Ian Ritchie Architects

Search icon

The City as Sculpture: From Skyline to Plinth, 2002


I love cities for their wildness born of change and of the unknown. This is man’s constructed wilderness where mothers traditionally feared their daughters would tread – the sexy teenage trampoline – a serendipitous stepping-stone.
As Bill Woodrow remarked, that other city – the green city that man has constructed but pretends is natural, surrounds the brown city – the two connected by the grey land of mechanical communication.

In her presentation, Phyllida Barlow gave us a poetic insight into her reading of the city – using the body as a metaphor of the city, i.e. heart, bowels, soul ….
The exterior view of this organism, which, from a distance from can be read as a silent, unpolluted, placid sculptural silhouette, contrasted with her description of its interior of movement, noise, and the manifest frailties of its visceral parts – infrastructure systems.

This ambivalence, the view from the green city and the inner dynamic, manifests itself in the thought processes of designers of the city – city as events, and city as sculpture.

In the distant reading of the city, we are also in the still and silent world that characterises sculpture according to Antony Gormley.
There are no people, there is no disturbance – or if there is, it is the noise or traced line of an aeroplane and the still red lights, or the flashing white light of aviation warning atop the tallest building.
However, the skyline is rarely still. The commercial skyline has continuously shifting patterns of light.
This view is a real one and is, perhaps, consistent with the neutrality of the skyline being a mirror of anonymity – the desire to disappear into the crowd. It is also a view that has invariably seduced architects when imaging and planning utopian cities. For they too, in their minds, are distant from a future reality of the occupied city – the interior that Phyllida described.

Perhaps, at the risk of being over-simplistic, the skyline has traditionally been the domain of power – whether secular or religious – and its expression of domination. It takes a lot of money to change the skyline!
We can all recognise military examples – San Gimignano – and commercial ones – the inhabited (mostly offices) and communications towers (uninhabited) and bridges. In London we protect views of St Paul’s dome, while Paris celebrates the Sacré-Cœur on the hill of Montmartre.
The Sacre Coeur exploits topography whereas London tries to ensure a tree-lined horizon to the north and south. Here, the plinth is the natural topography.
In Paris since the 60’s, except for one error of judgement by André Malraux that allowed the Tour Montparnasse to be erected, this secular expression of power has been banished from the centre to the west at La Défense. This is Paris’ brave new world – isolated like Canary Wharf.

However, sculptors have been excluded from participating in the creation of this external view, which still remains the domain of planners, engineers and architects. Why?
Antony made his position clear – leave architecture to architects. Is this the same as leaving the skyline to them as well? The pre-twentieth century sculpture that inhabits building façades like the pantheon of Burlington Gardens is not Antony’s territory.
But surely, abdicating this historic niche should not mean that sculptors are left on the pavement with or without a plinth. The sculptor’s mind is used to scale, both physical scale and the scale of intent. And it is in the silhouette of the city that both become really evident.
Historically, artist, architect, engineer and planner were often found in the same person. Individuals, such as Brunelleschi (Florence) informed the skyline as well as the plinth.
You cannot look at Canary Wharf or the City profile without reading intention as well as form.
However, if the accumulation of architectures creates the silent city, would not a sculptor be interested in contributing to its evolution?
Should architects invite the sculptor to the skyline?
Architects are not sculptors. Architects might occasionally think they are, but sculptors perceive form, surface and light quite differently.
Film appears to do this very successfully in exploring the outer limits of the architectural/urban image – Metropolis and Bladerunner immediately come to mind.
This raises another question – how important is the skyline?
Before computer simulation, it was not so easy to imagine all the perspective views, but now with computer manipulation of images, this exercise is so much easier. A couple of years ago, Hays Davidson produced an image of new towers in London – towers that could be constructed in and around the City of London by site assembly and without contravening the protected view corridors of St. Paul’s dome.

Recently I was surprised to find that English Heritage did not have a standard issue of the ‘protected views’ of St Paul’s Cathedral. Each time, the architect has to obtain his own photographs from the specific point – waiting for the clear view – and construct his own cones of view from the co-ordinates. The city’s skyline does not change that fast. I am sure English Heritage could produce and sell an ‘official view’ digital information pack to architects (with a five yearly update).

Planners, ostensibly the guardians of our cities for the past century, are under strain. There are fewer of them and attracting those few to work in local authorities is becoming almost impossible. Compared to other careers, planning is slipping away into oblivion. Thatcherism triggered this demise. Serving society on low pay and with increasingly limited budgets was no longer attractive.

During this period, most of us silently stood by as the ‘non-plan’ policy exploited the Isle of Dogs and created a separated city skyline for London. We know that it is borrowed from Battery Park, NY – the developer and principal architect are the same, as too was their thinking. The classical pyramid composition of tall buildings at Canary Wharf – even the top of its centre building being a pyramid -combines with its axial planning and grid. This manifest hierarchy is a traditional form that feels isolated in its surroundings and somewhat artificial within.
The key players operate in a global market, so why change your thinking or your architecture? Why shouldn’t it mark a new (York) skyline for London?
It makes evident the fine line between democracy and autocracy.

From the skyline, we may be able to read the economic geography of the city if not its geology, its demographic migration if not its history. This is perhaps why we take to the water, or the hill, or the skies to orientate ourselves – to get out before getting involved, or to remind ourselves who and where we are. This is why the skyline matters.
The skyline is man-made so why should we not make it beautiful?

There is little tension induced from a distance, but inside all hell can break loose. Within this interior,
Richard Cork suggested that sculpture has to compete with the metal dynamic.