Monday, February 7, 2011
Cities from the Sky, Part One
We all know what cities look like from the ground. They are the spaces in which we live, work, and play. But there is another view of cities that we rarely experience, and one that can help form impressions of the places we inhabit: from the air. Photographer Christoph Gielen has taken it upon himself to critique the predominant American urban form, the surburb, from this very vantage point.
Take a look at some of his photographs (click on them for a closer look):
Let me ask you a question, are these neighborhoods or works of art? The last two images especially, with the integration of the water bodies and the curving features, suggest the latter. Sure, I've been harping on the aesthetics of cities quite a bit in my most recent posts, but I can't help it. I know you see or feel some aspect of what I do. Learning to "read" cities, from the ground and the air, is exciting. A deeper understanding of your surroundings deepens your connection (or aversion) to that place.
But let's move in another direction for a moment. The argument can be made that cities from above tell us very little about what it actually means and feels like to live in these locations on the ground. I would agree with this point. But the fact remains that when these aerial views are paired with knowledge of what life is like in these places, undeniable truths about patterns of urban settlement are revealed.
I think the following picture illustrates this point particularly well:
A few things should jump out at you immediately. The desert, for one. The mountains would also be a good guess. But if you look at it more closely you will see that there are only two points of access, and both of them feed into the collector road to the right. You'll also notice a pretty bizarre street layout. The network of loops and cul-de-sacs makes a better labyrinth than it does a connected, walkable neighborhood. Not that there's anywhere to walk to, of course. So yes, I have never been to this development, but its aerial signature nevertheless tells me something about it.
Gielen himself hopes that this method of reading of the urban landscape will help guide development decisions in the future. In this New York Times article, he says "As with all my work, I was interested in finding a formal perspective uncommon enough to startle viewers into a reconsideration of our built environment."
To see Gielen's full portfolio, check out his website.