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Unfinished and unfinishable: London’s skylines

Gassner, Gunter (2013) Unfinished and unfinishable: London’s skylines. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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How is the city seen from a distance? With regard to ‘world cities’ and their battle for recognisable city-images, this is an aesthetic, political and historiographical question. How does a particular representation of the city’s past become useful for economic globalisation? This thesis analyses the relationships between history, power and profit as played out on a city’s skylines. It is conceived as a politicisation of the aesthetics of skylines, which speaks to the increasing power of aesthetic arguments in developer-driven urbanisation processes. My focus is on professional debates attending the development of the City of London’s ‘formal skyline’ prior to the economic recession; debates between architects, historians and townscape consultants, which revolved around the visibility of the emerging high-rise cluster that is located adjacent to listed buildings and conservation areas. I show how the conservatism that is encapsulated in concerns with the visual protection of historic landmarks is being transformed into ‘progressive’ arguments for constructing iconic towers. This transformation results from professionals’ pre-occupation with a single static viewpoint as providing a ‘definitive’ and easily marketable image of London, their fetishisation of St Paul’s as a building that needs to be visually enhanced, and their insistence to produce a unified skyline that is rooted in a linear historical narrative of continuity and change. In my critique of the intrinsic marriage of historical-aesthetic concerns with the prosaic pressing interests of finance capital I draw on two different traditions: the British Townscape movement and the idiosyncratic admixture of Marxism, Messianism and Modernism in the writings of Walter Benjamin. I challenge the prevalent understanding of ‘the new London skyline’ as a representative, aesthetically pleasing, compositional whole and argue for an understanding of skylines as unfinished and unfinishable, adversarial processes that is based on four conceptualisations: a cinematic skyline, which involves the notion of Surrealist montage, grounded in radical disjunction, unresolved tensions and contradictions; a non-auratic skyline, breaking with the conception of skylines as ‘enframed paintings’, foregrounding disruptive elements and providing for shock and distraction rather than contemplation; a multidirectional skyline, which attests manifold and marginalised histories that run counter the conventional historicist ideal conception of historical progress; an allegorical skyline in which meanings are multiplied and mortified and the unity and purity of the symbolic and the power of the iconic are fractured and fragmented, subject to political construction in the present.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2013 Gunter Gassner
Library of Congress subject classification: H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
Sets: Departments > Sociology
Supervisor: Dodd, Nigel

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