Cityscape – Skylines, Landmarks and Urban identity
Cityscape – Skylines, Landmarks and Urban identity

Cityscape – Skylines, Landmarks and Urban identity

Author: Mukhtar Husain
Originally published in NuktaArt, inaugural issue, May 2005
Cover Design: Sabiha Mohammad Imani
Source of inspiration: Painting by Zubeida Agha, Karachi by Night, 1956

What makes a city recognisable?

For Pakistanis, the Faisal Mosque and the backdrop of the Margalla Hills instantly denote Islamabad, the Badshahi Mosque or the Minar-e-Pakistan represent Lahore whereas the Quaid’s Mazaar represents Karachi. Many cities have internationally recognizable features, such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the skyscrapers of New York.

A city is a densely populated urban centre, larger than a village or a town, whose inhabitants are engaged primarily in commerce and industry. The word ‘city’ is derived from the Latin word ‘civitas’ which denotes a community that administers its own affairs. In ancient Greece such an independent community was called a city-state; it consisted of a chief town and its immediate neighborhood. The origin of the idea of a city was probably that of the citadel: a defensible stronghold into which people could retreat when threatened by invaders.

The identity of a city is primarily its physical characteristics, but it is also based on its religious, ethnic, cultural or commercial character. Achieving an identity usually involves building up of a tradition, which implies a substantial time-span. This identity becomes a symbol for that city, suggesting what its main business is and who is powerful there. This is most often indicated by the city skyline – the outline of buildings or natural features such as hills within or close to the city defined against the sky and the visible horizon. This is its recognizable image or urban identity. When a city skyline lacks cohesiveness, or where it is so subtle as to go unnoticed or unrecognised, a single structure can become an accent or landmark that becomes the collective symbol for the city.

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain

Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain resulted in the transformation of a run-down industrial town into a major cultural destination.

Today, however, other elements of recognition are emerging, notably mega-projects such as an airport or an amusement park, architectural fantasies, often surprisingly small in size but significant nonetheless and, lately, (thanks to the pervasiveness of the electronic media), major events such as the four-yearly Olympic Games or an annual festival.

If there is one building that represents an entire country, it has to be the Taj Mahal for India. The Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty are, likewise, prominent landmarks that not only represent the cities they are located in – Paris and New York – but all of France and the US respectively. Moreover, the New York skyline is another symbol of the entire United States.

In medieval times masonry towers served as defences against an attacking force – until the invention of artillery rendered them useless.  The main purpose of tall towers, however, has always been communication. Lighthouses depended on the light being high above ground so that it could be seen from a great distance. Church towers with bells mounted high, and mosques with minarets that enabled the muezzin’s voice to carry called the faithful to prayer and also used to warn the people of an impending attack, or of fire, flood, or other civic emergency. The cities of Cairo and Istanbul can be identified by the minarets of mosques that sprout their skylines.

Like the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington, and the Communications Network (CN) Tower in Toronto, many cities have “status towers”, restaurant/ observation towers which are intended to impress the visitor, serve sightseers and have become familiar landmarks.

Among recognisable man-made features, bridges might seem unlikely because they are generally low and therefore have little visibility from a distance. But because cities are often viewed and photographed with water in the foreground, bridges can in fact be telltale skyline elements. The Harbour Bridge at Sydney, Australia, is an example which has become one of the city’s key symbols. Other bridges which help distinguish one skyline from another are the Tower Bridge, London, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge, New York City.

Flamboyant design has, in the past century, played a major part in creating familiar landmarks in several cities. In this context, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, Eero Saarinen’s airport terminal buildings and the arch in St. Louis, Utzon’s Sydney Opera House, Frei Otto’s tent-like roof structures and Santiago Calatrava’s bridges and museum buildings are worth noting. Equally significant is the recent work of Frank Gehry. His Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which opened in October 1997 has resulted in the transformation of a run-down industrial town into a major cultural destination.

Calatrava was also engaged in renovating the Olympic Stadium, designing its spectacular roof and in planning much of the Sports Complex for the 2004 Summer Olympics held in Athens, Greece. This mega- project, beamed onto television screens across the globe for two weeks while the Games lasted, is already an icon on the Athens skyline. Media coverage has similarly familiarised us with the Haj terminal at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Other cities recognized by annual events include Rio de Janeiro for its Carnival and Munich for its Beer Festival.

Tall buildings are technological marvels of the modern world, but they are also commanding symbols of money and power. They first appeared in the American cities of the late 19th century such as New York and Chicago, where the new wealth from industry and commerce found its earliest expression. The most famous of them all, the Empire State Building in New York City (1931), held the record for the tallest building for over 40 years until it was eclipsed by another American building, Chicago’s Sears Tower (1974), which held the record for the next twenty years. The project that finally broke the Sears’ record was not another skyscraper in Atlanta or Dallas but a pair of dramatic towers in Malaysia. With the rise of the ‘tiger economies’ of Asia a new centre of money and power has appeared, and the seemingly inevitable result is a rush of ever more spectacular buildings in South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and China. Once only a Western (and specifically American) phenomenon, tall buildings have appeared around the Pacific rim as symbols of national pride and economic prosperity. Interestingly, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur will not be the world’s tallest for long. Their successors are already under construction in Seoul, Shanghai and Dubai.

In some cases the distinguishing skyline element is not man-made but natural, part of the city’s topographical setting. Cape Town, South Africa, for example, has Table Mountain as part of its image as seen from a distance. Sugar Loaf provides Rio de Janeiro its recognition. In Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city, the Margalla Hills give the city its distinctive backdrop. By 1962 when the physical work had started on the plan for Islamabad; it was clear that the physical feature of the Margalla Hills to the north of the city was to be a major determinant of its linear growth and also its focus in the visual and spatial landscape.

Jerusalem is a sacred place for three major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. One of the longest inhabited cities of the world, it can trace its history back some 4000 years. In recent years the Israelis have set about expanding it, adding a ring of ugly modern concrete developments which have disfigured the surrounding hills. The expansion of the modern city, however, has been balanced by restoration and conservation of the Old City. Powerful religious interests conflict as to what is to be preserved in a city where past development has taken place in layer upon layer of succeeding buildings. The Aqsa Mosque, however, still dominates the Jerusalem skyline.

New York Skyline

The skyline of Istanbul in Turkey, seen from the Sea of Marmara, is topped by the needle-like minarets of the Blue Mosque. The city rests on the Bosphorus, which is a narrow stretch of water that separates Europe and Asia. Straddling two continents and connecting two seas, the city of Istanbul has grown over gently rising terrain on either side of the water-way. This enables each succeeding row of buildings to be a step higher than the one in front, thereby creating a unique and memorable skyline steeped in natural beauty, historical buildings and modern construction. Istanbul today is a fascinating city of contrasts, where historic buildings stand next to modern structures. A jagged skyline of domes and minarets is interrupted by the towers of international hotels.

In 1666 a huge fire destroyed most of the largely wood-built city of London and much of St. Paul’s Cathedral. After the Great Fire of London, Sir Christopher Wren quickly produced new plans for London, on a grid pattern, diversified with focal points connected by radiating avenues. But this plan was too radical for Londoners who, after the devastation, needed shelter more than fanciful plans for an ideal city. Wren concentrated on rebuilding the fifty destroyed churches, providing a new skyline of delicate spires, and a new St. Paul’s Cathedral with a lofty dome. At the same time, new regulations were introduced, with tighter controls on materials and building heights. The great architect-planner of the 19th century, John Nash, placed sweeping curves of elegant neoclassical rows of houses around the formal landscaping of Regent’s Park and renovated Buckingham Palace.

New river crossings were made, including the Tower Bridge – London’s enduring symbol, completed in 1894. In 1851, The Great Exhibition was held in a vast, radically new prefabricated structure of cast iron and glass in Hyde Park. This building is the Crystal Palace designed by Joseph Paxton. More buildings were constructed during the 19th century than in all the previous ages together. The city owes its architectural richness to a continuous replenishment of building ideas. Large modern complexes, such as the Lloyds building by Sir Richard Rogers and the more recently completed “gherkin” by Sir Norman Foster represent a long, innovative tradition.

In Paris the Champs-Elysées, was laid out around 1670 as the eastern end of Louis XIV’s great processional route between the Louvre and the palace of Versailles. Through the centuries, it has been continuously developed and extended by successive governments into one of the world’s grandest thoroughfares. The Grand Arch is built on an axis with the Arc de Triomphe along the Champs-Elysées. The strong axis of this part of Paris is now reinforced by the construction of the glass pyramid at the Louvre on the east, designed by the American architect I. M. Pei. La Défence, the commercial centre, with its modern urban development is built to the west of the city of Paris to allow the centre to remain unmarred by skyscrapers.

In comparison to the historic capital cities of London and Paris, the garden city of Washington DC is home to the executive, judicial and legislative branches of the US Government, making it the political power centre of the country. The city was planned by the French architect and artist Pierre-Charles L’Enfant with the help of George Washington. The nation’s first president was responsible for choosing the site, located on the Potomac River, as the perfect spot for the nation’s new capital. The centrepiece of Washington is the Mall, a three- mile strip of grass that stretches from the Lincoln Memorial, which overlooks the Potomac, to Capitol Hill.

It is not often that cities are built from scratch. Like Washington DC, other modern cities that have been built on “greenfield” sites include Brasilia in Brazil, Chandigarh in India and Islamabad in Pakistan.

Brasilia and Chandigarh were both designed and built within the last fifty years by world-renowned architects. These cities were designed as holistic master plans and each was built within the course of a few years. Both these cities belong to countries where the norm is quite different. Both were designed and laid out each in a single overarching scheme that designated buildings, offices, public areas, commercial districts and residential neighbourhoods. Instead of having a population that gradually developed over time, these cities emerged with a single influx at the time of their establishment.

Bridge by Santiago Calatrava near Amsterdam

Brazilian city planner Lucio Costa, together with architect Oscar Niemeyer conceived Brasilia’s plans in relation to the beauty of the natural landscape and as a new alternative by which to grapple with the problems of Brazil’s existing cities. Today, however, Brasilia is trapped in a 1950’s vision of the future. While under construction, it captured the world’s imagination. Soon after, the world lost interest and the city became synonymous with technocracy run wild. Yet to this day, the building of Brasilia remains a point of great pride among Brazilians.

Chandigarh, on the opposite side of the globe, was an opportunity to test out new strategies in urban planning. Designed by Le Corbusier (seen as the father of modern architecture), Chandigarh has turned out to be a flawed concept. Designed for cars in a country where the general population does not own cars, the end result is a city where walking is a near impossibility. Huge expanses of road space are simply empty, with buildings seemingly scattered amidst wasteland. Indians however are very proud of it and Chandigarh’s residents feel that it is a good place to live.

Islamabad is different from the two other twentieth-century (planned) cities.  In those cases, the master-planning as well as the design of a large number of major public buildings in the early years was done by one person. In the case of Islamabad, however, the planning was done by the Greek planner Doxiadis, but the design of the major public buildings was not done by a single Master Architect. That is perhaps the main reason why Islamabad does not leave a firm, clear imprint on the mind; it does not have a visual, architectural impact. In this sense, it is uninspiring.

Also, in the development of Islamabad, there has been a total disregard for the historic and traditional values of Pakistani culture and traditions. There has also been a total disregard of the contours of the area: roads follow straight axes at right angles to each other. The movement of vehicles has taken precedence over the movement of pedestrians and people. The Blue Area has created a north / south divide, which effectively segregates the large plots and affluent residential areas from the more modest ‘G’ Sectors. There is virtually no pedestrian movement across this north / south divide.

A comprehensive landscape plan was an integral part of the Islamabad master plan. Six million trees were planted on the southern slopes of the Margalla Hills facing Islamabad. The policy behind planting trees in the city was not merely aesthetic, but highly functional in order to temper the climate. Trees were located and species selected to provide barriers against the cold winds from the north; to counter-act erosion; to rehabilitate the soil and act as a filtering and cooling agent for the hot winds from the south.

Located on the slopes of the Margalla Hills, along the axis of the main road approaching  Islamabad from the south is the Faisal Mosque, easily the most endearing landmark of the capital. Designed by the Turkish architect Vedat Dalokay, it has a pyramidal prayer hall 40m high and four towering minarets, visible from across the city. The main prayer hall has a capacity for 24,000 persons, while the main courtyard on the east side has space for another 40,000 persons.

TWA Terminal, New York by Eero Saarinen

Thus bestowed with a temperate climate, plenty of rain to sustain lush greenery all around, the city is today endowed with the view of the tree-covered Margallas and the Faisal Mosque to its north, providing it with a unique identity, and a lasting mental impression.

Islamabad today is a pleasant reality. The first generation of those born and brought up in the city are now old enough to have a sense of belonging and a deep affection for their ‘home-town’ The residents are not mere civil servants biding their tenure of service. They are the proud citizens of a new city who have adapted and settled into the routines of a lifestyle somewhat different from any other Pakistani city, yet still very Pakistani. The decision to shift the Capital to a new site and its ultimate realisation over the past forty years has perhaps been one of the most significant achievements that Pakistan can be proud of today.

The vision of the ideal city has evolved over the past two thousand years. The earliest concepts may be traced back to the philosophers of ancient Greece. In 1516 in England, Sir Thomas More devised his ideal society, with much detail of city planning. Realizing that it was an unattainable goal, he called it Utopia, meaning “no place”. Amid the haphazard squalor of the Industrial Revolution, some industrialists planned ideal villages to improve the lives of their workers. At the end of the 19th century, Ebenezer Howard refined these ideas into the “garden city”, a means of creating a better society.

From 1901, the French planner Tony Garnier devised a city on similar lines, published as Une Cite Industrielle in 1917. Le Corbusier proposed a modern Utopia, its inhabitants housed in a formal layout of skyscrapers surrounded by parkland, an ideal which was put into practice after World War II by means of high-rise buildings. Frank Lloyd Wright conceived an entire city in a mile-high skyscraper.

As urban populations have burgeoned and technology has developed, concepts of the ideal city have merged with science-fiction. The Archigram Group’s “Plug-in City” of the 1960s had urban units which could be clipped onto service cores as required – an idea partly realized in Kisho Kurukawa’s “Capsule Tower” in Tokyo, built in 1972.

Today’s trends, coupled with twenty-first century technology based on computerised data-processing, planning and design may lead the cities of tomorrow either underground, under water or in outer space. As long as human beings live and work in them, each will be recognised by its own unique vista, landmarks, or events promoted and familiarised world-wide by instant communications permeating our lives.

Mukhtar Husain is a practicing architect based in Karachi, Pakistan. He was the Chief Architect for the terminal complex at Jinnah International Airport, Karachi (1985-1992). More recently, he designed the Turkish Consulate in Karachi, said to be the largest Turkish Consulate in the world. He was Technical Reviewer for two cycles for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (!995 and 1998). He has been teaching and contributing to local and international journals. His book, ‘100+1 Pakistani Architects and their Own Houses was published in 2006.


The World’s Greatest Buildings; by Trevor Howard
Cities: Then and Now; by Jim Antoniou
Skylines: Understanding and Moulding Urban Silhouettes; by Wayne Attoe
100 Great Cities of World History; by Chrisanne Beckner
Great Architecture of the World; by John Julius Norwich
Paris: Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guides; by Mike Gérrard and Donna Dailey
Brazil: Insight Guides; 2003
India: Lonely Planet, travel survival kit; 1996
Islamabad: Successes & Failures, Expectations & Reality; by Mukhtar Husain, 2003

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