Love of the skyline
Where 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?
But 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 heavens).
The edge of the sky; etched by our culture on the background of Nature's last untouchable domain.
The 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 Southeast Asia, or in many Islamic states, has already begun to follow the demands of local cultures (be they national, or world cultures) for their own right to expression. Such form no longer exists solely to enforce a meagre functional baldness, a naked functionality often felt to be foreign or Western. This last echoes the global response to 'globalisation' as representing (in all senses of the word) Western, American, Christian capitalism in its origin, its constituency and its content. Nor is it a question of abstract monotheistic cultures contrasted against pantheistic ones; the forms used in modern Islamic architecture (see the new architecture in Riyadh) owe as much to abstraction (an invisible god) as to their particular geo-climatic conditions (the flat-roof tradition they inherit and the open horizon that surrounds them).
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 England; superficially wealthy with their uninspiring skylines, the poverty of their material culture, of their urban environment; and by the new middle classes that populate them (as well as the new underclass, the result of the terminal decay of the old working class. 'We' are all working class now, some manual still (trade, service, retail - those with a 'trade' earning more than many most collar or many professional workers). But most are now white collar; part of the Big Middle of our new social demographics (pushing apart and replacing the simple binary that once was thought to express the last word on social description and the social dynamic). White collar today means mental labour attached to labour-saving devices; the mental labour-saving device of the computer. Now finally making headway in the office and in the home, in communication and in commodity exchange, in play as in work, in culture as in technical processes (after decades of false dawns and dire warnings). If the new expanded middle brings with it a welcome expansion of culture (as witnessed by the success of the market for the arts, literature and music) this process has nevertheless not kept pace with the rate of expansion (and for the underclass there is no cultural progress, just the ever-cheapening technological means for cheaper reproductions and the circulation of a -only partly imported- 'trash' culture). Education expands but culture does not keep pace. The learning of techniques is not learning to think, to be conscious of the world, as tested by the ability to refute populist tabloid scapegoating and resist the very real temptations of the forces of exclusion and excision. To rise above these, to be beyond their appeal; this is the mark of culture today (tagged as an active positive, a valued norm). Today all (or almost all) are offered white collar jobs and pay, but no culture. Objects but not ideas; objects but not the means to evaluate them; objects but not objectivity. Or the (subjective) culture to sort out the mean from the elevating, the meaningful from the meaningless, the demeaning from that with meaning. Architecture is symptomatic of all this.
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 beyond).
(Perhaps the 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