What Baloo can teach us about our suspicion of tall buildings

tall buildings“What Baloo had said about the monkeys was perfectly true. They belonged to the tree-tops, and as beasts very seldom look up, there was no occasion for the monkeys and the Jungle-People to cross each other’s path.” Of course, Rudyard Kipling meant this figuratively but there is a clear link between ‘up’ in the figurative sense and ‘up’ in the physical sense. The executives at Omnicorp don’t lease the most expensive offices in a tower in so they can sit around on the ground floor watching the hoi polloi pass by at street level. They need to be at the top of the building looking down on them.

And it’s why developers have taken to adding a little something extra to their tall buildings. A survey of the World’s 72 supertall buildings once found that more than half had added unnecessary height in the form of fluffers such as towers, spires and antenna to give them a little boost. The Freudian undertones are clear, but vanity, ostentation and status can be pretty unattractive characteristics without the psychoanalysis. Even those who might disagree would probably prefer not to see too much of them in other people.

That skyscrapers often embody these characteristics is just one reason for people to remain wary of them, or sometimes be openly hostile  to them. This is especially the case in those cities in which they have been regarded with suspicion and in which they may feel inappropriate or out of context.

It’s a point made by Michael Caine in an interview with Clive James for a programme called Postcard from London, which was made as recently as 1991 but which already qualifies as a perfect example of L P Hartley’s definition of the past as a ‘foreign country, they do things differently there’. The conversation begins at around 33.30 below. And although many things have improved since Caine was a struggling young actor in London, he loves how even in 1991 it was still possible to climb into the canopy of the city and look out into the rest of thee world.



Not big or clever

Recently, those who are dubious about tall buildings found a high profile ally in the shape of Frank Gehry. In an interview in Foreign Policy magazine, Gehry took particular exception to the towers that increasingly spear the skylines of the world’s cities.

‘The worst thing is when you go to places like Dubai,’ he said. ‘They’re on steroids, but they just end up looking like American or European cities with these anonymous skyscrapers – like every cruddy city in the world. One would hope there would be more support from within these places for architecture that responds to the place and culture. That’s what I’m trying to do, but, man, no one else seems to be involved with it. It’s just cheap copies of buildings that have already been built somewhere else.’

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]One would hope there would be more support from within these places for architecture that responds to the place and culture[/perfectpullquote]

In other words, big and clever are two entirely different things. While it’s true that in London, which has a longstanding mistrust of skyscrapers, not many bad words have been heard about The Shard, people seem rather less enamoured of the Scalpel, the Cheesegrater, and the Walkie Talkie. There was certainly a degree of glee that people took in the news that the design of the Walkie Talkie meant at certain times it would focus sunlight into a ‘death ray’, torching nearby shops and cars.

While we may not always like what tall buildings represent, there is some truth in the idea we don’t look up from a purely physical point of view.  This is partly down to the constraints of our vision, which  covers an arc of roughly 60° horizontally toward the nose, 100° away, 60° up, and 75° down. So our peripheral vision does not encourage us to look up into our immediate surroundings. We have to choose to do it, and what we find when we do can be very enlightening.

However, for the dwellers on the city’s floor, the canopy of tall buildings is often invisible to them. It’s only the people in the surrounding areas and hills that can see it, hazy and off in the distance. If you want a metaphor for the one characteristic of the UK right now, there you go.

Image: London’s potential skyline in 2026, rendered by GMJ for City of London Corporation