City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

The View

Written in


One thing R said to me, on leaving, was that that distance might enable me to gain new perspective on London, Britain, Europe. We’ll see about that. But a thought does occur on London, with respect to views and skylines. My new city, Sydney, has what you might call A Proper Skyline. It’s stunning, and visible from numerous angles, distances; from the water or from the green, hilly surrounds. When the sun sets over the city, seen from the bus curling its way back to Vaucluse, from Bondi up the Old South Head Road, or through Double Bay and Rose Bay on the New South Head Road, it’s truly beautiful. It’s barely worth taking a picture of it, as you can’t really capture its splendour, and there are probably several hundred thousand out there anyway. (Difficult to resist though). It’s not even the only view, as Sydney is blessed with many of them, in almost all directions. The obvious views become augmented by the sudden, surprising glimpses, a slice of the Bridge, a sliver of harbour.



How great that citizens can quietly enjoy these views every day. Like many of Sydney’s natural advantages – sitting on Bronte beach in the winter sun, for example – it’s a very cheap form of entertainment in a city not renowned for a low cost of living, by Australian standards anyway. Even if I end up like David Wenham in ‘Three Dollars’, I’ll still have The Views.

We’ll see how that feeling endures, as time breeds familiarity, which in turn breeds not contempt, but somehow engenders a blasé ocular oversight, leading to taking such things for granted. I suppose you must just stop pointing out that "It’s a glorious day" at some point too. It’s interesting to observe how Sydneysiders react to the ubiquitous jaw-dropping views. Needless to say, their jaws don’t drop every time they see one. Cranial osteopathy would be Sydney’s most lucrative profession if they did. Instead, you might see an old feller steal an odd glance across the sparkling deep blue water, from the North Shore Line train over the Harbour Bridge, before his eyes settle back into the middle distance ahead.

I’d seen this effect before, in Bilbao. I remember being up early one morning, stepping out for a breath of fresh air after feeling the combined effects of travel and Basque wine, and wandered over to this sculpture of a building, the Guggenheim, gleaming gold in the pale light. I stood in front of it, agog, for a good 20 minutes. Meanwhile, around me, Bilbao was going to work, or out jogging, or heading for a coffee, but rarely looking at the Guggenheim. I saw several jog right past this enormous, glistening beast without even looking across once. Given its opulent, over-the-top form it was as if the building was daring them not to look, unfurling itself before them, the sun’s rays creeping across the undulating tiled skin, as if a Frill Necked Lizard living up to its name. And Bilbao’s citizens just jogged right past, running along the riverside that broadsides the gallery, not even a quick glance of recognition. Perhaps even the most riveting views fade with time and repetition.


London has few such obvious views. It’s not a city of spectacle, with little beauty in its natural setting – like Tokyo or Paris, and quite unlike Sydney, or Seattle, or Rio, or Zürich – and it’s a city that makes the resident and visitor work hard to unpick its secret delights. Sure, you have the odd spot, such as views back from north London (as noted before). But the view of the city is one of a largely featureless, low-rise sprawl, with only the city and Docklands providing some brief vertical interest, fairly incoherently. It doesn’t have the classical urban form of a slowly building crescendo of buildings downtown, as with Sydney, where the upwards curve of the Harbour Bridge draws a trajectory up to a series of ‘scrapers culminating in Centre Point. London is more dissonant, polyphonic, dispersed, difficult to get a grip on. The central curve of the Thames can present a good aspect. But it’s not a city with the views at every turn you can get in Sydney. The skyline isn’t something you can draw, and although a loose assemblage of icons will do in terms of representing a city – for example in this set – the skyline isn’t something you think about in London. Only here, when I chanced across this view on Google Earth – which might be gone now, due to the regularly updated satellite imagery – did I think about a skyline along the south bank of the Thames, for instance. I hadn’t noticed it had a skyline, until I saw it here, stretched out in shadows.


It struck me that this is an entirely representative London view – unlikely, difficult to observe or describe, a little ragged and dirty, in brown and grey, and probably gone tomorrow. But perhaps all the more interesting, as a result.

The odd sniffy Melbournian might say that all Sydney has is The View. Which is a little harsh. Just how harsh remains to be seen, but for the new immigrant to this city – as I am – the views are startling, wonderful and an everyday pleasure. I may get used to the weather, even being English, but I’ll try to resist becoming blasé about The Views.


10 responses to “The View”

  1. Ben Avatar

    We went to Bilbao solely to see the Guggen. Everywhere you go it’s winking at you from behind a corner. It almost seems to follow you, which is odd when you consider it’s not bang in the middle of the city.
    London has nothing like this, although different bits have things like this; Gherkin, Canada Tower, BT


  2. Kerim Avatar

    Sydney, Istanbul, and San Francisco have the best natural views. Every side you look, between every building… And where the local population so used to the view that they scarcely look…


  3. paul schütze Avatar
    paul schütze

    Only culturally insecure, philistine Sydney-siders describe Melbournians as sniffy. Comparable with using “intellectual” as a term of abuse in London.
    Not all bridges are fireproof.
    Also “old fella” (!)


  4. Mark Avatar

    Believe me, Melbourne is better than a view. In Sydney if you turn your back to the harbour…………nothing. Turn around in Melbourne and another world opens.


  5. Dan Hill Avatar

    Paul: your roots are showing. I didn’t mean to imply all Melbournians are sniffy, as you well know (have clarified above, just to be sure). Though to deny that there might be some sniffy Melbournians about Sydney would be to say that there might not be some crass Sydney-siders about Melbourne. Still, to a large extent, London is an anti-intellectual haven, sadly – though not as bad as the rest of England – whereas to denounce all Melbournians as sniffy would be ridiculous. Some of my best friends are … etc etc.
    Mark: You may have not helped Paul’s point above, and you may have misunderstood mine. You should know I’m a fan of both cities, for different things, and such comparisons seem fairly pointless ultimately.
    Ben: Your posting of Russell’s photos reminds me to post my set of BT Tower shots sometimes. It is indeed a building which follows you a bit, and presents itself unexpectedly.
    Kerim: Your note on Istanbul reminds me I’d love to see that. San Francisco does have The View too, you’re right, though not in the same league I think.


  6. Julie Hamwood Avatar
    Julie Hamwood

    London from Waterloo Bridge is wonderful; the texture of London brick – fantastic; the softness of the light on the Thames and the way light filters and bounces through all the small intersections of the angles of houses, streets and offices across neighbourhoods. And the way the light changes with each season. Mesmerising.
    I grew up in Oz; I love Australia and how the sky and the shape of the land dominates. Ever-present, enormous sky was the first thing I missed when I moved to London.
    All the best with your move to super Syd. I know those roads and beaches; that city and its beauty – enjoy!


  7. Mark Avatar

    Oh Dan. I’m actually repeating what ex Sydneysiders say. It is only when they open their eyes to the world they realise it. The ones that disagree, have not opened their eyes ………yet. Simple.


  8. Mark Avatar

    I must agree with you about London being an anti-intellectual haven. I’ve just returned from 10 months there. The injection of Europeans has helped but not supersized Starbucks or the many cultural cringing Aussies. London from any bridge, breathtaking.


  9. smithylad Avatar

    The greatest insight that travelling has afforded me is that every city is ultimately just a place where people live. Wherever you go in the world, however rough, beautiful, planned, rich, poor, the main order of the day is ordinary people going about their daily lives. Some cities might give more to their citizens than others, but it’s about how the city fits into their lives rather than the other way around. For example, I wonder how many of the joggers use the Guggenheim as a milestone to help plan their daily run, without having the need or even the energy to look at it. A beautiful view is a glorious thing, but so is a pint of beer: to absorb yourself in either too often can be folly – liver complaints and being run over by trucks can result, and most of the time people have other things they need to be doing.


  10. apolaine Avatar

    You’re right. the views are good. But they’re pretty good all over Australia because the sky seems, well, just a lot higher than in the UK or Europe.
    The thing about living in Australia for a while is that you love it at first, hate it a bit later, love it some more and then become accustomed to it and then realise that it really is a foreign country, you were just tricked into thinking it wasn’t by the language.
    The other thing is that if you leave your own country long enough you realise you’re a foreigner everywhere, including your home country. It was a weird moment when I realised I didn’t get any of the cultural references my friends and family in the UK were making.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: