I live between two of the world’s largest cities and regularly travel for both work and pleasure. So, I am constantly noticing differences between various, far-flung urban spaces. To present my take on urban spaces and the proportions within them, I’ve put together a selection of anecdotes from my travels that highlight what it is for me that makes scale in these environments unique, what makes them special in different cultural frameworks, and considers which proportions are changing our urban landscapes today.
I am in Coffee @, a quirky coffee shop on Bermondsey Street in central London. The walls are covered with apartment rental adverts, vintage posters, neon lights and recycled art; sugar is kept in holders built from Legos; your pooch will enjoy the complimentary dog biscuits; and there are so many retro sofas that you have to move through the shop in a sort of wiggly side-step motion. The shop is tiny, somehow squeezed in between historic Georgian buildings, warehouse conversions, and contemporary apartment blocks—a perfect example of the general mish-mash that makes up modern-day London town. This practical, relaxed and natural development style is what I love about London.
I am in Downtown Dubai, staring up at the 2,722-foot vertical odyssey that is the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. The first time I flew into Dubai many years ago this building was literally higher than the clouds, grandly emerging like a magical and reflective Emerald City. I once went to the top of it—well, two thirds of the way to the top. The actual top floor can only accommodate a handful of people; there are no openable windows due to the low air pressure at that altitude; and oxygen levels need to be supplemented with air pumped up from the ground floor. This skyscraper is a colossus. I love its confidence and determination. It surely succeeds as a landmark for Dubai’s tourism industry, but its practicality and ethics—having been built by underpaid and poorly housed workers—receive zero ratings from me.
I am in Hong Kong, China. The island is alive with lights, skyscrapers, and the hectic hustle and bustle that is part and parcel of an Asian metropolis. I’m keeping it traditional at the MO Bar Mandarin Oriental—the atmosphere here is glamorous but not glitzy—, and I’m sipping on a lemon-infused vodka cocktail with a friend. Her dilemma is this: she really can’t find a boyfriend and she desperately wants one. Looking about the bar, the boy-to-girl ratio is in fact quite startling, and after a quick check with our friend Google we learn that Hong Kong’s gender imbalance is one of the worst on record with 876 men for every 1,000 women. To make matters worse, my friend tells me that Hong Kong girls are notoriously picky and mostly stay at home until their mid-twenties, prompting many of their male counterparts to look towards mainland China for a girl. Gender imbalance is a tricky one, but hopefully today’s global, online lifestyle can help shift the imbalances so everyone can find somebody to love.
I am in the city of Giza, Eqypt, just outside of Cairo. I am being followed by at least 100 men, all trying to sell me postcards that they are fanning out elaborately in my face as I walk along. Plastic carrier bags are flying through the air and Coca-Cola cans are rattling around my feet. I can see the pyramids of Giza in the distance. My guide explains that one pyramid built by Pharaoh Khafra is especially deceptive. This pyramid often appears larger in photographs than the adjacent Great Pyramid of Giza, built by Khafra’s father Khufu. Khafra wanted to build a bigger pyramid for his burial than his father’s but was aware that he had limited resources and time. A plan was devised to use visual tricks—building the pyramid on higher ground and constructing it with steeper angles of inclination—to create the illusion that Khafre’s pyramid is taller, when it is in fact smaller in both height and volume.
I am at the Athenaeum Hotel in London having afternoon tea. The facade of the hotel is partially covered in a vertical garden created by botanist Patrick Blanc. I am a huge admirer of Blanc’s work. His gardens are an artistic expression following years of scientific research; after decades examining the way wild plants grow on vertical rock faces, he devised a technique that enables plants to grow vertically on architectural facades without the need for soil. He has designed gardens all over the world, and for each location he selects plants suited to the local climate. Earth sheltered buildings, as they are also known, have many ratio-related benefits such as reducing energy consumption and bills, using fewer natural resources, regulating a buildings temperature, absorbing rainwater, and generally impacting the environment much less than conventional buildings. All-in-all, I think it’s nothing short of architectural and botanical genius!
Proportions have always played a major role in the human environment. In London I’m often struck by how small yet unique a space can be, and I am inspired by the mix of old and new. In Dubai, scale is given a whole new meaning. And although skyscrapers may be beneficial for the city’s profile, I’m often left wondering if the concept of ‘world’s biggest’ is perhaps an altogether outdated one. Ratios of chance and biology make it difficult for ladies in Hong Kong to find love, while ancient Egyptians morphed structural proportions to promote pharaonic stature. Then back in London, we are learning how urban gardens can reduce our energy bills and are kinder to our environment. There has always been creative thinking surrounding proportions in our urban environments, and all for very specific reasons, whether for practicality, economy, love, power, or sustainability.