Spaces for Perspectives — appreciating cityscapes

When I first transitioned to a dense city like London, nearly a decade ago, my visual excitement knew no bounds. Exploration and adventure found a new meaning within city and civilization. One of the spots that I repeatedly returned to was near and around the St Paul’s cathedral. I cannot recount the number of times I have walked around the churchyard and captured the St Paul’s from all possible angles. One year down, I had my favorite perspectives of the St Paul’s — the North-South axis view, the view between two glass facades of the One New Change Building (East-West axis), the view at the end of the Millennium Bridge and one last rooftop view from One New Change.

It became my signature walking tour for all my visitors in London. I would start at the North-South axis and go along Peter’s Hill all the way until the end of the Millennium Bridge. At several fixed spots, I would tell them to turn back and look at the changing perspective of the St Paul’s. The final turning point — the wow point — was at the end of the Millennium Bridge, where all lines of the bridge’s vanishing point in perspective lead your eyes to the towering and majestic dome of the St Paul’s. The view is prismatic in multiple dimensions.

St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Looking at it from several perspectives. (All photographs in this article are from my adventures.)

It is only recently that I discovered the St Paul’s views were not a coincidence. It is in fact the result of a much articulated piece of policy by the City of London Corporation called the St Paul’s Heights (a part of the Protected Views Policy), operated since 1937. The policy lays down height and setback restrictions for buildings in the surrounding region to maintain eight axes viewpoints towards the St Paul’s dome. In addition, one viewpoint is 19 km away from the St Paul’s at the King Henry mound in Richmond’s Park.

Each time I took my friends/visitors along for the walk, they would have a revelation. Not only because the views were amazing but because it would have never occurred to them to appreciate a building or a cityscape in this manner. While I realize that for us architects, appreciation of a city view, building or a space comes instinctively, note that most of my visitors were not trained as architects. But anytime you see someone with a camera craning their neck sideways, twisting their bodies or positioning themselves front and back like a zoom lens in front of building, you can guess they are either professional architectural photographers or disciples of architecture.

Which brings me back to the original intent of this post — spaces for perspectives. This is a call out to policy makers, urban planners, architects and aspiring urban explorers alike. Cities are captivating when people can appreciate them from different perspectives. These perspectives come from an amalgamation of three things: designing buildings with multiple vanishing points; providing diverse spaces to appreciate the city from; and taking advantage of natural contours or planning level differences from the ground up.

Buildings with multiple vanishing points

A historic city that has had a chance to age well — with layers of additions, winding streets, non-grid plans, adept policies and keen city dwellers wanting to unlock every aspect of the city — naturally offers many spaces to view and appreciate the city from. And what makes a historic city give this multitude of views is essentially described in The Urban Sketching Handbook by Stephanie Bower:

When buildings are rotated or skewed in plan, as they often are in older cities that were not built on a grid, you will likely find multiple vanishing points along your eye-level line.

Above: Single vanishing point in a modern city (Singapore) . Below: Multiple vanishing points in a historic city (Edinburgh)

Anyone who has attempted to draw a perspective of any three-dimensional object or space should be familiar with the term of vanishing point. It is an essential concept to depict the direction of a view, its depth and scale in a perspective drawing. A picture is worth a thousand words, so take a look at the image above — a comparison of vanishing points on a street in Singapore versus a street in Edinburgh.

In a street perspective, where all the lines are parallel — roads, pavement, building block, overhangs, extensions — you get one vanishing point. Your eyes are led to this one point in infinity, where there is nothing to expect. Nothing in the perspective of the street arouses your curiosity to find out what could be at the end, though it is perfect for a commercial street like Orchard Road in Singapore. The one vanishing point and its parallel lines keep a pedestrian’s eyes on the storefronts and their contents, away from the visual excitement that a street can bring.

Add more vanishing points and your eyes are led instead to multiple attractive foci. The street speaks directly to you, corners telling you “Turn around me!”, each building peeking out from its grid asking “Hey, how do I look from this side?”, this curve on the road prods you “Where do I lead?” With multiple vanishing points the street itself becomes the exciting shopfront with never-ending opportunities to be discovered anew. The street is brought to life.

Quite literally the street comes to life !

Take it from Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin, describing the desires when walking a street in a city:

Give me drama. Give me unexpected curvilinear corners. Give me unsettling churches and beautiful store fronts and parks I can lie down in.

Contours in a city

A city that takes advantage of its contours has layers of opportunities to be explored. By contours I mean the outlines of level differences of a land mass.

Take Edinburgh in Scotland, a city built in keeping with its natural contours. Walking down its streets, you will notice roads peeling away rather unexpectedly downwards or upwards, revealing its layers. There are steps from the side of the streets that take you to divergent pathways and nooks going up or down. You never expect it nor see it coming because it is never at your eye level and when it suddenly appears, it urges you to follow its slope to see what unfolds.

The playfulness of the city does not stop there. It is a historical city with winding lanes that narrow down and open up, offering multiple vanishing points and moments of surprises. Let me not even begin to describe its landscape. Edinburgh is tucked by hills on one side and by sea on the other. Crossing a junction sometimes brings a confused attraction to both the rolling hills and the sky-kissed horizon over the sea.

Edinburgh is a historical city without the dredge of having to maintain a high density population. Its horizontal sprawl, helped by its contours, adds to a shifting perspective between a bird’s eye view and a worm’s eye view of its buildings and landscapes. But what about the contours of a high-density city? Well let me take you to the cityscapes of Hong Kong!

Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Below is a photograph of the road leading from the airport to the city. Those tall towering buildings are not only impressively tall, they also lace on to natural contours. Walking into the heart of the city, it is difficult to even catch a glimpse of sky at your eye level.

Road from the airport leading into the city of Hong Kong

Naturally occurring steep contours provoke shifting eye levels, but it is the man-made level differences that really stand out in this densely packed and notoriously tall cityscape.

“Footbridge networks throughout the city that grew piecemeal, built by different parties at different times to serve different immediate needs, eventually formed an extensive network and became a prevailing development model for the city’s large-scale urban projects.” — Cities Without Ground: A Hong Kong Guidebook.

These stretches of pedestrian bridges — or footbridge networks — crisscrossing at several heights, through multiple buildings (both private, commercial and administrative), spanning large varied parts of the city (ports, bays, parks, squares, markets, transit stations, shopping malls, streets, just about everywhere) create an intrinsic network of never ending spaces to appreciate the city from.

Spaces to appreciate the city from

In Hong Kong, it is the man-made level differences — the network of pedestrain bridges — that doubles up as the very spaces from which the city can be taken with all its dynamism. These spaces are not just the static levels that split the city but also the transient means to get there. The linear stairs, spiral stairs, escalators, moving walkways, bobbing elevators are all spaces where one can catch several glimpses of hidden details that the city offers.

A map showing the several levels and transient modes in central Hong Kong. Page photographed from the book Cities Without Ground

Looking up a building from the ground is not the same as meeting it at eye level, nor is it the same as looking down at it. You would be surprised at the various levels of details revealed from each angle you view a building or a composition of buildings.

Left: Looking up at the Concourse from ground level. Middle: Meeting the Concourse at eye level from a pedestrain bridge six meters above ground level. Right: Looking back at Concourse after walking one kilometer away from it.

Take the Concourse building in Singapore (pictured above). It is a hexagonal building with beveled windows looking downwards. Looking up at it from the ground level amplifies the proportion of the bevels. Observe it from the overhead pedestrain bridge six meters above ground and you will see the undulating waves of its hexagonal extensions, flushed with the tropical green canopy and its background context. Now walk away from the Concourse for about a kilometer and turn back to see the beveled windows disappearing to become alternating stripes. This is what excites me about changing perspectives — a new outlook, a new layer of detail, a new level of information, a new composition with a building that never changed. Imagine the possibilities of this exploration.

So be it an old building like St Paul’s in a historic non-grid city like London or be it a modern building like the Concourse in a newly developed city like Singapore, or be it a building yet to be be designed in a perfect grid layout, there are always opportunities to create attractive cityscapes. Add some vanishing points, create contours/levels or design more spaces to view buildings with their changing angles and context. And never forget to look up, look down or turn back one last time before exiting a street for the surprise view it holds!

Flâneuse, Urban explorer, Building scientist

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