Dancing about architecture

While strolling around midtown Manhattan the other day, my wife wondered aloud what it must have been like to have lived there in the first third of the 20th century and to suddenly see unprecedentedly tall buildings sprouting up around you. While New York is now synonymous with skyscrapers, only a hundred years ago they were a novelty, and it’s easy to imagine how they could have seemed impressive, exciting, maybe even a little scary. Many of the original ’30s towers now look quaintly antiquated next to their sleek, glassy offspring, although it’s interesting that two of the tallest and most iconic towers in New York, the Empire State and the Chrysler, were both built during the 1930s.

On the one hand this juxtaposition of old and new, the mingling of eras and styles, can be stimulating and interesting. (It’s also, incidentally, the one thing many science fiction films get wrong – they tend to make everything futuristic, forgetting that the old stuff tends to hang around for a while too…). On the other hand, one thing I noticed when I started travelling around Europe was how many cities differed in their approach to architectural preservation. Many towns in Italy, for example, have a well-preserved “historic centre”, and the town where I lived for a year, Genoa, has one of the largest in Europe. These areas are architecturally coherent, atmospheric, and in some cases can even make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time a century or three. Then there’ll be a modern area with financial centres and shopping malls in another part of town. In my experience this kind of thing is pretty rare in, say, the UK. In my home town of Exeter there’s no one specific area where you can go to see the old stuff – it’s all jumbled up with new stuff, slightly old stuff, and prehistoric stuff. So you’ll have a 1960s brutalist office block looming over a 17th century house, across the road from a piece of Roman wall. Then again, ideas about architectural preservation become somewhat academic when your city is bombed during the Blitz.

But New York also got me thinking about architecture’s obsession with vertiginous verticals. (It also, incidentally, reminded me of a rather obscure tv parody a while back of a feminist architecture critic walking the streets of a modern metropolis, complaining about all the phallic towers and other erections, and how she could literally smell the testosterone and semen…). Obviously building upwards is a way to maximise space (and therefore revenue), but personally I find it a rather lazy and unimaginative way for an architect to make his/her mark on the topography of a city. Exciting as New York was, after a while a certain visual monotony sets in, and I found myself wanting to see something that wasn’t tall, oblong and grey.

But this isn’t just about American office blocks. On my last trip to Paris (a couple of years ago, I think) I suddenly realised that I hate the Eiffel tower. Whatever qualities it has as an object or as an engineering feat, it so dominates the skyline, greedily sucking attention away from other, more deserving sights, that I can perfectly understand Maupassant’s habit of eating dinner in the Eiffel restaurant every day, so as to be sure when he looked out the window at the view that the one thing he would not see would be the tower itself. 

Brussels has it’s fair share of tower blocks, although it’s generally a lot less vertical than other cities of similar size and international standing. And I rather like that fact that one of its largest and most recognisable constructions is not a tower or similarly anonymous box-shape, but a representation of an iron molecule