Written for Contemporary Issues in Design, Architecture and Urban Planning taught by Karrie Jacobs at SVA.
In New York City, the view is everything. The panoramic skyline that materialises at every corner seems to fulfill a human need to stand before scenes of grand scale. Views sell apartments, fill riverside parks and flood Rockefeller Center’s Top of the Rock observatory with people all year round. Images of this view infiltrate desktop and mobile backgrounds. In this city, the rooftop bar with a skyline view is a phenomenon like nowhere else in the world: as Frank Bruni wrote in the Times, in the “vertical wonderland” of Manhattan, “it seems only right to ascend.”
The massive buildings, seen from across the river or by looking up from ground level, are imposing; the skyline is amazing, arresting and awe-inspiring. But is it beautiful?
Like many people, I am guilty of having a Chrysler building mobile wallpaper at one point in my life. I have always been mesmerized by the idea of the city, and so I expected living here to feel like an unending music video, an infinite montage of panoramic helicopter shots. Turns out, I was right–it does feel like this. But I quickly realized that being in an unending music video forced me to look critically at the glorified surroundings. I began to notice that almost everywhere I went, the view of the skyline was the product. In Mumbai the prized views are of the vast, grey Arabian Sea; in Istanbul it’s the mighty Bosphorus separating two continents; in London, it’s the Thames, snaking through the city. But in New York, the only view that matters is the view of itself. The city seems to constantly look inward, admiringly, vainly.
The view of New York is instantly recognizable to people anywhere on earth because it is so endlessly reproduced, but cities haven’t always held this position in popular culture. When cities began to mushroom during the Industrial Revolution, urban space was considered ugly, almost an antithesis of nature’s grace and beauty. The 19th-century architecture critic John Ruskin concedes in his book, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, that the value of architecture relies on the impression it receives of human power but also emphasizes that “man cannot advance in the invention of beauty without directly imitating natural form.” It would require some stretch of the imagination to find a suitable natural metaphor for this city’s skyline.
Despite that, New York’s spectacle is the product of the interaction between man-made materials and nature: brilliant, multi-hued sunsets tinge the facades of some of the tallest buildings in the world with a soft glow, and the cavernous streets shadowed by these buildings force wind to barrel through. Unfortunately, these natural moments are fleeting, and often dulled by the visual force of towering steel and glass. They cannot compete with the jagged, haphazard skyline–an asymmetry which would prompt Alain de Botton, philosopher and founder of The School of Life, to pronounce New York’s skyline as unattractive, based on his principles of order and scale that define beautiful cities.
If neither Ruskin nor de Botton would consider New York to be beautiful, how then can we understand the obsession millions of people have with this concrete jungle? How can we even begin to understand the obsession the city has with itself?
The philosopher Alexander Nehamas wrote in An Essay on Beauty and Judgment that a beautiful object is one that overwhelms the viewer with elements they cannot immediately appreciate, and therefore keep craving. He writes that “...beauty, as I said, is a promise, an anticipation, a hope as yet unfulfilled. To find something beautiful is, precisely, not yet to have finished with it, to think it has something further to offer.” In New York, I believe this dilemma is faced mutually by both the city and its audience: despite the oversaturation of attractions and images starring its many views, people never seem to be finished with searching for the best one, based on the shared belief between the city and the viewers that these views are still fresh, relevant and important.
But it is probably Immanuel Kant, in his Critiques of Judgement, who gives us the best way to understand why the views of New York, although they do not conform to many standards of beauty, are still so universally revered. His distinction between the concepts of sublime and beauty are especially interesting. “It is beyond the powers of the imagination to present a sensible form to the understanding, and it is beyond the powers of the understanding to make sense out of nothing.” Where beauty, according to Kant, is calming, the sublime disrupts us, disturbs us.
Perhaps, then, New York’s expansive views are sublime, not beautiful. The clash of different forms, heights and materials are neither natural nor harmonious, and are embodiments of Kant’s sublime object—“rude nature,” defined by the principle of disorder, or “purposivelessness” to wreck “violence to the imagination.” I would argue that it is evident that ideals of beauty do not seem to concern many of the architects and developers working on megaprojects which will noticeably alter this view, as they seem to believe that their structures do not participate in, or affect, the landscape of the city. Perhaps they too are equally obsessed with the disruptive power of the sublime.
As the skyline grows vertically with architectural experiments, people keep coming back to gawk at this disturbing arrangement. New York knows its sublime power, and it uses it well. Its grand, imposing structures hold an air of ineffability which force us to keep looking up, whether we like it or not. I’ve learnt that living in New York is like being in an unending music video, but I had expected a very different song.