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Letters From London

The Stratus Sphere

For a city that’s constantly grey, why is London so obsessed with the weather? Our man in Britannia takes a look at the capital’s skies, which are more colorful than you might think.

Cities have a dysfunctional relationship with the sky: the denser the conurbation, the less likely you are to see it. It’s one of the ironies of the modernist emphasis on the “human” city that something as primal and fundamental as the weather is blocked out of the urban tableau, squeezed out by skyscrapers or obliterated entirely by covered malls and walkways.

The British have an unambiguous attitude to the weather: we’re obsessed. Never happier than when the elements give us cause to marvel or complain, it is nonetheless ironic that the global impression of British skies is that they are gray and featureless, alleviated only by frequent rain showers. Variety is apparently not on the menu, a perception enhanced by the city-dweller’s narrow frame of reference. Without being able to take in a broad sweep the sky, we are locked into a little window of the here and now. As a result, weather constantly takes us by surprise.

Up until a few months ago, weather played little part in my London. Stuck in a deep-plan office on the ground floor of a dense, stone-clad structure, the world was screened from view by hefty Swedish blinds. Had I been able to see out of the windows, the sky itself would have been in short supply; the only available views were of other façades, nudged up against each other in the cramped cityscape. Beyond a short walk at the beginning and end of my commute, weather played a minimal role in my life as a sedentary office worker.

 

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Just as National Parks have their viewpoints, cities have their gaps and contours that offer a chance to take in a horizon. The broad sweep of the Thames has traditionally provided a roost for the city’s chroniclers, from Canaletto to Monet. The former was a notorious embellisher of visual reputations, happy to provide the 18th-century equivalent of an airbrush over gray skies, open sewers, and inconveniently imperfect geometry. Canaletto’s azure skies are graced by the occasional wispy cloud, bucolic and ethereal, and generally placed above the far horizon. These clouds played a compositional role, adding depth and distance, rising up over the precise brushstrokes that approximated the distant, hazy rooftops, punctuated by Wren’s spiky spires. The artist reserved empty sky for the top of the picture, all the better to offset the honey-colored façades of his suspiciously precise cityscape.

These photographers see no need to flatter, deceive, or help perpetuate the great lie of European modernism—that it would make the sun shine.The clear blue sky evolved into an artistic cliché, most notably in architectural photography. As artists increasingly looked to the skies to find ferment and movement that reflected more expressive, impressionistic painting styles (Turner’s stormy canvases, for example, the landscape dominated by the sky above, or Constable’s series of cloud studies), images of buildings were accompanied by empty skies, without a cloud to be seen. Buildings made perfect subjects for the very first photographers, their stillness captured in the long, long exposures that blurred skies into featureless canvases and smudged any evidence of people out of all existence. As the hard edges of modern architecture emerged, its photography evolved from straight pictorial record to heroic sidekick, providing proof of structural innovation and the otherworldly sheen of glass, steel, and concrete, however contrived.

As color processes gained currency in the post-war period, the gray skies with their contrasting puffs of white were replaced with a deep, featureless blue. The emergence of the computer-generated architectural rendering has been another boon for meteorological fantasists. Skies can be as seamless as the shiny buildings now, with clouds artfully composed to range across the sky or create a richly cinematic sunset. In the U.S.A, Julius Shulman’s crisp imagery defined post-war American modernism as an instrumental element in the sun-kissed pursuit of leisure. A few decades later, Tim Street-Porter’s almost obscenely lavish visual chronicles of the West Coast architectural scene epitomizes the brash forms and colors of post-modernism and deconstructivism, set beneath unsullied skies. In Europe, photographers like Richard Bryant, Peter Cook, and Roland Halbe seem to be followed by perpetual sunshine, experience a world without clouds, haze, or precipitation.

But the cloud has crept into architectural photography in recent years, even if there are plenty of practitioners who still pore glumly over long-range forecasts, rising early to catch a pristine sky before the day’s weather front blows in. In the U.K. in particular, there’s a groundswell of enthusiasm amongst architects and magazines for authenticity, and wispy strands, even overcast days have found their way into architecture magazines. Against the blankly anonymous modern cityscape, architectural photography is succumbing to the influence of the so-called Düsseldorf School, an unofficial grouping of photographers linked by their studies under Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Düsseldorf Academy. These photographers, including Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, and Candida Hofer, see no need to flatter, deceive, or help perpetuate the great lie of European modernism—that it would make the sun shine.

 

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On the ground floor of our old office, the view was impervious to flattery or visual deception that would have gone unnoticed. A few months ago, the office was crated up and trucked across Waterloo Bridge and along the south bank of the Thames. Here we were unpacked into a shiny new structure, with ornamental flourishes of slender gray-blue cladding attached at right angles to the freshly minted glass façade. The structure is neither modernist nor post-modernist, but quietly competent and inoffensive. Inside, atriums soar, expressing just the right amount of corporate chutzpah without stepping over into alarming Expressionist brio.

And now I have a wall of glass, a new window onto the city’s skies. Up on the seventh floor we see an unfamiliar London, a city with a horizon, weather, and shifting light. Looking north across the Thames we see spectacular skies. What once lurked on the distant horizon is now there in plain view: a bubbling cumulonimbus rising higher than Everest, many miles out of Greater London; brooding gray skies darkened further by the green-white façades of new buildings; a feathery set of cirrus clouds, merging with the vapour trails; or the dark underbelly of a looming thunder cloud, with blurry sheets of rain hanging beneath.

The icons of a thousand tourist postcards are just gray silhouettes on the horizon while clouds fragment like smoke, scattered across a broad sky.Even by the low standards of our meteorological reputation, the U.K. has experienced a summer of unusual dampness. And yet the rain was a welcome entertainment. A shifting palette of blues, whites, and grays rotated across my field of view as if cranked on a zoetrope wheel. Rain slashed across our rectangular slot of city, a view framed by Tate Modern’s monumental brick walls, modulated by Herzog + de Meuron’s precise box of gray-green – obscured glazing sitting atop its fluted parapets, and then bisected by the gallery’s 325-metre high chimney. To the left of the chimney rises the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, alongside the angled tips of red and white construction cranes. Beyond that a distant white cumulonimbus, tinted with yellow sunlight. The rain appears to be at 45 degrees of the vertical, and the pedestrians down below lean forward, their umbrellas askew. Just a few minutes later the sky is clear and blue.

 

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Until moving to this office, my most memorable experience of London weather was standing on the 36th floor of Lauderdale Tower, one of the three concrete residential skyscrapers forming the rocky spine of the Barbican housing estate, just north of the City of London. The apartment’s owner held forth, enthusing about the unbroken skyline that reached west all the way to Heathrow (the city’s few significantly tall buildings stood out of sight to the east). He spoke of how the frontal systems would rush past on their sweep from southeast to northwest, changing his view on an hourly basis.

Our office has a 10th-floor terrace—small fry in the global height rating, but sufficient in London to give you a view unsullied by competing structures. Up here is big sky country, an urban Montana. Height—in a comparatively low-rise town like London—is like a wide-angle lens. Surely this is how the city is meant to be experienced? Everything at a glance, distance and scale. But far beyond the city’s inner core of new glass and steel structures lurk the ugly concrete stubs of high-rise failures, the forgotten tower block estates that bore the brunt of the modernist backlash. In recent years they’ve been coming down, slowly hacked apart or extravagantly blown up. Did they provide heart-stirring views? Or were they simply fortified islands in a sea of urban gloom, refuges in which to shelter.

I am fascinated by London’s towers and relish any opportunity to ascend them: a private apartment in the Barbican, the hospitality suite (once a revolving restaurant) at the top of the BT Tower, Guy’s Tower, the world’s tallest hospital building, or Centre Point, lording it arrogantly above the narrow streets of Soho. This is not a vertical city—tourists rarely crick their necks in wonder as they might do in New York or Hong Kong—but the tower remains the primary provider of the architecture of experience.

 

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But perhaps I’m too deferential to the drama and ambition inherent in tall buildings. Perhaps we all are. More are in the offing, inspiring debates about the impact of towers on the historic low-rise core. Corporate HQs and luxury flats show how height and privilege are now perversely inseparable. On the train home, the distant skyline is backlit with a soft yellow light. When the railway lines smashed their way across London’s suburbs in the late 19th century, fracturing terraces and blocking off roads, the payoff was the views from the track. The city sky reveals itself as the lazy curve of the train tracks bend in from the suburbs towards the centre. The icons of a thousand tourist postcards are just gray silhouettes on the horizon while clouds fragment like smoke and scatter across a broad sky. It’s a beautiful sight, one that surprises me every time I see it. For a nation supposedly obsessed with watching the sky, the truth is that we are mostly just staring at the ground.
 

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Jonathan Bell lives in South London. He co-edits Things Magazine and likes to write about architecture. More by Jonathan Bell