Patrick Geddes and the theme of vision
by Pierre Chabard

Infinite riches in a little room.
- Christopher Marlowe

Thee Tower and Patrick Geddes : it is almost impossible to distinguish them.
- Lewis Mumford

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.

Camera Obscura 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 his thinking.

Initially, the Tower took its place in the ambitious, wide-ranging socio-cultural scheme Geddes had been working on since the mid-1880s for the regeneration of the Edinburgh Old Town - at that time, one of the most over-populated slums in Europe. Geddes's commitment to the city of Edinburgh has been brilliantly analysed by Volker M. Welter . According to him, "In Geddes's vision, any redemption from the plight of the industrial city is achievable only if the historic city, the Old Town of Edinburgh in this case, becomes recognised as the place to achieve any improvement of the city" . At first, Geddes envisaged such improvements terms of social reform typical of the Victorian era. Yet during the 1890s, he became increasingly committed to a kind of cultural rehabilitation for the district, through a co-ordinated programme of buildings and works for the university. His desire to transform the slum into an Edinburgh "Latin Quarter" is particularly evident in his University Hall scheme. It was based on the model of the mediaeval university Quad or "Cloister", complete with studies, refectories, lodgings and other facilities, all run by the students themselves in a spirit of brotherly freedom. When the Reclus brothers visited the first completed parts of this scheme in 1896, they remarked that : "encouraged by their success, Geddes and his circle want to do better still; they dream of creating a Thélème Abbey [an imaginary community dreamed up by François Rabelais in the mid-1530s]. Enormous buildings serving until now only for banal exhibitions are to be transformed into an Institute of History and Geography, with conference rooms on upper floors and, in the highest parts, workshops and museums commanding views across an immense expanse of city and countryside to the wonderful Forth Bridge" . Doubtless the "enormous buildings" were an exaggerated description by the Reclus brothers of the Tower which, at that time, was gradually being absorbed into Geddes's scheme. Although the notion of creating a complete university campus modelled on Rabelais's imaginary Thélème Abbey was never wholly implemented , this should be seen as the first conceptual context for the Outlook Tower.

Outlook Tower, with Ramsay GardenIt 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 [1923]; the Scottish College, Montpellier [1924]; and at Domme in the Dordogne, where the Tower was built by Paul Reclus in 1937, after Geddes's death.

Iona - arrowThe word "outlook" employed by Geddes to re-name the Tower deserves attention, for its multifarious meanings reflect the numerous concurrent and sometimes contradictory strands contained in his project. But above all, it provides literal evidence of the fundamental importance of vision in the organisation and orchestration of the Tower. With his training in the Natural Sciences - biology and botany - Geddes considered first-hand observation of phenomena to be the basis of knowledge; being at the interface between seeing and learning, between thought and experience, observation was to him at once a tool and a method, a means and an end. Geddes therefore considered the eye to be an organ of fundamental importance to intelligence, for it provided the means to decipher and understand the world. Having nearly gone blind when on a study tour of Mexico in 1879, Geddes always nurtured a predilection for the visual: painting, photography, optical instruments, diagrams and other forms of graphic representation. This predilection was particularly evident in the conjunction of several major visual themes of Western culture at the Outlook Tower : prospect and aspect, perspective projection and panoramic vision, blindness and visual maieutics, Speculum Mundi and Camera Obscura.

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.

The main visual experience offered by the Outlook Tower, which derived from the Tower form and the vantage point provided by the roof-top terrace, was viewing the city and the surrounding landscape from above. In the itinerary proposed by Geddes, this view from above was presented in three stages : first the circular, panoramic overview, then the view seen through the medium of the Camera Obscura and, lastly, details seen with the aid of various instruments of measurement and observation. Discernable in the dialectic ambivalence of this exercise in seeing from above, poised between aspect and prospect, between artistic emotion and analytical observation, is one of the keys to the Outlook Tower and to Geddes's thinking in general : knowledge of reality may be obtained through projections of a multitude of distinct, specific scientific observations, but this multiplicity must always be reappraised in the light of a synoptic vision encompassing them all . The Outlook Tower could therefore be seen as a Tower of Babel of a positive kind where, rather than presenting an obstacle to understanding, the multiplicity and diversity of specialist languages worked together as an encyclopaedic, panoramic synthesis of the visible.

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.

The Outlook Tower was therefore more than just an Observatory; it showed more than a panorama of visible things. When standing on the roof terrace, visitors were supposed to get to grips with more immaterial matters through looking : knowledge of times past and future. Geddes constantly exploited the visible for its potential as a means to represent the invisible and the abstract. At once a place of observation and representation, the Outlook Tower offered both presentations and representations of reality, even if it was not always obvious which was which. This essential aspect of the Outook Tower was not belied by the rest of the itinerary, seen on the way down from the summit. The five lower storeys contained a kind of universal museum or "Index Museum" offering visitors access to all aspects of knowledge, at every scale of understanding : Edinburgh and its region, Scotland, the English-speaking world, Europe, and finally the whole world. It was conceived as an "Encyclopaedia Graphica", exploiting every possible type of visual representation in the wealth of material on display : maps, models, paintings, bas-reliefs, stained glass, dioramas, photographs, diagrams, globes and so on. The predilection for exploiting the full cognitive impact of the visual, already manifest on the roof-top terrace, was present too on these five lower storeys. But here, Geddes set himself the titanic task of visualising and displaying invisible aspects of reality - everything usually inaccessible to the eye, due to space [that which is hidden] or time [that which is not current], as well as "essence" [the spiritual]. The world beyond the horizon, the past, the future and the universe of abstraction were all brought into the realm of the visible, so they could be seen in the rooms of the Outlook Tower.

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.

Let us reconsider the overall arrangement of the Outlook Tower, with its vertical sequence and inter-related scales. As Firmin Roz noted in 1903, it was a "clear demonstration of its founder's key idea : that one should start from a local view and progress through cultures of increasing scope to attain a view of the universe" . Yet the overall architectural approach to the displays had one marked peculiarity : it was designed to provide knowledge of increasingly wide-ranging territories in rooms that were always identical in size. So, as he made his way down the Outlook Tower, the visitor was confronted with information that was less and less detailed at a scale that became wider and wider. In this respect too, the Outlook Tower functioned in the same way as human vision, which sees detail in close-up while taking a global view of what is distant. Moreover, this increasingly global view is perceptible in all descriptions of the Outlook Tower, including the guide-book of 1906. The upper levels of the museum are described at much greater length and in more detail than are the lower levels. This distortion of the world in favour of the local and the regional was still more flagrant in the celebrated Episcope - very probably the most complex and complete object in the Outlook Tower. Designed by Paul Reclus , it was a large-scale development of the prototype Hollow Globe sold at the Outlook Tower and intended for the teaching of geography. The brilliant principle of this concave globe was to make cartographic and perspective projection coincide. The geometric construction of the globe was stereographic, i.e. the projection was centred on the surface of the globe. The point chosen was Edinburgh, coinciding exactly with the location where the map was to be seen, so the Episcope presented visitors with what they would have seen if their vision had been capable of stretching across the surface of the earth to countries and continents hidden beyond the horizon. In short, it was a kind of panoramic mappa mundi.

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 ©

For a fully referenced and formatted copy please contact the editor at: actsfactsdreamsdeeds@hotmail.com