“… A city can be experienced all of a piece. That is why city views, whether of Paris spread out below the heights of Sacre-Coeur or of lower Manhattan from the Staten Island ferry or of the crowded island of Hong Kong from Kowloon, are so moving. Such views are also a potent reminder that cities represent great human achievements.”
_ Witold Rybczynski, City Life. P (35)
Population for a long time was used as a factor in evaluating the tempo of a city, for example Aristotle believed that the ideal city contains not more than 5000 citizens. Later factors such as size, culture, ritual and tradition, religion, politics, wealth, industrial power, degree of citizens’ accomplishments, and the like have been tools to measure urbanity. Therefore it sounds very naive to study a city, such a complicated creature, only by its skyline, which is a linear profile, but I am going to propose a way for comparing cities with each other and shape some ideas about them.
This sharp contour or silhouette, which is clearly visible mainly at the time of dawn or dusk, defines a boundary between the city and the sky. This diagram can be either a simple horizontal edge, as we find in most of suburbs, or an irregular edge, as we find in most urban downtowns. Further more, this skyline has a capacity to reveal, if not all but part of, the urban characteristic of any city. Morphologically cities have been usually studied and categorized by their plans’ archetype; examples are cosmic city, practical city, and organic city, which are three classic patterns that Kevin Lynch proposed. However, the idea of an urban cardiogram may open new possibilities to catalogue or examine urban structures.
Basically a cardiogram is a tool that records the electrical activities of the heart, and which represents graphically some physical or functional features of heart action. It also may be considered as an index, which represents the struggle of life against death. To continue with this concept of an urban cardiogram, I can imagine each city’s skyline as a manifestation of its struggle with gravity. If a medical cardiogram depicts the liveliness of a human heart, the urban cardiogram portrays the very existence of a city. If one’s health, fears, pressures, tensions, excitement or any other factors affect a person’s heartbeat, then density, diversity, zoning, social class, and the like can also affect an urban cardiogram.
In the past there were rituals, local materials, and religions that formed the skylines of cities, while currently it is global markets, politics, the tourism industry, and even individual or institutional egos that fashion urban cardiograms. What still has not changed is a desire to be unique.
In Cairo the old skyline of Giza has been the dominant visual impression of the urbanscape for several millenniums, while in Dubai one experiences the changing city almost on an hourly basis. It is easy for me to interpret that Dubai is experiencing a sort of heart attack because of its frenetic urban cardiogram. On the other hand some of other these profiles have been shaped over centuries, for instance Florence. Other profiles have happened in less than a decade; Dubai may be a good model.
In some cities it does not matter if you read their cardiogram from left to right, vice versa, or even upside-down. But there are cities that have iconic skylines, and there are cities that are indistinguishable from each other by their cardiogram. But maybe, most powerfully these diagrams represent the race for height and the uniqueness of cities in an age of competitive urbanism. However I wonder if there is any kind of mutual interrelation between a city’s urban cardiogram and the same city dweller’s cardiogram!
_ Reza Aliabadi (RZLBD)
All urban cardiograms (skylines) have been sketched by the author during a 49-day, backpacking trip around the world in early summer of 2008.