A centuries-old Yemeni city stands alongside the gleaming towers of Hong Kong as one of the world’s most beautiful architectural views, writes Jonathan Glancey.

A city’s skyline is its public face. And, like the faces of those we hold dear, we hold certain skylines in our minds’ eyes even when far away from them in terms of time or distance. For, once seen, how could anyone forget the lyrical skylines of Edinburgh, Manhattan, Hong Kong or Helsinki?

Like faces, however, skylines tend to change with age, although with commercially successful cities they get superficially younger as they get older, taller rather than wizened, gleaming rather than wrinkling. Just look at the skyline of today’s City of London, all brand new bling skyscrapers jostling for attention like wannabe pop-stars at a noisy music awards evening.

Can this really be the same City of London skyline famed in photographs of St Paul’s Cathedral shot during the Blitz? Or its post-war equivalent when Wren’s serene masterpiece was still the tallest building for miles around and ringed by a distinctive huddle of soft red brick and Portland stone parish churches?

Many recall Dubai as a modest fishing village famous for its pearl divers

Many people can remember when Shenzhen in southern China was a small market town fronting a bay off the South China Sea rather than a sea of indifferent skyscrapers. Others knew Dubai as a modest fishing village on the Persian Gulf famous for its pearl divers rather than its ambitious skyscrapers and teams of window cleaners.

Vertiginous buildings have changed the faces of cities worldwide over the past 30 years. And, yet, even medieval towns and cities boasted early forms of skyscrapers. The skyline of San Gimignano, a Tuscan hill town, is pricked and peppered with 14 surviving medieval towers. From a distance, or through squinted eyes, these lanky fortified houses give San Gimignano the look of a miniature Manhattan.

This Yemeni town is known as the ‘Chicago of the Desert’

This is even truer of the astonishing Yemeni town, Shibam. Despite a population of less than 2,000, this desert settlement set against a mountain backdrop boasts numerous tall buildings of 10 and more storeys. Made of mud bricks and patched up or rebuilt, many date back to the 16th Century. Built to protect townspeople from marauding Bedouins, this huddle of towers really does resemble a modern city from any distance, especially in heat hazes when sunlight plays tricks on the eye. Not for nothing is Shibam known as the ‘Chicago of the Desert’ or the ‘Manhattan of the Middle East’.

Touching the sky

Early towns were often built on high ground for defensive reasons. Wrapped with parapets and adorned with towers and spires, they had a fairy-tale look about them. Although the southern French town of Carcassonne is largely a 19th Century recreation – by the French Neo-Gothic architect and theorist Eugène Viollet-le-Duc – its skyline is one of the most romantic of all. Seen across fields and vineyards, it is easy to imagine Knights of the Round Table galloping through its crenellated gates. Close up, Carcassonne proves to be an illusion, its cobbled streets crowded with tourists clad in baseball caps, sweatshirts and leggings rather than plumed helmets, breastplates and greaves.

A sense of medieval soldiery and religious awe surrounds Durham, too, especially when its prominent Romanesque cathedral and Norman castle are seen, fleetingly, from the windows of express trains scything between Edinburgh and King’s Cross. And if Durham’s proud citadel is unmistakable, Edinburgh remains one of the finest-looking of all cities even if councils, planners and architects have done their level best in recent decades to demean a skyline like no other.

Set between hills, firth and sea, this stone city rises and stretches across the landscape in dramatic architectural folds, its skyline a thing of bold towers, soaring spires and neo-classical monuments. As yet, the city has no skyscrapers and, it has to be said, is all the better for it.

It does seem significant that almost every website to be found online on the subject of skylines is devoted to skyscrapers as if these were the only sure way to recognise individual cities even though the more skyscrapers there are, the more cities tend to look the same.

Hong Kong’s skyscrapers almost appear to be geological formations

Clever telephoto photography captures stunning vistas of sunlit skyscrapers set against mountain backgrounds – Vancouver, Seattle and even downtown Los Angeles – and yet when you travel to these cities in search of such awe-inspiring views, they prove to be elusive. Your eyes cannot see what the camera and professional photographers can.

But certain skyscraper cities do not disappoint close up. The animated skyline of Hong Kong, especially at night, and whether viewed from the top of a double-deck tram, a ferry boat, a public promenade or through a hotel bedroom window is truly thrilling. Here, though, it is not so much individual buildings by celebrated architects that matter so much – as they do, for example, on Chicago’s lakeside skyline – as the way clusters of towers rise from their narrow, rocky confines as if they were almost natural extensions of the topography of the Chinese islands. In certain lights, they appear to be as much geological formations as architecture.

A view to a thrill

The skylines of both Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town are greatly enhanced by their dramatic natural settings – beaches and mountains – while Manhattan’s skyscrapers rise from a narrow strip of rocky island like a range of granite and steel mountains. However familiar, the sight of midtown Manhattan, anchored by the effortlessly imperious Empire State Building, retains the power to stir the imagination.

Some city skylines are composed of skyscrapers best described as kitsch. Yet what a sight Pudong makes. This is the east bank of Shanghai set across the Huangpu River from the Neo-Classical and Art Deco Bund, the city’s most famous street. A Special Economic Zone since 1993, Pudong grew at breakneck speed. Bizarrely shaped skyscrapers – architectural fireworks – shot up to form a sensational skyline that dazzles by night. In the light of day, no matter how tall, the buildings are not quite so special.

Other captivating skylines, lacking the height and bravura light displays of Pudong or Hong Kong, rely on true architectural inspiration. That of Venice, for all the millions of day-tripping tourists and blowsy mega-cruise ships, remains the stuff of urban sorcery. Here medieval bell towers stand in for skyscrapers, while in the right light, the skyline is mirrored in the city’s canals.

Like Venice, Helsinki is another city best approached from the sea, its essentially low-lying skyline quietly dominated by Carl Ludwig Engel’s snow white Neo-Classical cathedral, lined with handsome civic buildings and, in the depths of winter, fronted by a frozen sea. Here, you can soak in one of the finest European skylines, standing on the Baltic Sea. With luck, a ludicrous, costly and largely unwanted new Guggenheim gallery will not be built here, saving a much-loved view and preserving the spirit of this far northern city.

Given that skylines tend to change over time, some – Helsinki, Venice, Edinburgh – will always need more care and attention than others. And yet, even when those, like the City of London’s, are changing out of all recognition, we can always harbour ideal images of these great constructs, these city faces, deep in the recesses of our collective imagination.

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