Gerhard Richter's panoramas

Gerhard Richter. 
Stadtbild Paris, 1968 200 cm x 200 cm. Oil on canvas. Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart, Germany

The Tate Modern is holding a Gerhard Richter exhibition, Panorama, this fall.  He painted a townscape series in the late 1960s and early 70s, taking mostly aerial photos of cities and painting them on canvases in a way that the scale of the buildings is completely lost: one brushstroke, with all the scale of the hand and brush that made it, perhaps equals one side of a 30-storey building.  Yet the work retains its photographic clarity, mostly because of the high contrast between shadows and sunlight in the original photos, and because of the recognisable patterns that cities have, that no other organism shares (the actual patterns, not the ability to become abstract pattern).  

This, in the context of Piano's Shard in London, a kind of architecture where clarity is paramount, makes one wonder why we value clarity so much.  Complex urban landscapes are often not legible for a number of reasons, mediaeval security for one, such as one finds even today in Rio's favelas.  Or the illegibility of the POPOS landscape: privately owned public outdoor spaces presaged by Richter's blurred and ambiguous renderings.   

Yet, we understand such complexities if it is our own city.  We do not need a tourist map all laid out in graphic clarity telling us where we should and should not go.  Cities at ground level have millions of small clues that keep a kind of social order.  When something such as the Shard, or almost any new project crashes into this fairly delicate understanding, something is sterilised, made very clear.  It takes decades, if not centuries, for a re-colonisation of the area by the complexity of everyday life.