The Big Picture

“A skyline is an object,” said architect and illustrator Matteo Pericoli in dialogue with The New Yorker

Yorker magazine’s architecture critic, Paul Goldberger. The two were on the roster of The New Yorker’s Festival last fall, holding court aboard a chartered ferry ride around Manhattan.

Pericoli’s expertise on the subject of the Manhattan skyline lies in his book, Manhattan Unfurled (Random House, 2001), for which he spent two and a half years drawing the skyline of the West and East sides of the city. The book has been published in accordion-format so that a continuous skyline could be depicted, and includes an essay by Goldberger.

Their shipboard dialogue was resonant, even for non-New Yorkers. Pericoli and Goldberger frequently referred to the values of a skyline: why it matters when we look at one, and why we care when it is changed. These are worthy questions to ask about any skyline, but their comments also touched on the discussion in architectural circles about the future of the World Trade Towers site.

Pericoli’s drawing includes the World Trade Towers. Their absence from the real skyline is what Pericoli calls a “cataclysmic change” to the organism; something that hasn’t yet sunk in for him. Goldberger added that it would take time for the eyes of New Yorkers to adapt to this change, just as it took several years for the towers to earn appreciation when they were built.

“It’s not politically correct to say this now,” said Goldberger, “but in the late 1960s when the Towers were going up, many New Yorkers were very opposed to them. There was a sense that a key thing, being the classic skyline of the 1930s to 1950s, was being wrenched away.”

This exemplifies, according to Pericoli, that “a skyline is an organism that grows inside of us. From anywhere in the city you could see the Towers.”

Viewing the Manhattan skyline from the waterfront was particularly advantageous to the illustration process Pericoli put into his book, as it is for anyone considering the richness of his or her own waterfront city skyline. He began his drawing process (he worked directly and from photographs) on three-hour Circle Line tours. They provided him “a democratic view,” he said. “I wanted to get rid of what I felt about certain buildings, that effort was harder in some cases, but somehow it worked out, and all buildings were given the same value.”

Goldberger observed that a ferry ride was an enormously generous perch for an historic appreciation of 20th century architecture and urban planning. For instance, from the 1920s to the 1940s when Manhattan was growing rapidly, waterfronts consisted of mostly gritty buildings related to the dockyards and sewers. “Eventually, by the 1960s, big, bulky buildings filled right to the water’s edge. The city turned away from the waterfront except for functional uses, like highways. A Con Edison plant was thought to be an appropriate riverside use.”

In recent decades, Goldberger continued, architects, urban planners and their clients have come to believe that “the waterfront is a way to make urban life nicer for people who live there.” When asked “what our current blind spots” were in urban architecture, Pericoli said, “we’re not looking at the whole, we’re emphasizing parts.” Similarly, Goldberger noted that we’re so entranced by exciting architecture, so desperate for sexy, amazing, signature buildings that we’ve almost lost the importance of background. If, in a city, the buildings are all foreground, it doesn’t work.

Both men are frequently asked what they would have the city do with the World Trade Towers site. “Repairing the skyline,” answered Goldberger “is an important part of the mission of rebuilding. This doesn’t mean building office towers the same height as the previous Towers, but it does mean going high in some bold, dramatic way.” It seems Goldberger’s opinion is reflected in the recent selection of Daniel Libeskind’s dramatic proposal.

Jean Cumming is a Toronto writer.