Looking up

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Part one of a two-part series – Representations of self: the urban skyline

“Skylines are urban signatures. They are the shorthand of urban identity, and the chance for urban flourish. Cities of all descriptions and periods raise aloft distinctive landmarks, to celebrate faith and power and special achievement. The presentation itself is contrived.”
Spiro Kostof, The City Shaped. 1991

Throughout history cities have been represented by their skylines – more precisely, have represented themselves with their skylines. From the church spire to the skyscraper or even the oversized Ferris wheel, cities seek distinction through the shape of the agglomeration of their structures. Indeed, cities often have logos that abstract their shape to the point where the individual buildings cannot be discerned. Embracing the tradition of the picturesque, the silhouette idealises and romanticises the city’s image, capturing how the city wants to project itself to the rest of the world. The skyline, while composed of a collection of structures, becomes a singular entity and they cannot help but reveal the predominant values of the culture that built them.

While Shanghai, Dubai and Seoul reinvent themselves, mainly by the hands of selected American and European designers, it is an aspiring iconic skyline that is beamed around the world, not images from the ground of new streets and squares. The European city, by contrast, is characterised by buildings that form city blocks of a relatively consistent height. In cities such as Berlin, Frankfurt, Barcelona and Paris, it appears as if continuous and uniform building fabric came first and the streets were then carved out to provide movement through the city – in fact, Baron von Hausmann, the visionary planner who transformed Paris in the 19th century, did just that.

The structures that poked their heads above the building datum had to earn – or seize – that position. It is no surprise that in the traditional European city, and similarly in the Islamic world, buildings representing religious and political power rose above the mass: church spires and domes, minarets, the towers of powerful families. Centres of state activity and commerce might be marked by belfries attached to market buildings and town halls. With the industrial revolution these were joined by smoke stacks, no less associated with power.

The industrial advances of the turn of the last century enabled the birth of the skyscraper. North America invested energy and ingenuity in building tall. It was here that space could easily be found in urban centres. The American city was already adopting land use zoning that promoted segregation between living and working. Industry and commerce defined city centres while people sought a “healthier” life beyond its limits, in sub-urban environments.

The major cities’ corporations saw the opportunity to express themselves as important bastions of the economy, and literally rose up and defined the American city. The New World has always displayed the agility to embrace innovation – a feature now matched by many cities in the Middle East and Asia. Many of these cities build clusters of tall buildings, each with a unique architectural expression, to broadcast their important role in the global economy and, indeed, their ambivalence to the tenuous world energy crisis.

Europe has grappled with tall buildings and the effect they might have on their cities’ traditional skylines. Each city has taken a slightly different tack, recognising that the commercial demands of the 20th and 21st centuries are such that tall buildings and economic competitiveness are somehow linked. European cities have mapped out specific areas where tall buildings would not damage or compromise their older urban centres.

Berlin has allowed clusters of taller buildings in two zones, repairing devastation from war and political divisions. In Barcelona, tall buildings are permitted in fringe areas of the city in the hope that they will promote urban regeneration. In Paris, skyscrapers are relegated to the outskirts of La Défense where tall buildings do not have height restriction (The restriction currently stands at 121 feet and has barely changed since the time of Von Hausmann). The result is the emergence of dual skylines.

In London, tall buildings were peppering the skyline for some 50 years before the debate became heated. Other than the 1980s planned Canary Wharf area, during the last century there was little policy consideration given to the appearance of ensembles of buildings, let alone the relationship between the old and the new. While London has designated protected view corridors, it is this painstaking visual management that has resulted in a skyline that is an honest representation of the city and its character.

London is comprised of many town centres hardly categorised into the old and the new. The historic landmarks are not concentrated in the same way they are in many European cities: St Paul’s Cathedral is almost three kilometres from Big Ben. People have always lived and worked throughout London’s many districts. This attitude may not create an easily captured skyline but, one hopes, may result in a city that provides a balance between interests on the ground, as well as in the sky.

The skyline is an idealisation. It presents a privileged and static view of a city – often a view not easily attained. Frequently skyline views are captured from a considerable body of water or from a great height: we see Manhattan from the Hudson River, Hong Kong from the South China Sea, Rome from one of its seven hills. Interestingly, it is the recently booming cities of Asia and the Middle East where there is a deliberate effort to allow people within the city to enjoy an iconic landscape – whether from a bridge, a balcony or a relentlessly straight highway – as though to provide a reminder that the city and the dream are one and the same.

by Kathryn Firth

The second part of this article to be published next week

From the Glass Archive – Issue Five – Dreams

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