In a few cities around the world you see good examples of what I tend to call “monumental sight lines”. These are places where everything has been lined up to create a long viewshaft – typically leading to an important place. Some of these have been in place for a very long time, as Rome is full of such sight-lines. Perhaps most famously at the Piazza Del Popolo:
It’s around 8 kilometres end to end along the line of the arrow drawn above. With the Arc de Triomphe roughly halfway along it.
Many other cities have similar long viewshafts – Washington DC, Brasilia and Canberra are cities that immediately come to mind. The “Monumental Axis” of Brasilia is even longer than our Parisian viewshaft, really defining that rather strange city:
I’m probably generally quite fond of the long-distance views that city design techniques such as those listed above create. As a visitor, it certainly makes for some pretty dramatic photographs and it means you know where you’re going – even if the straightness of the journey perhaps highlights how far away you are from where you’re going.
But at the same time, for some of these views, there’s something a bit uncomfortably artificial about it all. You don’t get it so much in Rome and Paris, but elsewhere it can feel a little bit as though the cities have tried perhaps a little bit too hard to accommodate, celebrate and highlight the very long views that are creating through such techniques. Brasilia is probably the classic example of this – a city that barely manages to function because of its truly bizarre, Le Corbusier inspired modernist design. Washington DC struggled for centuries to properly get going, largely because of its layout. And even today the vast space used up by Washington Mall and the wide avenues further afield (not to mention the strict height limits) push employment out of downtown Washington to edge cities like Tysons Corner.
The north-south sight-line is around 2km long and the east-west one a bit shorter. Both focus on attention on what would be important buildings, while also providing a sense of space to the central city which is otherwise quite a maze of short little streets heading in all sorts of higgledy-piggledy angles. These probably would be quite dramatic spaces, depending of course on the details of the architecture of our museum, city hall and the national monument: all important public buildings that these spaces draw attention to.
But at the same time I also feel slightly uncomfortable at having such convenient viewshafts in a city that developed during an earlier time to when it seems these were really in fashion (although Paris and Rome show us they have been around for a very long time). Were huge chunks of the inner city demolished to create massively wide avenues for past rulers to parade their military might? Was it a 20th century phenomenon to create grand civic spaces, but in a way that never quite worked (like San Francisco’s civic centre)? I’m perhaps more comfortable with how the east-west sight-line works – through a park that’s broken up by a series of paths/narrow streets. If I was to redraw the area in the future, I would possible make the north-south one a little narrower.