakeholders understand and engage with serial vision theory.
- Improved navigation, legibility, and wayfinding: Legibility plays a vital role in urban design, aiding ‘readability’ and ensuring people can make sense of an environment. Legibility is enhanced by well-structured, easily identifiable spaces. Variety and contrast help (it is difficult to orient yourself when everything looks the same), as well as well-positioned wayfinding signage and navigational cues to orient the viewer. Wayfinding design is a critical part of planning infrastructure projects such as train stations, airports, hospitals, and other big campuses and precincts.
A special use case: dynamic viewsheds – serial vision in motion
An important application of our CGI technology is visualising a landscape or environment from a moving viewpoint, such as from within a vehicle. Unlike traditional viewshed analysis, which involves a fixed viewpoint, dynamic viewsheds represent the changing perspective of an observer in motion.[viii]
Simulating views at speed is critical for planning railways, highways, and other transportation systems. It is also useful for ascertaining whether reflective façades and other architectural details cause visual disturbances or interfere with the safety of nearby drivers. Serial vision simulation is also beneficial when assessing a new design proposal’s visual impact on the surrounding landscape.
Using simulation for this task is important because we can only absorb limited information while moving at speed. Humans have selective visual attention, letting us focus on crucial aspects of a scene without becoming overwhelmed with irrelevant stimuli. Selective attention is particularly essential when driving at high speeds, where the inherent risk forces our temporal visual field to narrow.
The faster a person moves the smaller the area on which they are able to focus their attention. At 25 mph, a driver can see a view approximately 100° wide; at 45 mph, the view drops to 65°; and at 65 mph, it drops to a narrow 40°, substantially reducing what is seen.– Guidelines for the Visual Impact Assessment of Highway Projects, US Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration (2015)[viii]
Faster speeds mean that a surrounding environment is viewed for a shorter duration – with less opportunity to linger upon the detailing and frontage rhythms of the streetscape. For example, a 30-metre frontage passed by a vehicle travelling at 60km/h (37mph) will take 1.8 seconds to pass. The same frontage passed by a pedestrian, moving at about 3km/h (1.9mph), will take 36 seconds to pass. The wider and straighter the streetscape, the more frontages we can see in any one view, but the less often the view changes. All of these factors influence our perception of an urban environment – and must be realistically simulated to ascertain the effectiveness of the design.
Unlock the potential of serial vision with Urban CGI technology
Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us to learn more about how our Urban CGI technology can assist you with 3D modelling in urban infrastructure projects. We work from Melbourne, Australia, but have clients worldwide. We would love to discuss your needs and demonstrate how realistic CGI simulations can transform your approach to designing successful urban spaces.
[i] Dr Philip Black and Robert Phillips, The MUD-Lab Toolkit, Serial Vision, Urban Design Lab, The University of Manchester, UK (2020)
[ii] M.R.G. Conzen, Geography and townscape conservation. In Uhlig, H. and Lienau, C. (Eds.) Anglo-German Symposium in Applied Geography: 95-102. Giessen-Würzburg-München (1975)
[iii] Gordon Cullen, Townscape, The Architectural Press (1960)
[iv] David Gosling, Urban Design and Townscape, Gordon Cullen Tribute, Urban Design Quarterly (1994)
[vi] Christian Norberg-Schulz, Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture, Rizzoli (1980)
[vii] Chengzhi Peng, Serial Vision Revisited: Prospects of Virtual City Supported Urban Analysis and Design, School of Architecture, The University of Sheffield, UK (2003)
[viii] Guidelines for the Visual Impact Assessment of Highway Projects, US Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration (2015)
Ben is a Civil Planner and has been in the planning industry for over 25 years. He’s passionate about bringing together modern technologies and agile methodologies to make urban planning smarter. Holding a PhD in Design-based Planning Systems, Ben’s thesis explored form-based urban design and planning. In it he compared post-war reconstructive city building to places like Oxford Circus, London, and developed and confirmed a method for city planning based on space over use. Connect with Ben at LinkedIn.