Date of Publishing:
June 12, 2024

Davide Deriu, Oriental Pearl Radio & Television Tower, Shanghai, November 2019

A Moment of Vertigo

Davide Deriu

It was a somewhat heady time when, in 2014, we launched the Vertigo in the City project at the University of Westminster. Architecture exuded an air of defiance as a plethora of eye-catching design features posed new challenges to the perception of balance. One could sense that the built environment was becoming, ever more overtly, a site of vertigo. Our exploratory activities included visits to some of the most popular attractions in London, ranging from the open-air terrace at the summit of The Shard (the tallest building in the UK)to the high-level walkways of Tower Bridge, the monumental structure crossing the River Thames which had recently been retrofitted with glass floors for added thrills. Our team took a spin at the London Eye, the giant observation wheel on the South Bank, and climbed the O2 Arena (formerly known as MillenniumDome), whose tensile fabric roof had been rebranded as a venue for “urban mountaineering”.

What appeared to be the signs of a new global trend have now become widely normalised. Over the past decade, the pace and scale of vertical urbanisation has grown unabated across the industrialised world, halted only momentarily by the Covid-19 pandemic. In the process, our cities are increasingly host to gravity playgrounds. Besides the brash tourist bubbles that promise adrenaline rushes along with instantly Instagrammable selfies, a whole range of dizzy-making devices pervade the spaces of everyday life in more subtle yet pervasive ways. From the ubiquitous glass parapets that line the balconies of residential buildings to the sheer drops that carve the interiors of malls, hotels and museums, today’s architecture is often designed as a stage for intense kinaesthetic experiences. The rise of suspended platforms such as skywalks, skygardens and skyparks has expanded a heavenly-prefixed lexicon that was dominated for over a century by one compound word: skyscraper.

In thrall to the imperatives of neoliberalism, 21st-century design has embraced the experience economy to such an extent as to commodify vertigo itself. This term is not employed here in its current medical meaning, which refers to a symptom of vestibular disorders, but rather in its broader sense: a feeling of perceptual imbalance that is often associated with the experience of high places. This concept, epitomised in western culture by the title of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous film, evokes a moral and existential condition as much as a physical sensation. In common parlance, vertigo conjures up the fear of falling triggered by the encounter with the abyss, a loss of equilibrium that can elicit feelings of exhilaration as well as anxiety.

As the economists Pine and Gilmore (1999) pointed out, the capacity of an event or environment to stimulate a “memorable experience” is correlated with its ability to engage the human senses: hence immersion, whether it be of a physical of virtual nature, is essential to its success. The travel industry had been exploiting this phenomenon long before its wider economic value was identified, and the recent vogue of extreme tourism has brought it to full fruition. Yet, today thrill seeking is no longer the province of intrepid adventurers; it constitutes the archetype of a consuming subject in pursuit of evermore visceral, unforgettable experiences. Behind a marketing rhetoric pandering the belief that everything is possible lies a false sense of freedom, an illusion of omnipotence that casts the consumer’s body as a lucrative source of profit. Solitude and alienation are by-products of the self-perpetuating cycle of desire (Bauman 2005).

Contemporary high-rise environments exploit this ambivalence by staging the abyss as a themed experience. Since the turn of millennium, tall buildings have become the sites of gravity plays that elicit the frisson of losing the ground under one’s feet. While the emergence of modern high-rise construction epitomised what Barthes (1964), in his famous EiffelTower essay, called “architectures of vision”, today the conquest of urban heights is no longer an exclusively visual affair but a complex phenomenon that engages the multisensory balance system. Although the panoramic view is still very much sought after, we have been witnessing the rise of a new form of spatial design: an “architecture of vertigo” (Deriu 2023) that is manifested by countless buildings around the world.

This ongoing trend is particularly rife in the fast-growing cities of the Middle East and South-East Asia, where developers vie for “iconic” architectural attractions that transform the urban skylines at breakneck speed. Yet it also pervades a number of western cities, including the American downtowns where the skyscraper era began. In 2009, Chicago’s Willis Tower (formerly known as Sears Tower) had its 103rd-floor Skydeck retrofitted with the Ledge, a series of retractable all-glass boxes protruding from the building facade at 412m above street level. Conceived by SOM Architects, the same practice that designed the late-modernist skyscraper in 1970s, the Ledge extended the function of the observation deck from an aesthetic to a kinaesthetic experience by daring visitors to “walk on air”. Five years later, a new attraction called Tilt was unveiled across town at 360 Chicago, formerly the John Hancock Center observatory. This mobile glass-and-steel device, situated 300m above ground, inclines outwards so as to induce a dynamic perception of the abyss. Competing for the most thrilling experience, these projects attest to the role of architectural design within the growing economy of vertigo.

Over the past decade, a spate of gravity-defying observatories have popped up in New York City, where new skyscrapers and design installations have reasserted the primacy of the vertical metropolis par excellence. A remarkable case in this respect is the North Tower at 30 HudsonYards, the real estate development on Manhattan’s West Side that broke all records of size and cost. Designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox and opened in 2020, shortly before the first Covid-19 lockdown, the tower’s prismatic volume is cut through at the 100th floor by an angled observation deck – dubbed Edge – jutting out 24m into the air. Not only does the cantilevered structure defy gravity in a spectacular way; its vertiginous effect is enhanced by the transparency of the observation deck, which is bordered by frameless glass parapets with an outward slant and includes a glass-bottom floor area. While see-through surfaces have become a staple of viewing platforms overlooking natural and urban landscapes alike, the Edge incorporates a whole range of vertigo-inducing elements that promise to give you “the feeling of floating in the sky with 360-degree views you can’t get anywhere else”.

More recently still, the Top of the Rock observatory in Midtown Manhattan has taken the thrill of altitude to a new level through the Beam Experience, which allows visitors to re-enact the famous 1932 photograph of ironworkers lunching on a steel beam during construction of the Rockefeller Center. The marketing rhetoric is typically defiant: “Follow in their fearless footsteps by buckling up for an exhilarating ascent above the deck.” Yet again, the panoramic view is augmented through a kinaesthetic experience that challenges the sense of balance in a controlled environment. And here lies a paradox of these gravity playgrounds. As verticality provides a fecund axis for the production of urban space, the encounter with the abyss takes place in safe conditions where bodily risks are fully managed. Amid a relentless pursuit of novel experiences, the “beam” derives its unique selling point from a historical icon which has come to epitomise the rise of the modern metropolis. Turning a picture of labourers into a thrill for the leisure class marks a further attempt to stage the abyss as a memorable experience while exorcising the fear of falling.

How do we make sense of this phenomenon? The built environment has long been eliciting sensations of perceptual imbalance. As documented in medical history, the early scientists who investigated the phenomenon of height vertigo, in the 18th and 19th centuries, often described the dizzy sensations they felt atop tall structures such as the spires of European cathedrals in Antwerp and Strasbourg. By contrast, contemporary architecture embodies a deliberate quest for disorientation whereby vertigo itself is elevated to a design principle. By testing the user’s stability, dizzy-making buildings embolden dynamic and enterprising subjects to enjoy a seemingly boundless degree of freedom, in fact an artificially staged one. Arguably, they are instances of how architecture can operate as a “spatial complement of contemporary processes of neoliberalization” (Spencer 2016, p.1). The deceptive liberation from gravity denies and normalises our “late modern vertigo” (Young 2007): an epoch of insecurity fraught with social inequalities and environmental injustices, as our planetary balances are dangerously disrupted.

Meanwhile, contemporary artists have deployed time-based media to evoke the vertiginous condition of our age. The city is the main subject of this “art of vertigo”, as evidenced by three art films that are centred on London. Tom Wolseley’s cinematic essay, Vertical Horizons: In the Shadow of The Shard (2017), puts forward a critique of neoliberal development by focusing on the glass skyscraper located at London Bridge. Placed at varying distances from The Shard, the camera moves in circles that encompass the surrounding cityscape while a voice-over blends personal and political reflections. Through slow circular motions, the film engenders a cumulative effect of displacement in the viewer. Wolseley conjures the transformation of the city through a series of contemplative pans a cross London’s “vertical horizons”, musing on the politics of urban growth and its socio-economic implications.

In parallel, in the winter of 2017, Steve McQueen filmed the charred skeleton of London’s Grenfell Tower from a helicopter. A few months after a devastating fire killed 72 people, his airborne camera recorded the housing block, originally built in the 1970s, while it was being covered in protective wrapping as forensic teams searched the site. The wrapping, designed to prevent loose material falling away, became a symbol of the attempts to cover up the responsibilities of a tragedy that exposed a systemic failure involving corporate and governmental agencies. Circling the tower in dizzying motion, the helicopter camera allows the viewer to contemplate the unsettling scene from mid-air – a technique McQueen had previously used to film the Statue of Liberty in New York (Static 2009). Grenfell, which was shown to the public for the first time at the Serpentine Gallery in 2023, is aligned with a wider set of artistic practices that have emerged in response to the inequalities of neoliberal urbanism.

Another practitioner of this art of vertigo is Catherine Yass, whose works often depict architecture in a precarious state of abandonment, demolition or transformation. Since the early noughties, Yass has made film installations that destabilise the viewer’sperception of their subjects. Last Stand (2019) focuses on a building site in Nine Elms, a former industrial district that became the largest regeneration zone in Europe. The camera, mounted on a crane, initially tracks up along a concrete frame under construction; then moves in circles around the building site and shows the urban environment that is rising all around. Perched atop the structure, the artist takes a stand against the vertical growth that has been reshaping the urban landscape. Multiple rotations elicit the frenetic growth of a city driven by corporate offices and luxury apartment blocks. Turning the gaze of power on itself, the artist’s body becomes a living measure of the scale of construction.

Last Stand, 2019 © Catherine Yass

This work conflates three intertwined forms of vertigo (Deriu 2021): the vicarious sensation we feel when we empathise with the artist’s vulnerable position; the visual disorientation caused by camera movements; and the dizzy pace and scale of urban development evoked by the pictures. Their combined effect induces a profound sense of dislocation. Embracing dizziness as a method, Yass’s work has been associated with art practices that seek out “the creative and generative potential of this in-between state” (Anderwald and Grond 2019, p.24). By subverting the stability of the ground, her film installations exemplify a current of visual art that draws out the aesthetic possibilities of falling – whether it be a physical or imaginary act (Steyerl 2011).

These artworks suggest that architecture is implicated at various levels in the experience of vertigo. The sense of perceptual disorientation that is triggered by the encounter with the abyss affects not only our embodied perception of space but also, significantly, our perception of the social and environmental conditions in which we live. By engaging with architecture as an ungrounded field, various artists provoke us to feel a sense of dislocation while prompting us to reflect critically on the profound inequalities that underlie our urban age. Rather than nullifying gravity by technological means, they recognise its irreducible force. Rather than negating vertigo, they acknowledge it as a symptom of unstable and unsustainable circumstances. If some of their works make us dizzy, they also alert us to the contradictions that are inscribed in the built environment.

This essay largely draws on the author’s book, On Balance: Architecture and Vertigo (Lund Humphries, 2023), while also introducing more recent examples that support his argument.

Anderwald, Ruth and Grond, Leonhard. 2019. Dizziness – A Resource?. In Ruth Anderwald, Karoline Feyertag and Leonhard Grond (eds), Dizziness – A Resource. Berlin:Sternberg Press, pp 22–53.

Barthes, Roland. 1983. The Eiffel Tower (1964). In Susan Sontag (ed.), A Barthes Reader. New York, NY: Hill & Wang, pp 236–50.

Bauman, Zygmunt, Liquid Life. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Deriu, Davide.2021. The Art of Vertigo: On Catherine Yass’ Architectural Visions. In Falling Away – Catherine Yass at Ambika P3,, ed. Davide Deriu and Michael Mazière. London: University of Westminster,pp 3–21.

Deriu, Davide. 2023. On Balance: Architecture and Vertigo. London: Lund Humphries.

Pine, JosephII, and Gilmore, James H. 1999. The Experience Economy: Work is Theatre & Every Business a Stage. Boston MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Spencer, Douglas. 2016.  The Architecture of Neoliberalism: How Contemporary Architecture Became an Instrument of Control and Compliance.London: Bloomsbury.

Steyerl, Hito. 2011. In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective. e-flux, no.24, April 2011.

Young, Jock. 2007. The Vertigo of Late Modernity. London: Sage.