From a series written for ABC Radio National’s Blueprint for Living. The tower was first broadcast on 22nd October 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
A tower is a many-splendored thing. From the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the Space Needle in Seattle, there are few cities in the world that lack a tower that gives focus and a sense of place. It isn’t always about making a grand statement, although towers like the Eiffel Tower in Paris do so with aplomb. Whatever the scale, the tower provides interest, interrupting a regular roofline, always drawing the eye. Sometimes it’s about engineering skill, like the various telecom towers around the world, perfectly illustrated by Toronto’s CN Tower of 1973 by Australian architect John Andrews. Mostly a tower catches our eye because it’s a rare thing Few of us have towers at home, and those homes which do have them are usually notable because of them.
The lighthouse at Alexandria in Egypt was one of the most famous towers of ancient times. Built of stone in 280BC, it reached a height of a hundred metres, the light from the furnace at the top helping guide boats into the harbour below. While its function was practical, the message it gave out was clear, that Egypt was a great land.
Towers are nearly always about power. Like the famous stone towers in the medieval town of San Gimignano in Tuscany. While they provided safety from warring factions from Florence and Rome, more importantly they showed which of the merchant families had the most money. Height mattered. Just as, some five hundred years later, the height of the skyscrapers of Manhattan and Chicago reflected the might of whichever company erected them.
There’s an obvious subtext always going on. Some might suggest that they’re phallocentric, symbols of a patriarchal society. Others see them as bridging the gap between heaven and earth. That was certainly the case with the minarets that encircle a mosque. When they first became popular in the C11th, they were a rational solution, allowing the voices of the muezzin to carry above the rooftops in a call to prayer, but they also provided an unmissable sight, marking the spot in which heaven symbolically came together with earth. Visually, their lightness helped balance the bulk of the main building and it’s almost impossible to imagine structures like the Taj Mahal or Istanbul’s Blue Mosque without their attendant minarets.
When a Roman Catholic Pope sanctioned the use of bells in the C6th, churches of all denominations built bell towers. Those of Lincoln cathedral made it the tallest building in the world until the 1500s, and Giotto’s campanile in Florence, designed in the 1300s, demonstrated just how beautiful a tower could be. Such towers even inspired the form of chimneys for the new mills of the Industrial age. With that link to religion entrenched, it’s unsurprising that the tower was used to denote civic importance, with those of town halls and post offices made taller than any nearby churches. With the advent of railways, and the standardisation of time so that a timetable would make sense, a clock lifted high in a tower above the station allowed passengers to see if they were running late.
From the dreaming spires of Oxford to the skyscraper clusters of Shanghai, the tower is a constant in our built environment. They’re symbols of human ingenuity and invention as well as icons of vanity and aspiration. They give delight and provide endless interpretations. They are, in short, architecture at its most vivacious.
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