Book review: Ruined Skylines: Aesthetics, Politics and London’s Towering Cityscape

by Günter Gassner and reviewed by Esther Leslie

13 Jan 2021, 12:59 p.m.
Esther Leslie

Ruined Skylines book cover

Book review: Ruined Skylines: Aesthetics, Politics and London’s Towering Cityscape

by Günter Gassner and reviewed by Esther Leslie

London: Taylor and Francis, Routledge, 2019; 208 pp.: ISBN: 9781138094796, £120 (hbk)


Günter Gassner’s Ruined Skylines casts an eye over London. This eye is an unpredictable one, surveying from somewhere left of field, which, like the skyline it analyses, evades transpicuous reckonings. This eye discerns a Baroque skyline, a horizon of many possibilities, or an ur-phenomenal skyline which might, in its reading, re-reading, re-description, be seen to cluster and constellate in any number of modes, some still yet to be imagined. This preceding depiction indicates, perhaps, how strange this book is. It is a study of the commanding presence of the horizon of the City of London, with its towering iconic architecture. To approach – and disassemble – this weight of capital and steel, Gassner draws on Leibnizian monadology and incompossibility, revolutionary use value, the Great Fire of London, Historic England’s concept of heritage, Global Tax Injustice, Arendtian plurality, the penchant for viewing galleries, Renaissance art history, speculative towers as religious symbols – and more. The study is organised around an absence: the sky gap. That nothingness, a relation between St Pauls and the cluster that someone of my generation has seen come into being through the erection of new towers over the years, is delineated here as a signifying nothingness, a nothing that is something, a relation, a conceptual twist. I saw the sky gap as I had not seen it before, when I first read the book, confined in a 12th-floor room at University College Hospital for two weeks, its large window framing that ensemble, three miles away: one of the best views in London, free at the point of delivery, but often experienced for the worst reasons. And how do those reasons seep into that eruption of steel and concrete and its gap and give it shape and form, in terms of meaning, and how do the clouds crowd in on it too? Not just the clouds, but what they always represented in Baroque art too – that is to say, Heaven, the spiritual realm. What power do we as spectators have to donate meaning to all this?

The book fills its own gap, or rather straddles one that appears in more conventional discourse when it comes to attitudes towards the City of London’s monstrous towers. The speculators and ideologues of neo-liberalism see the towers giving form to their unfettered economic adventurism, and they glimpse them from their wide penthouse windows on their occasional stop-offs in London. In contrast, those with traditional urban persuasions bemoan the towers’ encroachment on St Paul’s Cathedral and the compromising of a heritage skyline, which, in turn, diminishes the city’s tourist-tempting assets, or parades all too brazenly the temptations of mammon. Gassner’s genius is to show the implication of each of these perspectives in the other, while making room for another skyline that emerges from the ruination of these viewpoints, one that might take on human scale (if not human dimensions), powered by and powering of human imagination.

Walter Benjamin’s thought is a key reference in the book. Benjamin was fascinated not only by what is seen, but also, like JW von Goethe before him, by the conditions of seeing. Benjamin thought about light at the edges of the spectrum, ultra-violet and infra-red, which sees the world, or lets us see it, differently to how it appears in the clear light of a clear day. In an essay on Paris as represented in books and photography, written for Vogue Germany in 1929, Benjamin explains the type of arcane knowledge that ultra-violet and infra-red deal in: ‘There is an ultra-violet and an infra-red knowledge of this city’ (Benjamin, 2014: 134). What he means is that there are other knowledges of the city, accessed through imagination and fantasy, and that these become the settings of curious literary narratives or the odd glimpses caught in photographic images. There is the city and the city – the latter its literary or photographic analogue that shadows and brightens and undermines and overwrites the one of daily inhabitation. Here, in Gassner’s work, we find its theoretical analogue, speculation against the speculative, possibility against constraint, but this is a possibility that is clamped, not open, not a floating, unbounded anythingness. Theory, as practised here in Ruined Skylines, is twisted through a condensation of the whole history of art from the Renaissance to modernist montage, or set in relation to a philosophy that, like the spire of St Paul’s and the tips of the skyscrapers, limns the edge between Heaven and Earth. Here we find all that will have come to be meaningful for us.

There is another light that Benjamin invokes: phosphorescence. It glistens when the rot sets it. For us, now, phosphorescence is a glimmer that oozes from plasma video display screens, or it is akin to the fluorescent light inside tall buildings, 24/7 in CBDs. In his study of Baroque mourning plays, Benjamin associates phosphorescence not with the bright happy luminosity of the Enlightenment, but with a non-brightening glimmer from the depths of the earth. He writes in his study of Baroque mourning plays about this strange light, ‘a subterranean phosphorescence [that] glimmers from the depths of the earth’ and ‘kindles the rebellious, penetrating gaze of Satan in the contemplative man’ (Benjamin, 2003: 229). These lights, strange lights of the city space, never off, this phosphor and electric glow shines not only from the depths of the earth but seeps, polluting into our skies and has indeed kindled a penetrating and contemplative gaze. Knowledge comes from the side of evil, the Satanic side, and the Devil is in the details, in various, multiple, diverse perceptions. Such details, scattered, disjointed, are what power up the allegorist – Benjamin writes of ‘the significance of Baroque polymathy for the Mourning play’ – so many details, for, as he notes, ‘something can take on allegorical form only for the man who has knowledge’ (Benjamin, 2003: 229). The skyline in Gassner’s book is a Baroque allegory – it is scattered with meanings, spattered with associations, subjective ones held by allegorists who have their investments in its meanings. In the course of this overburdening, there come points when the edifices crack and they reveal some contents, or the significance of their shell, now broken, which is to be a commodity. The towers decay into meaning, just as the light of phosphor decays and gives off from itself its significance, but it is a bleak one, a depressing truth. This book counters this capitalist gloom with an arc of possibility, releasing readers from stories of hopelessness and decline, to think about the continual potential unfolding of meaning and purpose. The towers become the sites of a production of images that can act politically, that is to say act in their own worst interests, but maybe our better ones.

The dazzling acts in Ruined Skylines want to account for what is actual and what is possible, how we see and what we do not see, what the moment brings and what the next could bring, how we read buildings and how we can read them differently. These towers are soon to be beautiful ruins. These towers – monuments of the bourgeoisie – are recognised as ruins even before they have crumbled. These towers are conceptualised from the perspective of their demise, which has occurred to other towers before them and will occur again. These towers are already the ruins of history that an impotent angel of history skids over. The book is not easy to think with, but it changes how we think, what it means to think, what it means to shatter an alienated perspective on things and to see from not just one but many vantage points, all at once – and that is a rich thing.

It should also be noted that this book has some fabulous drawings by its author in it – sketches, plans, infographics that are very elegant but also dense with ideas and relations within them. As does the book more generally, they work with the shock aesthetic of montage, in part, but also its cognitive surpluses.



Benjamin, W (2003) The Origin of German Tragic Drama. London: Verso.
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Benjamin, W (2014) On Photography. London: Reaktion.
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