Opinion: with the opening of the latest attention-grabbing attraction at a skyscraper in Melbourne, Will Wiles asks if the advent of Google Maps has created a public too jaded to simply appreciate a spectacular view.
From this month, visitors to the Skydeck at the Eureka Tower in Melbourne, Australia – the highest observation platform in the southern hemisphere – can get a little extra for their money. The Eureka Skydeck includes The Edge, a reinforced glass box protruding into space, which gives the bold the chance to see a dizzying drop between their feet. But this, it seems, is not quite enough excitement, and now the Skydeck is introducing Eureka Vertigo, a "specially constructed set" with a green screen "presenting guests with the illusion they've fallen through the Edge and are holding on for dear life 285 metres above the ground."
This is just the latest manoeuvre in a recent bout of one-upmanship between skyscraper observation decks. Very like The Edge, the Willis Tower in Chicago (formerly the Sears Tower) has The Ledge, four glass boxes projecting into the empyrean. Since The Ledge opened in 2009, the competing observation deck at Chicago's John Hancock Center has this year opened Tilt, a section of glass window that opens like a drawbridge, giving visitors holding onto it the momentary but assuredly terrifying sensation of dropping into the open air. Perhaps experiencing status anxiety, The Ledge promptly developed cracks in one of its protective layers and had to be briefly closed. (The recorded sound of cracking glass is, incidentally, another little acrophobic treat thrown in by those wags at the Eureka Skydeck.) And particular honour must be paid to the Stratosphere Hotel Tower in Las Vegas, tallest observation tower in the United States, which finds room for four amusement-park rides on its highest level, each one more bowel-loosening than the last.
Boring old nature, so long a dreary second-best to more exciting man-made landscapes such as Las Vegas, has also had some much-needed pep injected into its viewing areas of late. Since 2007 visitors to the Grand Canyon in Arizona can enjoy the Skywalk, a U-shaped, glass-bottomed walkway that cantilevers 21 metres out over a drop of between 150 and 240 metres. But this has now been bested by a rival Skywalk over the Athabasca glacier in Alberta, Canada, another glass-floored horseshoe which juts 35 metres over a 280-metre chasm.
What has prompted this recent rush of edginess in the rarefied world of the observation deck? Until quite recently, these viewing areas were supposed to be exciting attractions in themselves. "There is an innate desire in all men to view the earth and its cities and plains from 'exceeding high places'," wrote the essayist Henry Mayhew in 1882 after viewing London from a hot-air balloon, "since even the least imaginative can feel the pleasure of beholding some broad landscape spread out like a bright-coloured carpet at their feet, and of looking down upon the world, as though they have scanned it with an eagle's eye." Now it seems the imagination needs some assistance, and the sensation of height must be made ever more literal.
Could it be that the public has become jaded with the view from on high? Have we reached peak peak? It might, to a jaded mind, be tempting to attribute these attention-grabbing, trouser-ruining gimmicks to a more affectless consumer populace no longer enchanted with what Mayhew called "an exquisite treat to all minds".
Kids, this line of argument might run, are more interested in twerking and loom bands than identifying the roof of their school from 20 miles away, and therefore have to be given Height Extreme Plus TO THE MAX. But what really ruins a treat is getting it more and more often, and the view from height is more and more part of daily experience.
Tall buildings proliferate and air travel increases, but these trends are not new – something else has been added to the mix. The eye, Mayhew wrote, "love[s] to see the country, or the town, which it usually knows only as a series of disjointed parts … become all combined, like the coloured fragments of the kaleidoscope, into one harmonious scene". Nowadays every pocket offers the chance to rise above our location with a pinch or a tap of the screen in Google Maps; the rise of personal drones will give depth, control and up-to-the-minute immediacy to this vicarious digital eagle eye. Not that this can replace the real thing, but the exceeding high places are lacking some of their novelty, and as dedicated viewing areas multiply, and compete, they will be obliged to offer more and more.
London has not yet embarked on the arms race underway in Chicago and Melbourne, but is showing some early signs of observation deck overload. Two new attractions that trade on their impressive views, the Orbit tower in the Olympic Park and the Skyline cable car over the Thames at North Greenwich, have had a decidedly lukewarm response from the public. Nearer the centre, the promise of public viewing galleries has been used as a bargaining chip in securing approval for two of the post-2000 crop of office towers.
Giving paying punters the commanding heights of Renzo Piano's Shard for their own – rather than filling it with oligarch penthouse or chi-chi restaurant – was a neat way to tack a bit of pseudo-public realm onto an enormous private monument. These elevated spaces provide a brief simulation of ownership in the same way the Tilt and the Edge give a brief simulation of falling.
Ownership, even illusory, does not come cheap. The View From the Shard costs an eye-watering £24.95 for an adult, but it does give London the Empire State, World Trade Center-style spectacle it has long lacked. And that hefty price tag has the happy effect of justifying another skyscraper nearby which can offer its view for free: Rafael Vinoly's bulbous Walkie Talkie. The Walkie Talkie's "sky garden" has an unenviable task heaped on its – admittedly broad – shoulders: to entirely justify Vinoly's top-heavy and misplaced tower. In a bizarre convolution of planning logic, the tower's sore-thumb location away from the City's main "cluster" of tall buildings was made permissible by the fact that it would be an excellent place from which to observe that cluster. "We came to think of it as the figurehead at the prow of our ship," City of London chief planner Peter Rees told The Guardian's Oliver Wainwright in 2012, outlining this mystical logic. "A viewing platform where you could look back to the vibrancy of the City's engine room behind you."
The Walkie Talkie Skygarden has yet to open and will, I'm sure, come with a catchier name. But already it is in obvious competition with the Shard – pricey versus free, ascetic steel and glass versus sylvan repose, supreme height versus not being able to see the Walkie Talkie. If the one diverts paying customers from the other, some P.T. Barnum tricks can be guaranteed to follow.
Will Wiles is the author of two novels with architectural themes: Care of Wooden Floors, in which a man is driven mad by a minimalist apartment, and The Way Inn, a horror story set in an anonymous chain hotel. He is contributing editor at Icon magazine and a freelance design journalist.