Aesthetics, Politics and London's Towering Cityscape
This book examines the skyline as a space for radical urban politics. Focusing on the relationship between aesthetics and politics in London’s tall-building boom, it develops a critique of the construction of more and more speculative towers as well as a critique of the claim that these buildings ruin the historic cityscape. Gassner argues that the new London skyline needs to be ruined instead and explores ruination as a political appropriation of the commodified and financialised cityscape. Aimed at academics and students in the fields of architecture, urban design, politics, urban geography, and sociology, Ruined Skylines engages with the work of Walter Benjamin and other critical and political theorists. It examines accounts of sometimes rebellious and often conservative groupings, including the City Beautiful movement, the English Townscape movement, and the Royal Fine Art Commission, and discusses tower developments in the City of London – 110 Bishopsgate, the Pinnacle, 22 Bishopsgate, 1 Undershaft, 122 Leadenhall, and 20 Fenchurch – in order to make a case for reanimating urban politics as an art of the possible.
Table of Contents
List of figures
The new London skyline
- Conservative representations
- Visual and political representativeness
- Aesthetic and speculative value
- Political images
A tall-building boom
A tall-building boom
Outline of the book
The notion of the skyline
Form, power, finance, function
Skyline profiles and sky gaps
Occupying the line
Reframing building height
Aestheticising and beautifying
The skyline as a monad
Enshrinement as heritage
History as a process
The orderly city
Linear and painterly
Religion as capitalism
Allegories and symbols
Günter Gassner is Lecturer in Urban Design at the School of Geography and Planning, Cardiff University, Wales, and an architect. His research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of critical theory and spatial practices. He specialises in questions about relationships between aesthetics and politics, history and power, and urban visions and visualisations.
'Günter Gassner makes a powerful case for complexity rather than clarity in cities. He explores the massing together of tall buildings, arguing for a critical and creative exploration of skylines rather than the privileging of individual structures. Though Gassner's work is based on architectural craft, it ranges deep into politics, philosophy, economics, and everyday life. Ruined Skylines is arousing visually, engaging to read, and never fails to provoke.' – Richard Sennett, London School of Economics and Political Science, UK
'In this original and compelling study Günter Gassner dispels the idea of skylines as simple linear representations, to be traced or protected, or read for their obvious symbolic load. Through meticulous visual analyses and imaginative engagement with the work of Walter Benjamin and other key critical urban theorists, Ruined Skylines grounds London’s ‘new’ skyline within a longer historical trajectory. As an intervention within debates about urban change this timely work goes far beyond the surface controversies and straightforward readings of the tall-building boom and its relationship with power and capital. It offers, instead, a radical, multi-dimensional reconceptualization of the political uses and potentials of the skyline.' – Ben Campkin, The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, UK
'Rich in both historical detail and theoretical insight, this is a particularly timely and significant book. As the hubris of contemporary transnational corporations finds ever more spectacular instantiation in the high-rise glass and steel of metropolitan skyscrapers, Günter Gassner astutely recognizes that the ‘choice’ between neoliberal tower-building boosterists and historical heritage naysayers is merely one between the two sides of the same conservative coin. Drawing on Walter Benjamin’s vision of ‘ruination’ as a process of fracturing deceptive facades and disturbing contexts to reveal unheeded possibilities and unrealized potentialities, Gassner’s pioneering ‘baroque critique’ deftly navigates towards a genuinely alternative political aesthetic and urban imaginary. Focusing on the London skyline, this book will inform and inspire those who reject the relentless commodification and financialisation of our cityscapes, and who are determined that our twenty-first-century cities will be neither the preserve of penthouse-dwelling economic elites nor museumified monuments maintained for globe-trotting tourists. Deeply critical and profoundly political, Gassner’s work is not just about architectural horizons and changing urban vistas; rather, it sets out to challenge and change the very processes and architects, the how and the who, the whys and wherefores, of present-day urban transformation. It is an urgent and necessary interrogation of how our future cities are to be(come) both liveable and alive.' – Graeme Gilloch, Lancaster University, UK
‘The dazzling acts in Ruined Skylines want to account for what is actual and what is possible, how we see and what we do not see, what the moment brings and what the next could bring, how we read buildings and how we can read them differently. These towers are soon to be beautiful ruins. These towers – monuments of the bourgeoisie – are recognised as ruins even before they have crumbled. These towers are conceptualised from the perspective of their demise, which has occurred to other towers before them and will occur again. These towers are already the ruins of history that an impotent angel of history skids over. The book is not easy to think with, but it changes how we think, what it means to think, what it means to shatter an alienated perspective on things and to see from not just one but many vantage points, all at once – and that is a rich thing.’ – Esther Leslie, Birkbeck University of London, in Urban Studies, 2020.
‘Ruined Skylines explores the "ruination" of the London skyline through the recent construction boom in skyscrapers and speculative towers. Gassner dismantles a sterile opposition between two dominant discourses: appeal to the preservation of a traditional cityscape centring on the iconic figure of St Paul’s Cathedral; and market-led strategies of urban development, which celebrate this changing skyline and frame the towers as buildings that visually enhance the London skyline. Persuasively arguing that both sides of this debate are highly conservative, Gassner shows how the skyline can become a site of radical politics through forms of critique that actively ruin the skyline. […] Ruined Skylines is a compelling, theoretically and empirically rich study that will be an essential reference point for future work on cities, images, landscape and the politics of aesthetics.’ – Julian Brigstocke, Cardiff University, in Cultural Geographies, 2020.
‘Through an impressive theoretical discussion, Gassner highlights the roles of history, religion and capitalism in the creation of values in politics and design, which have an impact on how the new towers are viewed. By interrupting commonly accepted values which assume the skyline as a representation of the city, Gassner shows that skylines are not simply an achievement of existing, and what are assumed to be unchangeable, power relations; rather, they hint at design agency and its obsession with formalised visual representatives. Conclusions about skylines’ beauty, for example, within existing social and economic arrangements, become invalid because "beautification operates within an agreed sense of visual order and rightness."’ – Elahe Karimnia, KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, in LSE Review of Books, 2020.