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November 4, 2011 10:14 pm

Points on views

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Vistas to and from public spaces are key to our understanding of a city

It looks like a painting in a frame, a picture within a picture, of a sublime Tuscan landscape, of rolling country, of rocks, sea and a distant city. But it isn’t, it’s a view through a grey stone-framed window of a very Florentine type. Fra Filippo Lippi’s “Madonna and Child with Two Angels” (1465), hanging in the Uffizi in Florence, shows a room with a view – which, not entirely coincidentally, is the title of EM Forster’s novel which begins in a hotel around the corner, overlooking the river Arno.

There is an idea of the interior as inward-looking, a space focused on fireplace and family, hearth and heart. Certainly the windows of houses around the world are more about letting light and air in than views looking out. But, as Lippi’s subtly deceptive painting shows, the interior has always both framed and been framed by what lies beyond, and artists, architects and clients have long played with the idea of a view as a component of a building.

The modern rationalist architect Adalberto Libera used the same device in his extraordinary house for Italian poet Curzio Malaparte on a rocky outcrop of Capri. Encapsulated within a dark wood frame, the view of the sea, dramatic rocks and an artful tree looks like one of those stick-on murals that you might have found in a working class house in the 1970s. But of course, it isn’t, it is an architect using the view to adorn the wall, bringing the landscape in to become the architecture.

A view is a thing to be desired. A room with a view, a sea view, river view, panoramic view, a penthouse with city skyline views; each of these can hugely increase the value and the meaning of a property. It is also, as both Lippi and Libera suggest, an integral part of the interior. The builders of palaces and stately homes in 17th- and 18th-century France and Britain were acutely conscious of this and the landscaping of the grounds was as important a part of the architecture as the interiors – often more so. The view was the space of representation.

But what of the rest of us, who do not have grounds? Who do not live among rolling Tuscan hills or dramatic seascapes? We rely on views from public spaces to understand the city, to look down, across and away and get the bigger picture. The importance of certain views in London, for example, is enshrined in legislation. A complex web of lines of view is overlaid on the city to protect particular views from strategic points. The framework was established in 1902 when the view of the ‘Arcadian’ landscape around the Thames (a view that had been painted by J.M.W. Turner and Sir Joshua Reynolds – the south-east’s version of Lippi’s idealised background) was protected by an act of parliament. It was only with the advent of tall buildings during the reconstruction of the city after the second world war that the issue of maintaining select viewing corridors was codified, with certain views made inviolable. Most involve the city’s two most familiar landmarks, the Palace of Westminster and St Paul’s Cathedral, and include the views from Parliament Hill, Primrose Hill, Greenwich Park and Westminster Pier. They can seem a little arbitrary – where, for instance, is the view from Waterloo Bridge, surely the city’s defining panorama? But they also encapsulate a very particular, very English notion of the city seen from green space, as if it were something controllable and picturesque, a folly to be glimpsed from the safety of the romantic landscape of the park.

Bucharest's Parliament of the People

Bucharest's Parliament of the People: When it was constructed by Nicolae Ceausescu, chunks of the city were demolished to create views of the building

Other historic cities have far more stringent rules about heights than London, but few protect such a particular idea of the view. In Paris everything is compressed to Baron Haussmann’s 20m datum, a strict limit ensuring streets appear unified and holistically planned – even if the architecture of the buildings within the limits can vary dramatically. In Rome, where almost every building is historic and built on the remains of something yet more historic, they bypass the problem by not allowing anything new at all. Cities such as St Petersburg, Venice and Stockholm have rigorously controlled centres but London has always been adapting.

Hal Moggridge, landscape architect and former consultant to the Inner London Royal Parks, has been vocal in questioning the way in which the changing cityscape is affecting even sacrosanct public views. “I’m mostly concerned with the views from London’s parks,” he says. “The GLA [Greater London Authority] plan of 2004 ... had the effect of physically narrowing the potential views – if you were to move a few yards to either side, you’d lose the view. It also offered less protection for backgrounding.”

The Burj Khalifa in Dubai

Dubai: Burj Khalifa, which at 828m is the world's tallest skyscraper

Backgrounding is the loss of the silhouette of an important building – St Paul’s, for instance, suddenly finding itself almost invisible on the skyline as a huge office block appears behind it.

Perhaps surprisingly, Moggridge is far from anti-development. He is in favour of the Shard, which will be Europe’s tallest building, as it doesn’t impinge on most views. “It’s not how tall buildings are,” he says, “it’s how they’re arranged. You need to design the sky in the city. It doesn’t mean you can’t have tall buildings but that they need to be put in the right places.”

New York-based architect Rafael Viñoly is constructing 20 Fenchurch St in the City, a 160m, 36-storey tower which went through a painful gestation as its location was controversial. He went out of his way to consider how it could be designed to maintain as many views as possible. “We scooped the building out at the sides and back,” he says, “to allow views of [Sir Christopher Wren’s] St Margaret’s Church and also of the City cluster. It bends to respond to where things are and to indicate the presence of the river.” He is also working on designs for a residential tower which, when it is complete, will be one of New York’s tallest. I ask how the approach to views varies between the two cities.

“New York is much more about a panoramic view than about individual landmark buildings,” he says. “The view is the city.” In his London tower, which has become known as the “Walkie Talkie” and, slightly more endearingly, “The Pint” because of its bulbous top, Viñoly has turned things around by making a public space at the top, a sky garden which will look out onto the whole of London. “Views can be a commercial commodity or they can be a public asset,” he says.

The lights that were shone into the sky above Ground Zero in New York recently focused minds on the idea that pivotal urban views could change through loss as well as addition. But cities need to be tough. They need to accommodate change to stay alive and some cities, perhaps most notably Hong Kong, make a drama out of a constantly changing skyline with a nightly display of son et lumière in which the buildings become the actors. The question to ask is whether, one day, a view of the Shard or of Freedom Tower (One World Trade Center as it is now known) will become as desirable as a view of St Paul’s or the Empire State. And frankly, I’m yet to be convinced.

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