Insight Out

The Latin word altus, in an apparent contradiction, means both high and deep. The association is both old and immensely powerful – that with elevation comes insight, with height comes depth. We refer to high theory and deep thought, high art and deeper meaning; both are equally suitable synonyms for the profound. This is also true in the physical environment, where height and depth join with an equally potent metaphor of vision – that looking down at the world from a height will bring insight, render the scale and grain of the world more legible, bring clarity and perspective and objectivity – that seeing from a height will reveal deeper meanings.

So what is it to look outward from the upper floors of a building – any building, but this one in particular, the tower at Aurora Place, in the city of Sydney? How is it that a building enters into the everyday life of an urban populace, as both a perceived object and a lived experience? And what is the difference in perspective between the city from above, in a tower, and the city from below, on the street? The French social theorist and philosopher Michel de Certeau wrote a famous and much-loved essay, ‘Walking in the City’, on this very subject. The essay opens with an account of the view from the 110th floor of the World Trade Centre. After describing New York City’s ‘wave of verticals’, its ‘texturology in which extremes coincide’, and its ‘paroxysmal places in monumental reliefs’, de Certeau compares the view from the tower to that of Icarus, flying high above the machinations and labyrinths below. His essay provides a way of thinking about this city and this building – what it is to locate Aurora Place within the city of Sydney.

So we cut to the present city in the present day, on a gleaming morning, standing looking out from high in the tower. First come the superlatives – the view is magnificent, superb, breathtaking, sublime. The city and harbour are laid out as a whole, everything available all at once, the eye travelling vast distances unfettered. Next comes the curiosity of seeing familiar things from a new angle, in a different way, from another perspective. The ridges of each shell of the Opera House seem oddly pronounced, Fort Denison is shown marooned and isolated in its expanse of water, Garden Island sprawls further than ever seems possible from the shore. Finally, the topography reveals itself – the rolls and swells of the ground plane, the way that the grid of the city is draped over an undulating territory. The ridges and hills emerge, crowned with water towers, the valleys leading downward to inlets of the harbour, the water and the land interlacing in fingers. And the harbour itself, its surface rippled and sparkling, striated with the wake of boats. This is no generic, global city – it is unmistakably Sydney, its spectacle and its icons lending themselves almost uncannily to such an overarching, panoptical view.

Looking from this height gives the impression, whether true or not, of objectivity through distance: vertical separation from the seething, chaotic, multitudinous life of the streets. To be on the street is to live the edited fragment, while to be in a tower is to be a voyeur. This returns us again to de Certeau, whose interest was not only in the ‘voluptuous pleasure’ of seeing from a height, but who in his essay made an Icarian fall of his own, plunging from the heights down to the level of the street, to listen for the ‘chorus of idle footsteps’, to read ‘the long poem of walking’ in the city.

So we now swoop down, to Macquarie Street, the axis that links Hyde Park with the Opera House, the thread that divides the city from the Botanic gardens. People walk, meet, wait in line to buy coffee; it is the space of social interaction, of incidental meeting and the intimate moments of the everyday. Approaching Aurora Place along the street the attention is caught by materiality – there is the ubiquitous concrete and glass and steel of urban canyons the world over, but also sandstone and terracotta, timber and granite, the ground plane sloping gently downwards to the concourse and into the foyer of the building. The buildings along Macquarie street make a kind of urban wall, the Eastern façade of the city, rising from the massed foliage of the botanic gardens.

De Certeau describes walking in the city as a kind of speech act, an utterance, and follows the patterns of ‘intertwining, unrecognised poems in which each body is an element signed by many others’. The city, in this conception, is not a collection of buildings, but of spaces and trajectories, where each pedestrian follows ‘the thicks and thins of an urban “text” they write without being able to read it.’ But a building is also a vessel and an object. And so, finally, we pull outwards and away, to a rooftop in Potts Point at dusk, looking back across Woolloomoolloo Bay to where the buildings of the city march down their ridge towards Circular Quay. The sun sets orange behind the cathedral, and a loose column of flying foxes pass overhead, their ragged flight silhouetted against high cirrus cloud. Posed on the edge of the city, the tower at Aurora Place faces outwards to the harbour and the gardens, flirting with the audience of apartment buildings on the facing ridge, poised and elegant in its opaque skin. Its profile marks it out against the skyline – the edges like the swing of a slip dress, the tailoring and the cut, the fall and the swish. It is a building twirling lightly in evening dress, as the light of the sky begins to fade.

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