What's the skyline got to do with it?

 

The plan for a new children’s hospital was rejected partly to preserve Dublin’s appearance, but are we being too precious about our rooftops, asks GEMMA TIPTON

IN THE DEPTHS of the last recession, before the advent of cheap flights, the only affordable way to get home from London was by boat. My strongest homecoming memory is of standing on the deck of the St Columba ferry, waiting for a glimpse of Ireland. Through the morning mists, the first things you could make out were the churches. Spires and steeples defined the skyline. Making the same trip two decades later, it was remarkable how much had changed. No longer was the view from Dún Laoghaire to Dublin Port punctuated by ecclesiastical architecture – instead, rising above all else, were the cranes.

Whether arriving by boat or plane, skylines give us our first sense of a city. Of a similar vintage to those boat trips back from the UK, the TV series Dallas began with the camera swooping in from the desert to reveal a city of glass and steel rising from the sands, built on the same oil money fought over by the Ewing brothers, series after series. Said to be more recognisable than flags, the world’s great city skylines are marketing tools for both business and tourism. You see them at airports before stepping on to the plane: both Helsinki and Heathrow airports use photographs and sketches of city skylines to define, and advertise destinations.

Dublin doesn’t have a famous skyline – at least not in the way London, New York, Sydney and Paris do – so what was An Bord Pleanála protecting when it used the aesthetics of the skyline as a reason to reject the planned children’s hospital on the Mater campus?

It was described as a “dominant, visually incongruous structure [that] would have a profound negative impact on the appearance and visual amenity of the city skyline”. It is true that the overlarge lump of the planned hospital, despite being described in the planning proposal as “a cloud form enveloped in a skin of glass . . . chosen because of its soft ethereal shape”, would have been completely out of sync with the Dublin vista we know and (sometimes) love.

But can aesthetics be ethical? What are we actually looking at when we see an urban skyline? What does it tell us about a city, and how much of it should be protected? From castles and churches, often built on hilltops for defence and viewing advantage, our tallest buildings tell us who, or what, was important at a given point in history. The famous towers of San Gimignano in Tuscany are the results of wealthy medieval families trying to outdo one another in a race for the top – even though the towers themselves were useless for anything save prestige (a desire, perhaps, most closely mirrored in modern-day Dubai).

Also in Tuscany, the view of Florence from the Forte di Belvedere shows the skyline punctuated by church domes, with none so great as Santa Maria del Fiore, built by the Florentines to be as close to God as possible. Alongside these, lower but heavier and more hulking, are the civic buildings and fortified palaces of the Medici.

Height is also a response to the value of urban land, and now, instead of building in order to be closer to God, we build as a testament both to Mammon and to vanity. This vanity may be of individual developers wanting to put their own stamp on the skyline – such as Seán Dunne’s dream of “Knightsbridge in Dublin 4” or Donald Trump’s Trump Towers – of architects’ lofty ambitions or of civic and national governments vying for the world’s tallest.

But changing the shape of the city skyline is nothing new. In Niall McCullough’s Dublin: An Urban History we can read about 16th-century “complaints of houses built up against the walls of Christchurch which ‘doe stopp up the light’ ” while, “in 1570, Mr Cusack of Rathgar was prosecuted for blocking a lane to St Audeon’s church with a house”. Creating Parliament Street in Dublin, the Wide Streets Commission is said to have initiated the project “by stealth, with workmen reportedly removing roofs from sleeping inhabitants”.

Around the world, 21st-century skylines are dominated by apartment and office blocks, revealing the balance of power to have shifted in favour of property developers and their financial backers – and, though it is shifting again, this balance has been, at best, uneasy. In London, the sight lines to Christopher Wren’s dome at St Paul’s Cathedral are protected, to much grumbling, by a policy known as the St Paul’s Heights. Laid down in 1938, it existed as a gentlemen’s agreement until the 1960s, when infringements caused it to be passed into law.

The Heights means that views of St Paul’s from Parliament Hill, Primrose Hill and Westminster Pier must not be impeded by large buildings. It also protects the view of St Paul’s from Richmond Park, which covers a distance of 16km. This severely limits building around Liverpool Street station and often causes the battle lines to be drawn between conservationists and those espousing progress.

The London skyline also shows that new buildings can re-create the vista without damaging the view: designed by Norman Foster, 30 St Mary Axe, also known as the Gherkin, is an example of a new landmark building that looks and feels right in the space. Even here there were planning rows, and the Gherkin, as built, is smaller and lower than that originally submitted for planning permission. Nevertheless, the Gherkin shows that tall buildings can work and that planning problems are more often a question of scale than of height. Kevin Roche’s Convention Centre Dublin, on the River Liffey, is out of scale in its site, a fact made more obvious by the recession’s halting of the building programme that would have enabled its neighbours to grow up to meet its bulk.

In addition to “piercing the skyline” – a favourite euphemism among architects; see panel, right – all buildings create new spaces between and around them, and frame new views. An older example is the Aventine Keyhole in Rome, where a sight line from the keyhole in the Santa Maria del Priorato church takes the eye along a tree-lined avenue and across the city to St Peter’s Basilica. Other cities that keenly protect sight lines and views include San Francisco and Vancouver, and guidelines on the protection of key views in Edinburgh have recently been published.

Although it is easy to see the importance of these spots, cities can’t be preserved in a time warp, in any age – Christopher Wren had St Paul’s half built under wraps to prevent his critics from throwing a spanner in his works. As new buildings and structures go up, they define new sites, give energy to a city and may become future icons. In Dublin, the Monument of Light – the Spire – was an attempt to give the city skyline a defining image without creating a precedent for high-rise building.

All skylines are evidence of the layers of history, ambition, belief, ownership, wealth and desire that create a city. When skylines work, they reveal where and how a city has got its design right. In New York, the axis of Manhattan was shifted south from the Empire State Building to the World Trade Center towers, which, until they became beloved icons postdestruction, were never truly successful or even fully let. Post-9/11, the skyline is redefined by the Empire State Building, and, architecturally speaking, the shape of the city makes better sense.

Not all of the grounds for the rejection of the Mater proposal were aesthetic, but those were the most widely reported. Some declared aesthetics a poor argument when it came to children’s health. Yet there is a sense in which there is an ethical dimension to aesthetics. The building looked wrong against the north Dublin skyline, because it was wrong – too big for the site and too big to be serviced properly by the surrounding area. Elsewhere, against a different skyline, the same building could look right, and find its proper, appropriate home.

What's a gateway building when it's at home? An architectural glossary

The children’s hospital was described in the planning proposal “as a cloud form enveloped in a skin of glass . . . chosen because of its soft ethereal shape”. The proposal also suggested that “there is an inherent conflict of scale which can only be resolved by contrast”. Here are some more planning and architectural euphemisms:

Gateway buildingOverly large building on the edge of town

Bold architectural statementOverly large building anywhere

Light-filled shard piercing the skyOverly large building in the middle of town

Landmark developmentHigher than permitted planning guidelines

Signature architectureRecycled design, repeated around the world

New urban quarterSpeculative apartment development with empty ground-floor shops

Plaza or podiumFeatureless concrete expanse

Preserved in recordDemolished

Skyconic Cities where geography and architecture come together

SydneyFor the Opera House on the harbour.

LondonFor Big Ben and the London Eye.

New YorkFor the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building and, formerly, the Twin Towers.

ParisFor the Eiffel Tower (the city has sensibly not allowed it to be dwarfed by tall neighbours)

DubaiFor its skyscrapers rising out of the desert (above), especially the Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest, but for how long? – and the Burj Al Arab

Rio de JaneiroFor the Sugarloaf, with its Christ the Redeemer statue at the summit