A city's image is meant to evince civic pride, to coalesce into a single commanding view. The play of light is considered important, but even more so are signifiers—some bridge, some tower, some needle as the case may be, that provides a readily identified contour. You are here.But does the power of the skyline end there, simply failing to exist beyond slight variations destined for postcards, logos, and T-shirts? Is the codified skyline to be trapped alongside yet another idealized sunset as forever half-met by our gaze? Do we turn to face Seattle's skyline and find it's gone missing?
In 1859, paying customers in New York flocked to the unveiling of Hudson River School wunderkind Frederic Church's massive landscape painting Heart of the Andes, shown with theatrical lights, curtains, and palm fronds to help build anticipation of an unimaginable mega-horizon (especially in comparison to small views of the time painted directly from nature, by Asher B. Durand, for example). And while a trip to the Met tomorrow to check out Church's 5-by-10 feet of awe might disappoint as a shrunken cliché, the urge toward creating a skyline of wonderment persists. Today we go in for similarly facile though more minimal renderings of vantage point—witness the mass appeal of Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project at the Tate Modern two years back, where a simulated sun was brought inside for museumgoers to gawk at and worship. Let's admit it: The actual urban skyline languishes behind such novelties. But I'd like to wander back to a different kind of moment that lies between Church's conquest and Eliasson's wow, between the overdetermination of the Space Needle and the vague rush you feel when confronting the whole city from the water.
When German writer Walter Benjamin—exiled to the Riviera resort town of San Remo—heard news of the Nazis' annexation of Austria in late 1938, he accepted that he would never return to his homeland and began feverishly completing Berlin Childhood Around 1900, a photo essay broken up into little scenes recalling childhood sites and objects, a goodbye to his home city as well as the most beautiful thing he ever wrote. Benjamin returns by the second page to his melancholy delight at viewing exotic locales and breathtaking cityscapes on visits to the Kaiserpanorama (or "Imperial Panorama"). Essentially an ornate peepshow, the Kaiser was a lazy-Susan-style construction on a grand scale that allowed groups of thrill seekers to saddle up to stereoscope viewfinders and watch the wonders of the world circle into view—elaborate depictions from the tropics to the grand cities of the day. Benjamin notes with fondness not any one scene, but rather a little bell that sounds just before the apparatus creaks into motion and the next destination arrives, how "every time it rang, the mountains with their humble foothills, the cities with their mirror-bright windows, the railroad stations with their clouds of smoke, the vineyards down to the smallest leaf, were suffused with the ache of departure."
And here it is finally: The starting point at last. It's the pang of leaving (and not the next marvel coming into view) that sends Benjamin—the audible bell of landscape that he follows. He's released! Swiftly to the Tiergarten and on to the corner of Steglitzer and Gethiner, back to his mother's sewing box and window behind, into the midst of two competing brass bands, and to the foot of the Victory Column, his Berlin awakens, rattled into being by particulars. Here is the skyline—happened upon and pieced together. To be entered into and exited repeatedly—always in motion—it defies contour. The skyline lives in the signal and not the sign, and to turn when it sounds is the key, not toward the monumental but the incidental. And so I find myself suddenly back alongside the old Fremont Canal, returned to slip along train ties just past Lucille Street in Georgetown, pinned by the empty vertigo of the Rainier Tower plaza. I hold the only skyline I have.