Anxiously reaching for the sky

Recently I recorded a programme for Radio National on the future of skyscrapers (podcast here, article here). Researching the subject I kept confronting my own feelings about skyscrapers. I interviewed Scott Johnson, an architect in Los Angeles, and when he said that skyscrapers are our biggest artworks that clicked with me. I realised that I tend to think of skyscrapers in terms of what they look like from the street or from afar, not what they are like to inhabit. This view was fostered at an early age by the number of times I saw the glittering skyline of Manhattan in a thousand films and television shows, none better than Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Last year I took as much pleasure sitting by London’s Tower Bridge to gaze upon the characterful jumble of shapes that has now taken over the City as I would sitting in an art gallery.

I’ve never wanted to live high up, or even considered it. I’m one of those people who stands on a balcony and fears that he might be impelled to hurl himself off it, although I have obviously restrained myself so far. Tall buildings are wonderful to look at but I’m not so sure about living in them. Researching the programme made me wonder if I am, at heart, a bumpkin who needs to be able to walk directly outside into a field (or garden).

Several high-rise experiences come to mind:

  • Lying in bed on the umpteenth floor of a hotel in Taiwan last year and suddenly being rocked backwards and forwards as a low-level earthquake shook the city. As I rolled about on my mattress, I wondered what kind of medical crisis was causing my body to behave in this odd way. When I realised what was actually happening then I did my own quiet rendition of Munch’s The Scream.
  • Standing on the roof terrace of the Montparnasse Tower in Paris which, despite the high glass screens, howls with wind so that all the photos you take are blurry. That calm-looking sky suddenly feels very violent with its invisible, gusty volleys – visions of being blown off a balcony now join the one about the involuntary jumping.
  • Staying in a hotel in China that had the unfortunate name Twin Towers. Even worse, it was an actual copy of the Twin Towers (pre, of course). Thirty floors up, I couldn’t stop thinking of planes. And there I was thinking the Chinese did anything to avoid attracting bad luck…
  • When friends of mine showed me through the apartment they had rented on the thirty-somethingth floor of a smart building in the centre of Sydney, I marvelled at the sleekness of it all but couldn’t get over the sight of their bed being a mere foot away from a large floor-to-ceiling glass window that overlooked the street a million feet below. I would’ve had to rope myself to the furniture just to get in and out of that bed. The vision of tripping on an errant shoe and lurching headlong through the window still haunts me.
  • On the plus side, I used to love meeting a friend for a drink at the bar on the 28th floor of the Park Lane Hilton in London which had ritzy views across the city and made you feel like a filmstar.
  • The skyscrapers of China are mesmerizing but the astonishing blend of history and style makes Chicago a visual skyscrapin’ delight,even if it gives you a crick in the neck.

Staying anywhere above 6 floors and my legs go a little wobbly, like I’m on a ship. It’s as if I’m constantly bracing myself for the inevitable tumble as the building’s balsa-wood structure snaps. So it’s no surprise to find that when I was first able to buy a flat in London I bought one in the basement – or at garden level, if we’re being twee. I discovered, however, that greeting the working day by climbing a set of steps has a rather demoralising effect, and in winter the sun was always blocked by surrounding buildings. So it felt like an achievement of sorts to rise to ground level when I moved to Australia. So far I haven’t made it any higher.

So what’s your experience? Do you, or would you live up high? Tell me your views (or describe them, if you already live up high).

Taipei 101

Taipei 101

Categories: Architecture, Australia, Design, Other, TravelTags: , , , , , , , ,


  1. We are on the 12th floor with a 270° view of sydney city round to the eastern suburbs and airport. When in hotels, anything above that makes me feel a bit off. We had dinner once at Eureka89 on the 89th floor of the Eureka Tower. I need lots of wee drinkies

    • I think having views like that must be rather wonderful – sunsets, big skies, storms. But I’m with you on any higher. Went to the 24th floor of the Horizon building and my palms were sweating…Dinner at Eureka89 sounds like hell to me, however lovely the food!

  2. Oh the Hilton bar – that takes me back to one of the worst hangovers in my life! But I agree about its glamorous atmosphere – what I can remember of it anyway. As for the sky line of London I love the instant nicknames given to the London ones: the cheesegrater, the walkie talkie, the gherkin. I won’t mention what city hall is called. Well, armadillo is one of the politer ones. I love the gherkin and resent the way the walkie talkie or is it the cheesgrater obscures the gherkin from Hungerford Bridge. Also didn’t the walkie talkie set fire to cars – I thought that was pretty poor. The shard leaves me a bit cold but it’s a good way to orientate yourself in the city because it’s so tall. It’s amazing how quickly large buildings become part of your map of the city. The highest I’ve been is a hotel in Hong Kong. We were very high so that when you stood against the window birds of prey flew past the window. I thought that was beautiful and fortunately I don’t suffer from vertigo.

    • You’ve just made me pledge that next time I’m in London then I’m definitely meeting you for a drink in the Hilton bar (if it still exists)…Yes, I love this sudden influx of shapes in London. I was inordinately excited when the GPO Tower went up and fairly swooned when the NatWest Tower topped it. Just as well I moved before any more damage was done to the skyline…

  3. I love cityscapes and skyscrapers, gherkins and armadillos, but home is actually a (much maligned) bungalow. We were at the Shard recently and the ladies loos at the viewing platform level were stunning. It felt odd being sat next to wall to ceiling plate glass windows looking down into offices, thinking ‘If I can see in, then anyone in those buildings must be able to see me?’ Sadly I was probably right as I found the button for the window blind when I was washing my hands. Oops!!

    • I think it’s a peculiarly British thing to imagine that someone, somewhere has a pair of binoculars trained on us but I suppose height is no impediment to peeping toms…You might be glad to hear that the bungalow is very much at home in Australia, although they don’t call it that because single-level living is the norm. Freaky.

  4. Great post, Colin. I am the same… I can marvel at those buildings, but would never, ever want to live in one! I would find it quite stifling, even with a balcony overlooking the ocean!

  5. I hate heights, so detest being in high buildings, and flying is not a favourite way to spend the time. Illogical, I know, but I cannot resolve it, so just trust the architects and builders, and pilots and engineers.

  6. I SO enjoyed your broadcast, Colin. It was fun and full of info and alarming thoughts for the future high-rise living!
    Here’s to many more.
    I’m not a big fan of skyscrapers either visually or experientially. I’m much better connected to the ground.
    I do think the London skyline is beginning to look like a bit of a mess … is that heresy?

    • I daresay there were people who disliked the steeples of Wren churches when they first pierced the skies of London but I agree to a certain extent: I’m much happier on the ground!

  7. As I mature (aka get older) and the climate warms, I give thanks for living in a 90 year old Californian bungalow with one step access to the backyard. I share the views of others when it comes to maintaining contact with terra firma. Why are so many new Australian houses two storey with people sleeping near the roof? We are supposed to learn from history.

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