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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Goldschmied

Always Look Up!

Walking from London Bridge north through and out of the City of London past Spitalfields and on towards the Regents Canal is a bemusing journey of aesthetic contradictions. The spacious vistas east and west along the river abruptly terminated by myriad vertical planes of stone, brick and glass. The eye is drawn, at street level, to the incessant yelp of garish retail and street signage, cunningly designed to capture our attention. Sometimes I wonder if I am deliberately defying their allure. Perhaps subconsciously they are Medusa - if I look, I will never be able to look away again.

Then upwards, my gaze turns to the bouncing rhythms of neo-classical monumentality, to the spines and ribs of contemporary facades, the dizzying array of form and function all around. The sky becoming pinched liminal space defined by the parapets and points of structural form. Reflective tricks and molten shapes deferential to sacred sightlines dictating the forms of these vertical punctuations.

The cramped canyon gives way to a wider, busier thoroughfare around Liverpool Street station. Each week, seemingly, a new edifice draws the eyes skyward again - chanting a hubristic song, demanding our attention. The street is teeming with busyness with bikes and folks and folks on bikes, and cabs and buses and lanes and lights.

Arterial progress arrested by Commercial Street just as the canyon's scale drops to low rise brick and stone and render and stucco and tile. Pockets of unwasted wasteland pepper the streetscape nested beside the shops - garish and hollow, promising to take a few quid. Every unclaimed vertical face bombed, tagged and topped by kings and queens with cans. But the sky has become bigger again, the buildings demur to its scale.

Four, six, eight storeys bounce in rhythm as striations of colour and fenestration pass by. Ancient routes and the changing fortunes of a city effortlessly narrated by the staccato architectural shapes and forms. Then, St Leonard's soaring steeple points skywards to remind us all to 'look up!'.

Reaching this point, it's as though the kettle has boiled. The peace and solemnity of the Thames, evolved to a boiling sensory frenzy funnelling our escape northwards; we drift as steam towards Dalston and the canal.

For as long as I can remember, I've instinctively looked up at the sky, the trees, the buildings. When you see a young child always looking skywards, you probably don't think anything of it. But as we grow older, it seems that most people have forgotten the simple experience of seeing what's going on above their eye-line.

In my 20s it was pointed out to me that I always looked up as I walked around - for me it wasn't anything unusual. Particularly within urban environments, my eye was always drawn to the encircling buildings. My wife mentioned the other day that she remembers changing her perspective on her physical surroundings because she often saw me looking up and wondered what was catching my attention. What am I looking for or at? What's so fascinating? Why doesn't everyone look up?

Years later, I'm still wondering why everyone doesn't do it. It's interesting to observe people walk into a spectacularly dramatic building and inevitably the first thing they do is look up to the ceiling. Think of entering one of the great cathedrals, a cavernous museum foyer, a grand Victorian railway station or an extravagant palace; it's almost impossible not to look up. These experiences are often explicitly contrived by the architect to draw our attention to the scale of the space - to please, to amaze, to intimidate or to excite.

Within our urban streetscapes the same opportunities are presented. For me they are no less enticing than the nave of Ely Cathedral, the Natural History Museum, St Pancras Station or the Palace of Versailles. These great architectural spaces are designed with singular perpetual purpose but the city evolves around us in time and space. We are almost always transitioning through it and whilst on that journey I would encourage you to 'Always Look Up!'.

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