Tuesday, September 11, 2007

London's "Interesting" Skyline

Modernists commonly claim that a skyline with high-rises is more "interesting" than a "monotonous" traditional skyline - thinking of the skyline as a sort of abstract sculpture, to be viewed from a distance.

London provides a good test of this idea. After the great fire of 1666 destroyed most of central London, Christopher Wren designed a new St. Paul's Cathedral and fifty-one parish churches, giving London one of the world's great traditional skylines. During the mid-twentieth century, this skyline was marred by boxy high-rise office buildings. Toward the end of the twentieth century, London deliberately decided to make its skyline more "interesting" by building distinctive high-rises taller than these boxy high-rises.

These new high-rises generally have nick-names based on their distinctive shapes: one that has already been built is called "the gherkin," and other that are coming are called "the cheese-grater" and "the walkie-talkie."

How well does this "interesting" skyline work?

Here is a picture of London by Canelleto, done in the eighteenth century, when Wren's skyline was still intact. The skyline is dominated by St. Paul's and is punctuated by church spires that rise above the mid-rise fabric buildings.

Here is large detail from a rendering by Will Fox of London as it will look in 2012, after the high-rises that have already been approved are complete.

Which is more "interesting" and more appealing, Wren's skyline or the high-rise skyline?
Even more important, we should remember that people don't just look at the skyline in the distance. They also live among these buildings.
Here is a picture that shows that St. Paul's works as part of a nearby skyline as well as it works as part of the distant skyline.

And here is a picture that shows that the gherkin does not work at all as part of a nearby skyline: it looms above the other buildings.

Finally, here is a picture that shows that St. Paul's works as you approach it. All those people sitting on the steps prove that this building provides a good place for people to be.

And here is a picture of the gherkin as you approach it. No one would want to sit here.

It is a sad commentary on the intellectual climate of our time that Norman Foster has become a famous architect by designing this sort of sterile, dehumanized environment.
Of course, high-rises are not always as bad as this: New York's Empire State Building works well for pedestrians on the sidewalk in front of it. But all high-rises loom above their surroundings, dwarfing the people who are near them and making the city a less human-scale place to be.
The modernists' talk about "interesting" high-rise skylines is wrong for two reasons:
First, a city should be designed as a comfortable place for people to live, not as an interesting abstract sculpture to be viewed from a distance. Because high-rises are out of human scale, they make their nearby surroundings less comfortable for the people there.
Second, high-rises do not work even as an abstract sculpture viewed from a distance. Because each high-rise is designed by a different architect aiming to make his own distinctive statement, they clash esthetically and do not form a coherent whole.
The way to get an esthetically coherent skyline, given the reality of how individual buildings are designed, is to limit the height of fabric buildings and to allow important public buildings to rise above the fabric, as they did when Wren rebuilt London.

The rendering of London in 2012 by Will Fox is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License. In short: you are free to share and make derivative works of the file under the conditions that you appropriately attribute it, and that you distribute it only under a license identical to this one. For the complete image and more details about the license, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:London_skyline_2012_panorama.jpg.


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