Tom Vanderbilt

On a recent flight from Salt Lake City to New York, the announcement came ‘to kindly lower the window shades so that other passengers may enjoy the in-flight entertainment programme’. I demurred, and my window soon seemed a searchlight sweeping through the dark cabin, disconcerting those passengers trying to enjoy The Notebook. Why settle for Hollywood pap, I thought, when they had the sublime at their disposal?

At some point in the last century, the aerial view became banal. It’s as if we’ve become culturally inured to its wonder, as if the planet were just a screen-saver. On most commercial flights, passengers actually avoid looking out of the window. ‘A century ago, nobody on Earth could have hoped to see this view,’ Greg Dicum says in Window Seat, his field-guide to the American Great Below, ‘and yet it’s yours – free – with every flight you take.’[1]

Perhaps the problem is legibility. ‘If you know what to look for,’ Dicum writes, ‘gazing out an airplane window is like reading an ever-unfolding scroll on which is written the life-size story of the continent.’ Most of us don’t know what to look for, however, and the aerial view is alien to our sense of scale. John Wise, the pioneering American aeronaut, thought he was looking at a waterfall in a pleasure-garden when he saw Niagara Falls from space. ‘I was disappointed, for my mind had been bent on a soliloquy on Niagara’s raging grandeur … The little frothy bubble had too much the appearance of a foaming glass of London brown-stout.’

Wolfgang Langewiesche took to the skies in the 1920s. ‘The most unknown thing in the United States,’ he wrote, ‘is the United States.’[2] Unlike a passenger, idly consuming the landscape, he needed it for navigation. He called railway lines ‘the Iron Compass’. High-tension lines were particularly readable, but other landmarks that seemed prominent on the ground, such as hills, were no good from the air – ‘they flatten out under you.’ Rivers tended ‘to lead from rough country into smoother country’. Expensive suburbs could be distinguished by their curved streets; cheaper ones by their right-angles. And, most notably, there were the section lines, which determined the layout of roads across otherwise blank territory.

It is really one of the odd sights of the world, and it is strictly an air sight: a whole country laid out in a mathematical gridwork, in sections one square mile each: exact, straight-sided, lined up in endless lanes that run precisely – and I mean precisely – north-south and east-west. It makes the country look like a giant real-estate development: which it is.

Established in 1785 by Jefferson’s Land Ordnance Survey, the section lines were an ambitious speculative attempt to give democratic shape and nominal control over the vast, still largely unknown lands the young republic found at its disposal. This was geography as destiny. The Jeffersonian grid seems like something that could make sense only from above. In a place like North Dakota even now, after driving for half an hour in a ridiculously straight path, you have to make a short dogleg turn to join another perfectly straight road. Why doesn’t the road just continue ahead? Because that would not meet the conditions of the grid: lines of longitude move closer together the further north one goes and the dogleg is part of a correctional process that occurs every 24 miles. On the ground, it is a minor inconvenience: from the air, it is part of a grand plan.

‘I had the very strong idea that the small airplane was a great geographic and sociological tool for looking at the landscape,’ Langewiesche wrote. At the time, a discipline of air archaeology was emerging in Britain, as ploughed-over farmsteads were suddenly seen, from the air, to bear the traces of ancient Roman roads. Wessex from the Air (1928), a pioneering tract by Major Osbert Guy Stanhope Crawford and Alexander Keiller, former members of the Royal Flying Corps, gave rigour to what had been a fringe pursuit in archaeology. They patrolled Southern England in a rented De Havilland and pointed out that certain fields of crops, in the right light and at the right time of year, revealed building foundations and other ancient settlement patterns. Wartime reconnaissance also produced some unintended stratigraphic discoveries; they cited the case of Lieutenant-Colonel G.A. Beazley of the Royal Engineers, who was mapping the Tigris-Euphrates plain during the First World War and found grid lines and canals marking the ancient city of Samara: had he not been in possession of those aerial photographs, the city would probably have shown up on the map as ‘meaningless low mounds scattered here and there, for much of the detail was not recognisable on the ground’.

In archaeology, urban planning and aerial warfare, a new strain of technological supremacism posited the aerial view as the only true view. ‘With its eagle eye’, Le Corbusier said, the airplane ‘penetrates the misery of towns’. ‘Planners of postwar America,’ Thomas Campanella writes in Cities from the Sky (2001), ‘approached the city not as street-level observers steeped in its messy vitality, but with the clinical detachment of surgeons hovering over an operating table.’ Small wonder, then, that postwar planners did things like running interstate highways through city centres: lovely and rational from the air, neighbourhood-severing and soul-deadening from the ground. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was often a link between urban planning and aerial warfare – Curtis LeMay studied aerial mosaics as an urban planning student before going on to oversee the firebombing of Tokyo.

For Langewiesche, who was an economist and political scientist, gazing down from the Apollonian heights made America look more dignified, more ordered. ‘Discouraged intellectuals should have regular treatment by airplane,’ he advised. If you read Window Seat you become acquainted with a country you have never seen before. You will see the landscape change as you pass the 100th meridian in the East Texas Panhandle, which, as Dicum explains, ‘is roughly the furthest west that crops thrive without irrigation. This is where you will see the fields’ transition from square to round: the telltale sign of pivot irrigation.’ Beneath those broad irrigation circles that dot the Great Plains, across which sprinklers sweep like a radar hand, you will see faint traces of geological features. You will see Palm Springs, an unreal checkerboard of green squares in a hostile landscape. You will see the etchings and whorls of the Bingham Copper Mine in Utah, the largest land excavation in the world. You will be able to date suburban subdivisions by how they are laid out.

Even home becomes another country. The creators of New York: The Photo Atlas took pictures of the city from 5500 feet in two sorties over four weeks in the summer of 2003.[3] In capturing every last block, they have produced something astonishing: a snapshot of an entire city, viewed not from the street-level immediacy of sounds and smells and shadows, but as a scan of an organism, with thrumming arteries, spinal structures, moving fluids. The Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corporation, an early purveyor of aerial photography, boasted that its product ‘enabled the city planner to see the city exactly as it is’. New York: The Photo Atlas follows latitude-longitude, so Manhattan is depicted on an axis, rather than following the more customary straight verticality of the grid. The direct overhead shot tends to reduce most architecture to mere shapes, dead parcels of white or black staring back at us. ‘In most photographic mosaics,’ therefore, the editors explain, ‘buildings are shown from a slight angle to give an idea of their height and construction. For this atlas the extreme height of the buildings in Manhattan presented us with a particular challenge, as even a modest lean on a skyscraper obscures a considerable area of the street beneath.’ What’s more, the way the consituent photographs, taken from different angles, have been stitched together, leads to incongruities: buildings on adjacent blocks appear to tilt opposite ways, as if they’re about to topple into one another.

Aerial New York has no skyline to speak of (midtown Manhattan is mostly square parcels with rooftop ventilation units), so the eye is freed from the tyranny of landmarks, and drifts instead towards the curious things that stand out among the endless grids. You notice the cross-shapes scattered throughout the boroughs that tend to signify mass public housing of a certain vintage. You notice, along the Brooklyn waterfront, the PEZ-candy shapes of shipping containers, and beige squares that are presumably lumber shipments. You see infrastructure you’d never notice from the ground, like a ventilation tower for the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel sitting off Governors Island. You notice that in a massive area of highly urbanised Brooklyn and Queens, the only green space seems reserved for the dead; you notice too that these cemeteries have their own planning logic – grander tombs and monuments in the centre, surrounded by ever smaller dotted lines representing more everyday markers. In the mostly green expanse of Hart Island, which has housed everything from a sanitarium to Nike missile batteries (the remains of which are visible from above), you see a large patch of brown, representing freshly turned ground: this is where the city sends its anonymous dead, to be buried by prison labour. There are also things you could not have seen before: the basketball courts in the centre of prison buildings on Rikers Island, a Sopwith Camel biplane parked on the roof of an office building near Wall Street. Perhaps the strangest thing I saw was a footprint of my own activity: a tan spot in the otherwise green concourses of Prospect Park, where my weekend summer soccer games had worn away the grass.

The publication of New York: The Photo Atlas is likely to cause some concern in a city so intent on tight security it has proposed banning photography on the subway. Here, in clear detail and vivid colour, is the entire city, all its nooks and crannies exposed to the penetrating eye of the satellite. Indeed, remote-sensing has become so common, producing such a flood of images – used by everyone from scientists studying iceberg movement in the Arctic Circle to US citrus growers monitoring the South American orange crops – that things you cannot see from a few blocks away are suddenly there for the viewing. This was brought home to me when I spent an afternoon staring at a computer screen with an aerial imagery analyst. There had been reports in the Washington Post that people who lived close to the Naval Observatory, home to the vice-president, were complaining of blasting sounds into the night. The theory was that a bunker was being built, or perhaps a tunnel to spy on nearby embassies. The observatory’s superintendent had declined to offer details: ‘Due to its sensitive nature in support of national security and homeland defence, project-specific information is classified.’

In a few moments, having downloaded some images from the internet, the analyst was able to work out what was going on. In the first image, dated June 2002, there is simply a wooded clearing. In the next image, from December 2003, a large warehouse-type building has appeared. In an image from April 2004, that structure has been replaced by a much smaller, darker building (the analyst pointed out that bunkers, as in the case of Iraq, are often constructed using buildings as cover). ‘It’s not an appendage to another building, and there’s not even a road going to it – it’s just in the middle of this pasture,’ he noted. ‘In the intelligence community they have what they call an estimated range of possibility. I think this is a “probable”.’ The navy said only that it had ‘completed an infrastructural upgrade at the Naval Observatory’. Welcome to the age of the aerial image. Things the Soviets would have paid dearly for are a mouse click away.

[1] Window Seat: Reading the Landscape from the Air by Gregory Dicum (Chronicle, 176 pp., £9.99, May2004, 0 8118 4086 7).

[2] America from the Air: An Aviator’s Story by Wolfgang Langewiesche, edited by Drake Hokanson and Carol Kratz (Johns Hopkins, 248 pp., £14.50, June 2004, 0 8018 7819 5).

[3] New York: The Photo Atlas (HarperCollins, 369 pp.,£50, October 2004, 0 00 717703 8).