The Magic Of Happening To Look Up

October 6th, 2022
The Magic Of Happening To Look Up

We reach the top of the hill, and turn around.

“Well, there you go, Mike. As I said: best view in Graz,” my friend says proudly.

Graz, Austria

Graz, Austria

It is indeed a terrific place to take in Austria’s second-biggest city, with its Renaissance and Baroque architecture fanning out between forested, palace-studded hillsides. But I see little of this, because of what’s on the roof of the building just opposite us.

“Look at those tiles!”

The terracotta roofs of Graz are a mesmerizing sight. They’re a gorgeous colour, the roof-tiles a faded, dusty deep red, in shades according to their age. I get the appalling urge to acquire one by any means necessary and take it home with me (maybe I’m reaching a certain age where these kinds of dark imperialist urges awaken in us Brits). But they definitely belong here, making up this city-above-the-city amongst the towers, medieval walls and rooftop gardens. 

The roofscape of Graz is a sight so evocative that there’s even a documentary about it - you can watch the trailer here (and if your German is as poor as mine is, it’s still worth watching for the view).  

But this, sadly, is a Graz that a lot of visitors don’t see, because it takes a bit of “pointless” effort. At least, it feels pointless. Why climb above the city when what’s most famous about it is down there? But then something interrupts you (in my case, a friend wise enough to drag me up some very steep steps) and then you catch sight of that ‘other city’ above your head - and you’re obsessed. 

Sunset in Graz

Sunset in Graz

The same thing happened to writer and current Makar (poet laureate of Scotland) Kathleen Jamie, as she was walking through the streets of Edinburgh:

"One afternoon last November I was crossing Charlotte Square and, happening to glance up, saw a comet. Charlotte Square is the last word in Georgian elegance, but on a November afternoon it’s an underpopulated place. The only louche note was a couple of bicycle couriers lounging beneath the portico of West Register House, waiting for their next job. I can’t recall what I was doing there, having no business with lawyers or insurance companies, but from its wide pavements I happened to look up and, between chimney stacks and cupolas, saw this beautiful brass comet, a shining ball towing a deeply forked tail."

As she explains in one of her essays in her marvellous Findings, she found her imagination so stirred by this sight that she grabbed a telescope and climbing the 103 metres to the top of Carlton Hill near the city centre, just to satisfy her curiosity about what else was up there:

“It’s obvious, but perhaps worth repeating, that everything raised is raised deliberately, nothing falls upward by accident. Everything the city lifts above itself has been given thought and design. Thought and design, then allotted a secretive existence, glimpsed now and again by the streetbound. Having never properly looked up as I made my way to shops and work and lectures, or sat exams, visited the sick, drank in pubs, endured Fringe shows in freezing churches, checked the time as I ran for trains, I’d never before realised that what we catch sight of on the city roofs are symbols…

The city sends up noise and fumes, and also the symbols of the day, the zeitgeist cast in shining brass and lifted skyward. But symbols, with their exact, non-negotiable ‘meaning’ fall out of use, even as they remain above our heads."

It’s one of the easiest ways to explore - just a tip of the head, or, if you’re brave enough,  finding somewhere to stretch yourself out flat so you can comfortably look straight upwards. But it seems most of us travel (and think!) two-dimensionally - maybe not on the whole (it’s hard to get more 3D than a plane-ride), but when we’re exploring on foot, our gaze tends towards the horizon. It’s only when the architecture demands we really crane our heads back that we do so - for example, the ornate roof of a cathedral. But the rest of the time, we look more or less straight ahead…and miss so much. 

In his bestselling book The Art of Noticing, journalist Rob Walker suggests an easy remedy:

“Every year, at least one of my students hits on some variation of the idea that if you want to notice things you missed in the past, then up is a good place to explore. For starters, you can simply look up from your phone from time to time. Lift your eyes to what’s not right in front of you, but just above.

 

The design writer Alice Twemlow, whom I got to know after she founded what become the School Of Visual Arts’ Design Research graduate program, points out that there’s a good reason so many people who think about attention suggest that taking a moment to look up can be powerful: “Because it’s true!”

That’s a great start. But Twemlow has another thought: looking farther up.

‘If you look farther up - and you really have to crank your head back for this, which means slowing way down or stopping moving altogether - to the roofs themselves,” she says, “you might glimpse drying washing being whipped by the wind, a flock of pigeons homing, prisoners playing basketball in a fenced-in yard, or someone secretly sunbathing in between the jagged teeth of water-towers, chimneys and aerials.’

Graz, Austria

Graz, Austria

Up is a place that might be glimpsed while in motion. 

Farther up requires a suspension of movement and activity.” 

So wherever you find yourself in the world over the next few months, leave yourself a reminder to stop in your tracks at least once a day, plant your feet and look up, and up, and up. If it feels weird to do this, you’re probably doing it right (“feeling weird” = “knowing most people don’t do this”).. And if you make other people stop and peer curiously upwards in search of what you’re looking at, you might be doing them a huge favour.

Be the one who actually bothers to stop and look. There’s a whole other world up there, quietly growing upwards out of the one everyone sees - and maybe you’ll be the lucky one who catches sight of it today.

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