The look of the city

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When we envisage a city, we are quite likely - especially if we haven't been there before - to draw on previous, perhaps iconic, representations of it: postcards, paintings, maps (London's wonderful though abstracted Tube map), TV programme opening titles (Eastenders for London, Friends for Manhattan) and news images (where else, alas, can you see a city's skyline changed live, as in the 9/11 disaster?). We may also recall personal memories of arrival -landing close to Las Vegas' Strip or driving into Mumbai from the airport - and catching a particular view, of Rio from Cordovado Mountain or London from Parliament Hill. Monuments may or may not be prominent in our picture - the Eiffel Tower perhaps, or the Sydney Opera House. But in all cases, our picture will be just that - a subjective one formed by our experiences and by other narratives. The look is always gleaned from a particular vantage point.

The look of the city depends on where you stand and its layout. A warren of streets is a different experience, from the ground or from on high, than a grid pattern. In one case it can seem like a maze; in the other, like an arrow with a purpose. Each vantage point from which you look tells a different story of the city. Are you high up or low down? Are you seeing the city from a distance or close up? Our eyes determine what we see. If you are young, disabled, old, a woman or a man there is a contrast in focus. For one the buildings loom overwhelmingly or can appear claustrophobic hemming you in, for the other they soar grandly into the sky. Our jobs, too, shape what we see and what we leave out as we see selectively. The strategic planner typically sees the city from the air on large-scale maps, whereas the local planner zooms in to the great detail. The one sees the city as slightly flat, more like a surface, and with computer technology its 3D shapes come across with the tilt. The other needs to walk the streets and nearly touch the surfaces of bollards, pavements and houses. The engineers might look at structures and ask 'do they stand up?'. The crime prevention officer is looking for hidden crannies where the sightlines aren't clear; and the thief wants some confusion in the space.

There is one eye and vantage point that has shaped how we look and talk about cities: that of the architect/interior designer. It is but one view, yet it predominates. A raft of glossy magazines reinforces the message. They are supported by an industry waiting to sell its product. There is a vast architectural publishing industry and so far more has been written about the look of places, but in very restricted terms, than the sounds and the smells of the city, for which there is no market to sell to. Occasionally you sense the architect and their critics reflect in each other's glory.

Too few architectural critics and urban writers write with the ease and insight of James Howard Kunstler,38 who reflects a view of city life in its full dynamic. Instead, usually the tone is rarefied, its vocabulary dense, arid, precious or even pompous. The pictures are beautiful, yet lifeless and rarely peopled. The architectural object comes across too much as isolated, as if it had landed somewhat disconnectedly in the urban landscape. This is a reason why the profession stands accused of being self-referential. There is much left out; you are often not sure that someone is talking about a city within which people live. The confident tone and self-understanding reinforces the view that it is the architect who is really the city-maker.

Let us take some snapshots of the look of cities. The sense of sheer compacted physicality is what makes the city so distinctive. It is the first impression. No other structure built by humans is so complex and extensive. On occasion, the largest steel works have a similar feel. The bigger the height and size, the more different we feel. The extent of loomingness is partly perceptual. With a wide pavement and boulevarded, broken-up street pattern, the fact I am 120 or 60 or 20 times smaller than the building is of little consequence. The same is true when I can view the building from some distance. There are other compensations too. I sense a certain grandeur, power and energy. Yet when the public realm does not work, when streets are too narrow and the road feels like a motorway, the difference between how big I am and how big the building is matters. Too great a difference feels oppressive, interfering and looming. But a ratio of, say, one to six creates a dramatically different feeling. It is more comforting because it is more human in scale. This is why, apart from the buzz, we like markets.

Angularity is the other predominant feature: straight lines; right angles; sharp edges, some jutting out; squareness; planes; blank walls. From above, this angularity comes across as a chaotic range of heights and right angles. There is hardly a place in nature that looks like this except, perhaps, the famous Devil's Causeway in County Antrim, Northern Ireland - a mass of basalt columns packed tightly together that resembles a mega-city.

The latest trend in architectural fashion helped by new technology and buildings techniques is to break out of the angularity prison. There are a few more swoops and swerves and rounded buildings. In London, for instance, there is the Norman Foster-designed Swiss Re building - the 'gherkin'. In Birmingham is Future Systems' Selfridges store - the 'curvy slug'. Yet the surface feel of the city remains hard, ungiving, unbendable, inflexible. More like a rod than a bendable reed. Nature, by contrast, feels movable, adaptive, changeable.

Materials matter. Buildings speak to you in different ways through their materials. We notice this especially when they are made just from one material, like the largely unpainted wooden town of Koprivshtitsa in Bulgaria, the cement-clad towns of the former Soviet block, the mud buildings of Yemen (as in the aston ishing Shibam, called the Manhattan in the desert), the grey limestone of the Cotswold towns, the red bricks of industrial Lowell, USA, or the sand-coloured buildings in Fez. Then the material speaks to you in its full glory. Wood ages well; it fades, but does not crumble; it feels animate, a reminder that it was once a tree. Cement, by contrast, has a deadening patina; it absorbs light back into itself, and its deceptive evenness gives a place a musty feel; the dust is in the air. Think, for instance, of the once grand Shkodra in Albania. It was given the cement makeover in the Enver Hoxha era. The red bricks in older towns have blemishes; they felt already weathered when new. Colour variations seep through the bricks and there seems to be a story in each one. New brick buildings are too smooth and mechanical; the up-to-date chemical processes of brick-making have evened out the surface and given them a lifeless, impenetrable shine. And they come in non-brick colours: every hue of yellow, terracotta and red.

We live in the age of glass. Glass and mirror have come into the frame with new techniques of heating and air conditioning. The reflective buildings that mirror themselves back at you in a 'look at me' kind of way seem impertinent and self-imposing. To the Western eye they now look cheap and garish, but to the post-Soviet eye they are like modernity par excellence. This has come in phases as new materials emerged and were tried out. The sturdy sickly brown and green glass feel; then the reflective golden touch for the attention seekers; and now the predominant silver that throws back clear mirror images. They do not invite nor have a conversation with you, the passer-by. They assert, aggressively, their presence.

The West favours more the transparent look of see-through glass. At its best it projects a sense of democracy and modernity. It feels airy, open, cool and uplifting. When done well the steel and metal buildings combine strength and lightness. The Pompidou Centre in Paris was one of the first of that generation, followed shortly afterwards by I. M. Pei's Louvre Pyramid. Now the style is commonplace and the Toronto Eaton Centre stands out as an example from a cold climate. At night, of course, glass refracts light differently than a brick building. For how long will glass stay as the material of choice for malls, museums and city halls?

Colour is everywhere. It is all-embracing and in every culture. Meaning is attributed to each colour. There is a difference between the psychological effect of a colour and its symbolism. For instance, green is symbolically associated with envy, while psychologically it denotes balance. One does not need to be a specialist to understand instantly that colour shapes how you feel. Dark colours can depress, and darkness has become a metaphor for negatives like evil, ignorance and mental gloom. Light colours lift; again, word associations reinforce our perceptions - light and enlightenment. If a city were to be black it would be depressing, and the blackened industrial cities of industrial Britain were depressing in their time -and grey is not too uplifting either. It was always said that Berlin and Milan were grey cities, which is why their more recent creative and fashionable associations also change how you think of what their colour might be.

Until very recently the colour and the palette used was limited - you rarely saw a green, purple, bright yellow or blue building. The new coloured glasses are changing that, such as Herzog de Meuron's Laban dance centre in London, clad by sheets of multicoloured glass. The new Musée du Quai Branly of indigenous art in Paris by Jean Nouvel is another. It is a kaleidoscopic, anarchic montage of structures that will annoy those who love Paris's considered order. It clashes well with the exterior of the administration building, which is swallowed up by a vertical carpet of exotic plants punctured by big windows. The hydroponic green building feels as if it is alive - a sharp contrast to most buildings, which feel inert.

Clearly the local materials determined the colour of a place in the past; today this is far less apparent as materials are moved around with ease, with sheet glass and cement the overriding materials in use. Think of the 'granite city' of Aberdeen in Scotland; it wears its sobriquet with pride, but the grey, silvery stone material is unforgiving. Do its colour, weight and heavy density determine the character of Aberdonians? The predominant hues in Mediterranean countries were variations of terracotta going into sandy beiges. It is pleasing on the eye in that sunny light.

Many Italian cities are an exception in having widespread colour strategies as part of planning. There are the famous coloured cities of the world which show how paint has an impact: the pink city of Marrakech and, nearby, the blue and white town of Essaouira, or the blue city of Jodphur in India. The vivid colours of painted houses of Latin America, equally, both shape and respond to character. The crisp colour combinations on the corrugated iron buildings in the once seedy La Boca in Buenos Aires has become so fashionable that it has become the city's design template. Designer articles, from sheets and pillows to furniture, seem to carry the imagery. Did the impoverished residents of La Boca ever get a royalty? I doubt it.

Overriding everything - and again we cannot avoid the greys and blacks - is the colour of roads on which the buildings sit as if bedded in a sea of asphalt. Grey is the canvas on top of which the city plays itself out. The buildings do not feel independent. Asphalt's homogenizing feel shrouds the city at ground level in a veil interspersed by signage and yellow and red traffic lines.

Advertising hoardings increasingly shape the look of the city as they expand in size and impact. Less discreet than a decade ago, they can be immense - the largest billboard in the world, erected in Manila in 2005, was 50m long and 50m high. Occasionally beautiful and often intrusive, it is Eastern Europe that sets new standards of garishness, impact and boldness, and the Far East has always been visually wild to Western eyes. Think of Tokyo's electric city, Hong Kong's Nathan Road or Delhi's Chandri Chowk - you choke in colour and sign overload.

The city is increasingly a sign system and a message board. It is a staging set communicating products and images to you. But it all depends where you are. The colours and materials used in commercial districts vary. In the upscale parts things are more discreet and materials obviously better. The hues in modern settings, in part because of the mass of glass, have a light blue, light yellow translucent overlay. Think here of the new 101 district in Taipei, where the world's largest skyscraper stands. The more downmarket places screech their colours at you.

A business district communicates differently. There is more black - usually shiny black marble - as this is the colour of authority and power. It comes across, too, as stylish and timeless, because black makes things appear thinner and sleeker (a reason for its popularity in clothing). Increasingly, too, blue is coming in. It is tranquil and in control, but blue can also be cold and calculating. Silver has a sharpish clarity, and again it creates a distance between the viewer and passer-by - it reflects back at you. And glass, glass, glass - it is the gloss of corporate openness. Brown is less in evidence now, unless left over from a former period. It looks murky, unclear, unfocused.

A housing or apartment block area can be as different as the country or city it is in, so it is difficult to generalize across cultures and places even though the homogenizing process continues unabated. Suffice it to say it depends on land costs and availability. The denser city will compact building upwards, as in Hong Kong or Singapore, but where people feel land is limitless - as in Melbourne, for example - the city spreads out into endlessness. In denser places, people spill out into the streets as if pushed out of their buildings. The rising numbers of the middle classes in places such as Russia, Turkey or India are creating new, largely gated, edge-of-town settlements in dinky, post-modern apartments, typically 10-20 stories high. The message here is one of 'lifestyle'.

Buildings will reflect the past, particular regional styles, the materials available at various times in history, power relations, class, their function. Often, a principle of city design will inform and order these buildings into a particular layout that affects our visual experience of the city, such as the grid systems of America. Regarding the grid, this tyranny of the shortest distance can have a uniform beauty. But when combined with architectural monotony, it can be dull and oppressive. Green spaces contribute to a city's quality of life, but remember that a green impression of a city can be misleading - much of London's 'green' is private gardens, for example.

Whatever the colours, materials and layout of a city, the climate remains a check on our visual experience of it. A blanket of snow transforms a city; a shroud of mist (or, worse, smog) can hide its vista; and a serious flood can render the cityscape totally unfamiliar to even its own inhabitants. Cities look different depending on whether it is sunny, gloomy or rainy. And above all, light plays on the physical structures that make a city.

How different does Helsinki look in winter, when bereft of natural light, than in summer, when the days are long? Light changes all, and that includes the man-made. Electricity must be seen as pivotal in the history of urban spaces. Artificial light illuminates the dark and allows activities that were previously confined to the day to continue into the night. Light facilitates the 24-hour city. It can also, unfortunately, dull the pleasure of a starry night sky as we unwittingly illuminate particles in the air above with light pollution. More positively, light can make a street look safer at night and can transform the façades of otherwise dull buildings. It can allow us to watch a football match in the evening. A well-lit or sparkling city view can be inspiring.

Lighting has been discovered as a resource to enliven the city.

Some cities (such as Naples) have recognized the power of light and have specific light strategies. Against the chaotic background of the changing city, every new public lighting scheme illuminates a complex clash of priorities and agendas. How can public lighting create an image for the city as well as support urban renewal? How can safety and security needs be reconciled with a desire for visual communication and delight?

A new way of looking at urban lighting, based on a relationship between identification and regeneration on any given site, can be expressed through three stages: light marketing, light art and light landscape. Centrepoint and its environs in central London were adopted as a 'laboratory' from which to evolve and test out a set of generic strategies and tactics. The research demonstrates the ability of lighting to transform our urban spaces at different levels - and to generate and communicate powerful new spatial identities within our nocturnal environments that underpin the urban regeneration process.

The visual environment should be public property, but there are vast differences in how it's thought through. Illumination, of course, is central to advertising and its flashing, bright visual interjections are forced upon us. Japan, notoriously, has a lightscape dominated by brand and advertising messages. This isn't necessarily a bad thing in itself, but we must be careful in matters of deregulation that our cities do not lose overall control over their lighting.

These pages have provided a short treatment of the city's look. There is much more to explore. For instance, we have concentrated on the outdoor look of places when there is much to say about the indoor life of cities, especially in cold climates. We could have explored the underground world of some cities, their metros and subways. Nevertheless, the salient point of this entire section on the senses is that the city is a sensory experience and this should never be overlooked when thinking about a city's future. Above all else, we see, hear, smell, touch and taste the city.

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