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).