Tom Sutcliffe: Real estate speak is the height of irony

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The New York skyline is a sculpture created by the friction between civic regulation and the capitalist love of profit. The former element might not be immediately obvious to a casual observer. Manhattan, after all, is a kind of symbol of capitalist aspiration in itself, a thrusting desire to climb a little higher up the ladder than the fellow next door. But restraint is expressed there too – and sometimes in literally concrete form.

Take the characteristic stepped form of most New York skyscrapers, for example, which looks as if it derives from engineering constraints but – in most steel framed buildings at least – is actually a capitulation to planning regulations. Those distinctive setbacks represent the architect's negotiation with something called the Sky Exposure Plane, an imaginary tapering space which New York bureaucrats devised in order to ensure that a modicum of daylight would still reach the city streets. You can meet the requirements of the Sky Exposure Plane by going up for a bit and then in for a bit before you start up again. Or, as several Seventies buildings did, you can curve your building so that it fits within it precisely. Or you can horse-trade with the authorities -- and give them a plaza at ground level in return for permission to bust through the envelope with some extra floors. And between the desire to hold new development in check and the desire to let it rip you get one of the world's most distinctive cityscapes.

That it is a kind of accidental sculpture seems to me undeniable. When the World Trade centre was first proposed back in the early Sixties the reaction of many New Yorkers was that it constituted a kind of vandalism. Those twin towers disrupted the familiar rhythm of the city, the Henry Moore swell and fall of it. There was talk of aesthetics and balance and composition -- and the philistinism of developers who couldn't understand that not everything could be measured in rentable square feet. Then, thirty years after the South Tower was completed, the World Trade centre shockingly came down again and New Yorkers grieved all over again -- not only for the human casualties but for their mutilated skyline too, whose new form had become as familiar as the old one. New York just didn't look right without that jutting prow at its southern tip.

Now another aesthetic row is in train over the plans to build a 1,200 foot skyscraper only a few blocks from the Empire State Building, a proposal that has alarmed the self-appointed guardians of the city's physical profile. The New York Times urged caution in an editorial and suggested any decision should be postponed for more detailed consideration. Another opponent was far more combative: "We view this as an assault on New York City and its iconography", said one Anthony Malkin, "It's the end of the image of New York City that billions of people hold dear". This last contribution to the debate needs a footnote, though -- because Anthony Malkin is the current owner of the Empire State Building and one of the things that he holds dearest is the lucrative prestige of having by far the tallest building in midtown Manhattan. And although the new building would be shorter than the Empire State Building, it would actually appear considerably larger – since it projects its ground footprint almost all the way to the top.

Malkin has suggested that the city should create a 17-block no-go zone around the Empire State Building and also that setbacks would mitigate the impact of the new tower – a nice example of a real estate developer proposing the kind of rule he would normally do everything in his power to circumvent. The fact that Malkin has ulterior motives for his yelp of aesthetic pain doesn't mean that he might not be right though.

It's possible that, in 30 years time, the image of New York City would have absorbed the new building without difficulty. It's also possible that it would forever be a lesser thing, because the prominence of that one central pillar had been blurred. Perhaps it's time for Unesco to get involved. At present, they have the Statue of Liberty on the World Heritage List, but not the great landscape behind it. I think they probably have more sense though. This is an artwork generated by the grinding collision of great forces – civic pride and the desire to make money. Only those who don't have a choice get caught between the two.

Good news is no news in a prophetic press story

Reading the reports of the Chilean mine rescue, I found myself thinking of Billy Wilder's brilliantly cynical film Ace in the Hole, in which Kirk Douglas plays Charles Tatum, a washed-up reporter who spots a chance to get his career back on track when he discovers a man trapped in an abandoned silver mine. Though a rescue would be fairly straightforward, Tatum connives with the town sheriff to stretch matters out, so that he can extend his exclusive on the story and gain a national audience for what would otherwise be only a local story. "I can handle big news and little news," he boasts. "And if there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog." It's not that I suspect anyone in Chile of the same kind of sharp practice, of course: just that Wilder's film ruthlessly dissects the appeal of such a story for the popular press and the components it must contain if it is to maintain its interest over the long haul. Discovering that his victim's wife is about to leave town with the contents of her husband's cash register, for instance, Tatum smacks her around a bit and persuades her that she (and he) can do better if she sticks around to play her part in the heartsick vigil. The film is so unremitting in its study of the public's ghoulish appetite for human cliffhangers that it bombed on first release, and again when put out under the title The Big Carnival. But it's terrific, and I'm willing to bet it will prove prophetic about some of the side-shows we're going to see before the miners emerge.

Time for a little tête-â-Tait

I hope Michael Clark gets a good audience for his public-participation dance piece, showing in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall over this weekend (free performances tonight and tomorrow at 9.30pm and on Sunday and Monday at 5.30pm). It seems an excellent idea to open that space out for other forms of art besides sculpture and installation. In fact, looking at the coverage of his rehearsals, I found myself fantasising about a theatrical use for the Turbine Hall – surely it's one great unfulfilled potential (I think there have been musical performances there, though I may be wrong about that). Companies such as Punchdrunk and other site-specific theatre groups tend to go for mothballed spaces or redundant industrial interiors, which obviously have their own secretive charm. But the Turbine Hall's vastness, not to mention that helpful intersecting bridge down the middle, would obviously lend itself to some kind of theatrical spectacle. What's more, it already has the biggest rake stage in London. I think Tate Modern should put it up for competitive tender and invite directors or interested companies to pitch their best ideas. It isn't just sculpture that needs a good plinth.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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