Love of the skyline
the stars meets stone, where the sun and moon reveal their passage between
parallel horizons. The place where the city touches the sky.
Let us call it the solar.
The experience of our present solar. The experience of society's love for its ideal.
In a society apparently beyond the sacred; but not yet
(or no longer) resolutely secular... somehow remaining caught between
traditional religion and the post-enlightenment rationalisms that were to
replace it... what is there that marks value beyond price, morality beyond
utilitarianism, and ethics beyond the negation of simple transgression? Or is
it that in talking the language of survival we are looking in the wrong place,
following the wrong continuity? Something else perhaps survives, something
which once was fed and watered by traditional religion, which now inhabits a
weaker (postmodern) form of religion (but is occasionally reawakened as a
fundamentalist revival, as an insecure parody of its former imperious self).
What is it then survives thus? Transferring allegiances between nation,
language, community and all the other minor collectivities
whose only home is 'home', whose only sense is of an 'us' - all too often defined against a
'them'. If we look closely at the
ingredients of the self and at its suture into its surrounding community then
there we may find the signs of the persistence of the sacred in our societies
today (but, means apart, was it ever not thus?). If religion was once the means, once made this relation visible, then does not
architecture today not fulfil the same function?
which part of architecture?
Our experience of the sky line. Translucent roof of the world,
glass ceiling of urban life (beyond which light comes, unbidden, gentle gift of
The edge of the sky; etched by our culture on the
background of Nature's last untouchable domain.
silhouette of the horizon enframes the passage of sun
and moon; silent and luminous, the frame of absence is our fingerprint on the
eternal curtain of light. Our solar condition.
Love of the skyline. Love of God.
Love of Being. Or love of ones culture. Proud love of ones culture. And if this love is absent? Or the skyline undeserving? Then we may find: (i) the lack of an extended sense of oneself and the world
(the lack of a fundamental sense of responsibility, or interconnectedness, a
lack of unity and sense of the sacred, that is of a value above immediate
utility). There then often follows: (ii) an unspoken awareness of this lack of
relation as it is witnessed in the (lack of) care (the lack of sacrificial
symbolic investment or exchange) given to, or shown in, the solar features of a
city (the overall appearance of its centre, its skyline, the skylines of a
district, of an entire town).
The new architectures (the possibilities offered by
the conjunction of digital modelling and the new technologies) will supersede
-if they have not done so already- the modernist cube bequeathed to us by the
evolution of the iron frame as bearer of the upper stories of high
rise-architecture and by the ideology of functionalism (a rationalisation of
minimum cost -usually for society's lesser economic souls- masquerading as
rationalism; or, in the most hideous of twentieth century ironies, even daring
to borrow the clothing of utopia). Liberated by the evolution of hard and soft
technologies, the bald cube is replaced by the freshly-imagined solars of tomorrow - the hundred year architectural history
of a form reaches its end. With sensitivity to context, the need for awareness
in the placing of the newly imagined form, architecture need never be the same
again; need never repeat the old mistakes, be they rationalist or
cash-based. The lasting love of the
skyline is manifested in the investment it attracts as a source of the sacred,
font of value, signifier of our love of ourselves: as opposed to the
ledger-bound functionalism of brute profit. This love has always shown itself
-despite ideological purism- in the fact of the decorated lofts of most
would-be cubes, of gardens tended in the sky, in the customisation of the
solar. The brave -if occasionally kitsch attempts of a variety of architectural
postmodernisms (be they historicisms or decorated modernisms) may now give way
to a more profound and structurally-decisive break (one which should be lent
responsibility by the fact of its very buildability;
for if buildings are not to built then little is left to the designer but the
luxury of provocation - ironically, abstract or 'paper' architecture comes to
imitate the other arts in thrall to the market).
However the very plastic openness of the new forms (as
opposed to the two-dimensional decor on the face of the cube) makes questions
of context all the more urgent. Form, as it appears in the new architecture of
This end of an architectural style, this end of epoch,
coincides with the end of another ending; one with equal, if not greater,
repercussions in the evolution of human culture. Post-industrialisation, long
heralded, now begins to take hold in the countries of advanced capitalism (in
others similar processes begin with new technologies and automation not far
behind, as, often in the space of one generation, are the (post)modern service
industries. The end of the working class (a farewell resisted be those in
thrall to a naive nostalgia or fearing
loss of constituency), seems to have arrived at last. Perhaps not quite as Marx
imagined it, but welcome nonetheless. A disappearance -and this is already a
lot- at the very least in its post-peasant incarnation as the industrial
proletariat, which exchanges poverty and ignorance, ill-health and high
mortality rates for a new better-paid commodity-leavened democratic future
(which brings with it new problems, new reversals). The passing of this social
group is also the passing of its attendant utopias, together with the passing
(accomplished already) of the states that bore its name. The ruling cliques
that led in its name have now become the new elites of a burgeoning capitalist
society. Often having to cope with the ecological and social disasters left
behind by the old order - and often added to by the insensitive introduction of
the worst, most destabilising, elements of the new. And so a three hundred year
history passes, along with the hundred year history of modernism and its left
utopian variant (the would-be cure to the ills of the longer period).
Lack of skyline. The denial of a culture of the
skyline (the history of value as price expounded by rationalist 'modernism') is
at least partially a product of these processes. Their result is exemplified by
many new towns in the south of
As witnessed by life in our new towns today, a life
which all to often does not show any consciousness of the poverty of the
skyline that surrounds them. Or, if sensed, it is a form of poverty dismissed
as irrelevant (to be made up for by holidays and outings, the new version of
the sacred Sunday in the country, a would-be return to its roots; or by the
visions presented by the no-longer-so-small screen of the living room and
flickering lights of the small screen have come to replace the framed skyline
as the site of communal feeling and identity; to replace something not to be
found, not visually nor affectively, outside of the home. Each dwelling now the
site of a privatised sacrality and a private vision;
each before their flickering console. Community feeling surviving first through
family, work, peer group and language, then through media images of home town
and a -largely imagined- national identity, and finally supplemented by the
strange community affiliations formed on the internet, in 'chatrooms'
and in ritual visits to certain sites on the Web.)
A life lived with no love for their skyline, even with
no love for the skyline. Will a
change in the technologies of building change this? The return to angularity
and feature in the contribution made by our latest buildings to the skylines
they inhabit shows that an awareness of this relation has again returned.
Otherwise the residual general love for the garden city, the city on a hill,
the visionary landscape everywhere imitated in country parks and gardens,
suggest that the possibility is at least left open.
The presence of architecture's upper edge; our present
to the sky.
Copyright 2004 Peter Nesteruk