The English language has a number of terms related to observing the world around us, such as view, panorama, vista, distance, cityscape and skyline. You probably never realized that all of these take the eye level perspective. For the Skyscraper Dictionary, we had to coin our own term for what it is you see when looking up in a city, simply because the word doesn’t exist.
Enter Stephen Graham, a professor of Cities and Society at Newcastle University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape. Graham’s argument is that when we think of the world around us, we usually think of it as a two-dimensional landscape such as a flat map. However, in this day and age, the world above our heads and below our feet is where the action is.
In fifteen essays, Graham discusses fifteen layers of the urban world. This vertical dimension is the common denominator which aligns an otherwise motley crew of topics, including airborne objects like satellites and drones, the skyscrapers and hillside favelas of the city, and even further down to the likes of tunnels and mines.
Image of the vertical city of the future by Harvey Wiley Corbett (1928)
When reading Vertical, which by the way requires two rather strong hands as it is printed on thick and very tightly bound paper, it is tempting to conclude that the third dimension is not a very happy place. Police surveillance helicopters, bombers, military satellites, and foul air fill the sky. The skyscraper is a symbol of power and commerce that has little to do with the original promise of creating space in dense urban environments. The elevator has given rise to ‘social apartheid’. Basements are occupied by those who cannot afford to live above ground and the gold mine is where on average five miners die each week. A pretty dystopian dimension indeed.
Nose dive on the city by Tullio Crali
Vertical is far from a grim book though. Each chapter is more of a thought experiment on the extreme manifestations of the topic, with the author not being afraid to apply a bit of social criticism. For example, when discussing the skyscraper, Graham focusses mostly on the super- and megatall buildings and bases his arguments on these. Even though one may argue that the tallest buildings magnify certain characteristics best, I don’t think some conclusions apply to the majority of the tall buildings out there. The examples and arguments are thought-provoking nonetheless.
Free from dry research, Vertical is accessible to the average reader, although I think that the book will be most appreciated by an academic audience. Every chapter can be read best as food for thought and a starting point for an interesting debate about the specific topic. Based on the number of citations and footnotes it’s clear that Graham has perused a large number of books, articles, weblogs, movies and works of art, which are also great references for further reading. I’m not sure if ‘academic fun stuff’ is an official review label but it does apply here.
Until the end of 2016, Vertical is on sale for only GBP 10 which is a bargain from any angle, especially the ‘higher thoughts per pound’ one.