Saturday April 19, 2014 Full Website »
Photos

A Brief History of Observation Towers

A Brief History of Observation Towers
REUTERS/Ki Price

London introduced its new architectural symbol today, a 115-meter (377-foot) observation tower known as the ArcelorMittal Orbit, or "Orbit" for short.

Like many of its predecessors around the world, its aim is to serve as a symbol of civic pride for the city and for the urban regeneration of its neighborhood.

The era of observation towers as civic symbols probably started in Paris during the 1889 World's Fair. The brand new Eiffel Tower, equipped with a state-of-the-art elevator, was able to quickly and safely move visitors up to the top and back down. Originally planned to stand for 20 years, its popularity allowed it to become a permanent fixture and Paris' most famous architectural symbol. 

Influenced by the Eiffel Tower, Russian artist Vladimir Tatlin proposed a constructivist-styled communications tower, titled The Monument to the Third International, in 1917. In true revolutionary fashion, it was planned to issue manifestos and news via loudspeaker and radio. It would also have, had it ever been completed, a projector capable of penetrating messages through overcast skies.

But despite its similarities to the Eiffel Tower, Tatlin's Tower had no plans for an observation deck. The completion of London's "Orbit" can be seen as a tourist-friendly, 21st century interpretation of its French and Russian predecessors. Unlike Tatlin's concept, its primary use will be as an observation deck and unlike the Eiffel Tower, it will not serve a dual purpose as a communications tower. Created by sculptor Anish Kapoor and designer Cecil Balmond, it will be Europe's tallest piece of public art. 

Observation towers of the mid 20th century were less focused on the wonders of sculptural steel and instead were best identified by more rational-looking structural bases, a cylindrical form toward the top, and finished off with a spire.

Seattle's 1961 completion of the Space Needle served as an inspiration to its neighbors 100 miles north; a Canadian observation tower boom ensued for the following 15 years. Vancouver, Calgary, Niagara Falls, and Toronto all built similar styled towers up through the late 1970s (Montreal built one in 1976, but in keeping with Quebec separatist tradition, it bares little resemblance to its Canadian counterparts). 

Canada's fixation peaked with the 1976 debut of Toronto's CN Tower, at the time the world's largest free-standing structure. Local intellectual circles saw it as a symbol of Toronto's inferiority complex, a rapidly changing city eager to prove its new worth. That theory was eloquently framed by Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, shortly after the tower's opening, in a video he narrated for the CBC.

Subconscious statements of inferiority aside, some cities just find their towers ugly. Prague's was largely seen as an outdated, communist-style attempt at futurism. The city's solution was to temporarily add bronze sculptures of crawling babies throughout. The babies were so well-received that they're now a permanent fixture. 

Besides London's "Orbit," the sculptural steel aesthetic for these types of towers has returned. The Canton Tower in Guangzhou, completed three years ago, gives the appearance of a steel-constructed Chinese finger trap. Surpassing the Canton Tower in height, Tokyo will be introducing "Skytree" later this month. In what appears to be a mix of all its predecessors, it has the basic principles of the mid century observation tower while adding a sculptural steel curtain around its base.

Below, a sampling of some of the world's most unique observation towers:

Top image: The ArcelorMittal Orbit next to London's Olympic Stadium. REUTERS/Ki Price

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

Join the Discussion