OUTLOOK TOWER AS AN ANAMORPHOSIS OF THE WORLD
riches in a little room.
The concept of the Outlook Tower - at once observatory, museum and civic laboratory - was the outcome of an encounter between Patrick Geddes and a curious tower dominating the Edinburgh Old Town and, beyond, the whole city and its geographical setting. The very first moments of that encounter are described by James Mavor, Professor of Political economy at Toronto, in the account he gives in his memoirs of a walk with his friend Geddes in 1892, through the maze of streets on Castle Hill and terminating with a visit to the tower. It was then known as Short's Observatory. The roof-terrace had served as a popular attraction for local people and tourists since 1856 - moreover, it is used for that very purpose today. The owner, Maria Short , had moved her "Popular Observatory" there, complete with the Camera Obscura, in 1854 from Edinburgh's Calton Hill, where she had run a similar establishment, also with a Camera Obscura, until 1834.
of this type were already a fairly common form of public attraction in the 1820s
and were to become highly fashionable in Victorian Britain. An inclined, moveable
mirror reflected light vertically, through a system of lenses, into a darkened
room where a circular table at the centre served as a horizontal screen around
which the public could gather to contemplate the projected image of the surrounding
landscape. This was the fascinating spectacle Patrick Geddes and James Mavor viewed
which such enthusiasm. So taken was Geddes with the Camera Obscura and the panoramic
views to be had from the roof-terrace that he immediately offered to buy the tower.
His offer was accepted. In his account of the purchase, Mavor remarks that the
acquistion of the tower did not seem to have been motivated by any specific project,
nor to have formed part of any pre-formulated plan. Yet the Outlook Tower was
to assume special importance, both in terms of a synthesis of Geddes's numerous
activities and undertakings, and as one of the most sophisticated products of
It is interesting to note from the Reclus brothers' description that, even though the principal function of the Tower was optical and panoramic in 1896, it was not yet called the Outook Tower. This appellation would not seem to have appeared until the very end of the 1890s, very probably in conjunction with the Summer Meeting organised by Geddes in 1899. The event was described by two participants , Charles Zueblin of Chicago and Firmin Roz of Paris, both of whom made specific reference to the Outlook Tower : "Patrick Geddes has summed up his efforts and symbolised his work in a singular invention that is at once a museum, an observatory and a university : the Outlook Tower" . Yet as early as 1896, the scheme was beset with difficulties of various kinds. Some were financial - Geddes's colleagues had to set up the Town and Gown Association to manage his financial affairs on his behalf. Others were conceptual - Geddes's ideas for the Tower were as evolutive and elusive as they were chimeric and immoderate. Geddes constantly skirted round these difficulties and kept seeking more favourable conditions elsewhere, to bring his scheme to fruition. From 1895, he was involved with Elisée Reclus's "Grand Globe" - an ambitious project akin to a cross between a "Georama" and the Outlook Tower, for the 1900 Paris Exhibition. When the Reclus "Globe" project was abandoned in 1900, Geddes forwarded proposals for a temporary Outlook Tower to be located on the Panoramic gallery at the "Trocadéro Palace" in Paris. In 1902, Geddes threw himself into an ambitious project for a National Institute of Geography in Edinburgh. Designed by the French architect Paul Louis Albert Galeron, the building was to have centred on a high tower : the Tower of the Regional Survey. Finally, in 1904 Geddes submitted a project for the Carnegie Foundation in Dunfermline. It amounted to a kind of cultural park containing museums and institutes. The principal building was to have been a History Palace surmounted by a Tower of Outlook.
The recurrence of the Outlook Tower theme in these various enterprises suggests how important the project was to Geddes and how difficult it was to achieve at Short's Observatory in Edinburgh. These difficulties became insurmountable in 1905, when financial problems led Geddes to abandon all work on the Tower. Once again, friends and disciples came to the rescue by setting up the Outlook Tower Committee. This turn of events produced enough funds to undertake some essential works and to complete the project in a state of coherence frozen at a moment in history. Even though this solution fell far short of Geddes's ever-changing ambitions, a compromise had to be struck between his unattainable views and the inevitable constraints of reality. Geddes seems to have reacted with optimistic enthusiasm. A First Visit to the Outlook Tower, the small guidebook he and his colleagues published in 1906, contains his first description of the project in completed form . This text, and the coherent state of the demonstration, made its mark on subsequent accounts by numerous visitors to the Tower, and notably that by Bertrand Faure. From 1905 onwards, Geddes continued to devise and build Outlook Towers in the course of his numerous travels, in India [1914-1924, notably at Indore]; New York ; the Scottish College, Montpellier ; and at Domme in the Dordogne, where the Tower was built by Paul Reclus in 1937, after Geddes's death.
Before examining the complex status of the visual at the Outlook Tower, it should be recalled that Geddes's involvement in public life was founded upon his radical reaction to the civic and urban dysfunction of the era. As he saw it, industrial development in European countries during the second half of the 19th century had plunged mankind into a "paleotechnic" era - a dark phase of evolution constituting a real civilisation crisis : ever-increasing urban expansion where slums generated human misery, unfit living conditions and illiteracy on a massive scale. To synthesise and conceptualise this state of affairs, which was intolerable to him as an informed, progressive Humanist, he employed means of representation based on his own learned culture. Being imbued with a Darwinian view of evolution derived from the notion that reality was defined by the relationship between living beings and their physical environment, Geddes perceived the "paleotechnic" city in terms of a three-fold breakdown between individuals and their spatial, temporal and cultural environment. In a way, the principal aim of the Outlook Tower manifest in his 1906 guidebook was to restore the lost inter-relationship between individuals and their urban and geographical space, their historic heritage and the universal body of knowledge accumulated by men. To Geddes, re-situating the individual in the world was the basic condition for changing the course of human evolution and opening up a brighter future. This overall aim, as set out by essentially visual means at the Outlook Tower, could be read almost literally as the very definition of outlook : "a place for looking out from; a view or prospect; a prospect for the future; a mental point of view; a vigilant watch" .
The Outlook Tower should be seen in terms of a scientific experiment to which visitors were subjected by Geddes, in order to awaken and heighten their visual faculties. The sequence of strongly contrasting physical experiences included climbing the spiral staircase to the top of the Tower, "because the exertion of climbing makes one's blood circulate more rapidly, thus clearing the fog out of the brain and preparing one physically for the mental thrill of these outlooks" ; the discovery of the landscape as seen from above, breaking radically with the perception of the passer-by; adjusting to an initial change in lighting levels on visiting the Camera Obscura; being dazzled on leaving the Camera; rediscovering the landscape in all its brilliance, then being plunged into solitary confinement in the Meditation Cell - a tiny, windowless room contrasting with the open, panoramic expanse offered by the roof-top terrace, and so on. Visitors kept having to adapt to different visual modes - from direct to indirect, from long-range to close-up, from the analytic to the synoptic. Sometimes their visual range was stretched to the horizon [on the roof-terrace], sometimes it was restricted [to the screen in the Camera Obscura]. By such means, visitors were invited to experience all the mysteries of vision. Indeed, the Camera Obscura, which was among the first stopping points on the itinerary, could be perceived as a huge, accessible eye - a vertiginous encapsulation offering visitors the spectacle of what their own eye could see. Detached from the visible in this darkened room, visitors could experience the physical phenomenon of vision both internally and externally.
CITY SEEN FROM ABOVE
Yet over and above visual and "scientific" interaction with the physical setting, Geddes wanted the visit to the Outlook Tower roof-terrace to encompass interaction of a temporal nature. Whereas passers-by at ground level were aware only of the present and everyday matters, the view from the roof-top terrace should offer visitors perspectives into the past and the future - the two horizons of time. The temporal aspect of seeing from above was highlighted by Roland Barthes in his analysis of the Eiffel Tower : "After all, the panoramic view is intellectual in character, as is further attested by the following phenomenon which, incidentally, was exploited by Hugo and Michelet in their aerial views : a story is always conjured up on seeing a bird's eye view of Paris. At the top of the Eiffel Tower, one's mind starts dreaming about mutations in the landscape before ones eyes; triggered by spatial amazement, the mind plunges into the mystery of time and falls into a kind of spontaneous amnesia - duration itself becomes panoramic" . As stated earlier, Geddes saw the Outlook Tower as a way to resolve an "evolutionary" crisis perceived as a breakdown between the individual and his environment. By re-articulating the landscape and its history, he aimed to re-situate visitors in the evolutionary cycle by helping them to become citizens capable of envisaging and building their own future and, collectively, that of their city.
AND THE INVISIBLE
The very act of seeing was thus the element of continuity running through every aspect of the Outlook Tower. The presentations and representations of the world on offer were always related to the visitor's own body; more specifically, they were directed at, and built around, the eye of the visitor. The system of display was articulated around the eye of the visitor, which constituted the central reference point for all the graphic projections and optical constructions in the Outlook Tower. To Geddes, the role played by the eye was fundamental as the meeting point shared by and relating to "the world without and the world within" . This optic chiasma was the factor that gave the "scopic" deployment of the real, the cosmos and the knowledge offered by the Outlook Tower its definitive significance. The "world without" was classified, ordered and arranged as a spectacle in a visual and graphic environment; it was presented and represented so that it could be taken in by the eye. The concept of the Outlook Tower was based on this synoptic act which, to Geddes, was the means by which the private, intimate world of the individual could, at a glance, take on board the "world without" in all its universality and globality. He wanted to open up minds and imaginations by opening up a view of the world. Moreover, he wanted this initial vision to trigger a new form of interaction between the individual and the surrounding world, and to institute interaction between them based on thought.
TOWER AS AN ANAMORPHOSIS OF THE WORLD
It is interesting to note that the Episcope shared the same peculiarity as the Outlook Tower itself, in that the panoramic and encyclopaedic vision given was biased towards the local, for the information displayed was increasingly detailed the closer it was to the view-point. Indeed, one might forward the hypothesis that, in essence, the Geddes project consisted in an obsessive desire to construct artificially the exact point where the world became legible, i.e. visible, in every one of its material and immaterial components. The construction of that point offered visitors to the Outlook Tower a visual and optical resolution to an anamorphic universe. The Outlook Tower therefore functioned in much the same way as those cylindrical or conical mirrors which redress and reveal, in catoptric anamorphosis, the deformed, chaotic image deployed around them. The Outlook Tower purported to reflect the world and make it intelligible, like a Speculum Mundi. Yet this intelligibility was valid only within the highly precise conception Geddes himself made of it. It was not the world that was made legible to visitors at the Outlook Tower but a cosmographic construction of Geddes's own making. Perhaps it was an intellectual portrait of that complex, elusive and sometimes shadowy figure that could be discerned in the great mirror at the Outlook Tower - an anamorphosis of Geddes's thinking, resolved in the form of a spectacle.
P. C. (English translation by Charlotte Ellis, 30.05.01)
This article was
first published in Le visiteur n°7 ©
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