There’s something magical about seeing a city from the very top. To have a new vantage point, and look across a skyline instead of looking up at it is one of the most powerful and awe-inspiring feelings. Observation decks are not just architectural marvels, but also a sort of civic icon and sense of pride for a city. In the present day, it’s not just their height that draws people in, but the additional programming of sky-high bars, rides, and bungee jumping as well.
Observation towers have long been an important part of urbanism, city pride, and the draw of tourism. In 1889, for the World’s Fair in Paris, the Eiffel Tower was outfitted with a high-tech elevator system that allowed passengers to move from the top to the bottom safely and quickly. Although the tower was only supposed to stand for the following two decades, it quickly became an iconic symbol of Paris and a representation of the city’s significant technological advancements and is still one of the most visited observation points today.
Inspired by the success of the Eiffel Tower, many others followed suit and began to build structures of their own. Many architects and artists felt that even if they didn’t feature a place to look at the surrounding city, the right combination of height and symbolism would have the same effect and generate excitement- however, this was not often the case. Russian artist, Vladimir Tatlin, proposed his design for a communications tower, dubbed The Monument to the Third International, in 1917. As was typical of the time, it was planned to share out manifestos and news via radio waves, and if it were ever completed, it would have been able to broadcast messages even through cloudy skies. The only thing missing was the human aspect- there was no planned observation deck.
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Throughout the mid-20th century, the design and construction of observation decks, such as Seattle’s Space Needle (1961), and a series of Canadian towers in Calgary, Vancouver, and Toronto began to rise. Most notably, Toronto’s CN Tower, which would later become one of the world’s most famous observation towers, was the largest free-standing structure at the time of its completion. It was viewed largely as a symbol of Toronto’s self-perception and its goal of proving its successful growth to the rest of the world.
In the present day, observation towers have taken on a new life of their own. Instead of being a structure with a singular purpose, they’re being integrated into buildings that have other programmatic elements such as office space. Society now heavily scrutinizes land use, making observation decks that are only observation decks seem like a waste of space. Major urban centers in China design some of the world’s most over-the-top observation towers, creating bubble trams that circle buildings nearly half a mile high. London recently proposed a tulip-shaped observation tower, to be designed by Foster + Partners, but after poking fun at its shape and questioning the value that it would bring to the city center, it was quickly scrapped.
For visitors, observation decks provide a view of a city that truly can’t be captured any other way. For cities, it provides an opportunity to display their advancements and cultural pride and generate revenue from drawing in tourists who want to experience the wonder of their skyline. Over the next century, as cities grow in density and technology enables buildings to be constructed at new heights, observation towers will continue to provide a one-of-a-kind experience.