Reading Between the Skylines
Cities have been, and will always be multi-faceted, elastic sites. They are settlements in continuous evolution, molded by proximity to natural resources, by migrating populations, and by capital. Despite the diversity in the urban character of disparate cities, it has been said that cities look alike now more than ever before, a uniformity that means a glass-and-steel tower in Singapore would not look out of place in Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex.
Amidst this phenomenon, a popular way of observing and assessing our cities has been through an alluring image – that of the skyline. Tourists to certain cities are encouraged to visit locations where the city skyline is visible in its entirety, a vantage point that is supposed to produce a visually satisfying experience for the visitor. City skylines have been called representations of a city’s facts of life – but how much do they really tell us?
Although it can be formed by the natural landscape as trees, the urbanization of much of such world means that the skyline is typically defined as the shape or outline formed where the sky meets the built environment – a categorization that is populated by skyscra and high-rises as buildings continue to get taller.
Does Urban Development Drive Gentrification?
So, how much do skylines really tell us? If it’s about the urban quality of a city, they actually do not tell us a lot.
Arguably one of the most recognizable skylines globally would be in the American city of New York, perhaps as a result of the metropolis being a frequent setting in one of the United States’ most enduring cultural exports – film. New York’s skyline, particularly in its borough of Manhattan, consists of an assortment of high-rise landmarks, a cityscape of densely populated towers where the 1930 Chrysler Building jostles for control with the 1999 4 Times Square.
In the Tanzanian business hub of Dar es Salaam, the skyline is smaller in scale than New York’s but changing rapidly. The Tanzania Ports Authority Tower, the Johari Rotana Hotel, and the PSPF Commercial Towers punctuate the skyline of a city home to valuable real estate in its center. Evaluating the skylines of Dar es Salaam and New York leaves little knowledge of the urban character of both cities – as they tell seemingly contradictory stories in relation to their skylines.
Dar es Salaam, despite being a city where few truly super-tall buildings are spread out, is a city, that to say the least, is not accommodating to the pedestrian. Dar es Salaam’s residents have commented that pedestrians are excluded from urban mobility, and on a more structural level, adequate protection is not given to walkways, which are frequently encroached by building extensions or parking areas.
On the other hand, New York has frequently been named one of the most walkable cities in the United States, buoyed by initiatives such as the Pedestrian Safety Action Plan and an urban plan that by and large, has maintained ease of walking. The New York skyline, despite dwarfing Dar es Salaam’s in scale, is in fact home to relatively more friendly ground-level pedestrian conditions than Dar es Salaam’s comparatively shorter skyline.
What city skylines do tell us, in a very blunt manner, are of how much the architecture of a significant portion of cities is determined by capital, corporations, and bureaucratic hoops – a process termed “form follows finance.” In New York, floors assigned for structural and mechanical purposes do not count against the total allowable size, allowing buildings to be extended upwards for the reason of needing additional mechanical space. Developers wholly exploit this, enlarging these spaces so premium penthouses can be built ever higher – further elevating New York’s already towering skyline.
In India, Mumbai’s soaring skyline is explained in part by the presence of the country’s oldest stock exchange coupled with its role in the growth and development of the Indian economy, not to mention its large billionaire population. In the UK, London’s skyline is equal parts admired and disliked, but despite protected vistas to sites such as St. Paul’s Cathedral, it is still very much determined and demarcated by financial entities and its laboring towards the status of the world’s financial capital.
In complete contrast to Mumbai and London, some skylines grapple with the friction between the architectural heritage of years past and present-day contemporary interventions. Stone Town, the historical center of Zanzibar City in the archipelago of Zanzibar, features a skyline prominently made up of large buildings executed in coral stone from the 18th and 19th centuries. The Stone Town skyline view from the seafront reflects a complex composition of Swahili, Indian, Arab and European influences in building tradition, but what is particularly interesting is that these buildings have largely been left intact, in part due to Stone Town’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and through its primary economic function as a tourist center.
A zoomed-out view of Zanzibar City, however, reveals a skyline to the east of Stone Town that houses high-rise multi-story apartments adjacent to low-rise dwellings, and of a city navigating the pressures of development, housing, higher traffic , and change in land use.
What skylines tell us about our cities is also linked to how we perceive them – as this is directly influenced by the media we consume. It is of course impossible to photograph the entire skyline of a city, which means the tallest and architecturally interesting buildings are given precedence. The typical photographs of the London, Mumbai, and New York City skylines, for instance, obscure the inequality in these cities.
Photographs of the Zanzibar City skyline typically display the Stone Town seafront and skyline, emphasizing its attractiveness as a tourist destination. Ng’ambo, the formerly stigmatized “native” area of Zanzibar City – despite the monumental high-rise Michenzani apartments built in the late 1960s – features little in the typical photographs of Zanzibar.
What do skylines tell us? Holistically – not much, they paint a very narrow view of a city. But they do present clues, however subtle, of architectural tension, and of how cityscapes are in states of perpetual transformation – shaped by social and economic forces.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: What is Good Architecture?proudly presented by our first book ever: The ArchDaily Guide to Good Architecture. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our ArchDaily topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 02, 2022.