Saturday05 September 2015

Is the tall tower debate all out of proportion?

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We have got our knickers well and truly twisted over towers. The latest campaign to save London’s skyline is targeted at rich foreigners not poor planning or sloppy architecture, says Amanda Baillieu

Every five years or so London luuvies get worked up by the threat to the city’s skyline. This time there’s some research to back it up.

A list of more than 200 towers has been put together by New London Architecture, and this has prompted some leading figures, along with the Observer newspaper, to come to the conclusion that things really are out of control and action must be taken.

The list of the signatories to the paper’s London skyline statement includes the usual suspects as well as a few surprises. I enjoyed the unconscious coupling of David Chipperfield and Rosemarie MacQueen, the strategic director for the built environment at Westminster city council, who tried to block the architect’s Elizabeth House scheme.

I was struck, too, by how many of the signatories already serve on panels such as the Mayor’s Design Advisory Group, what’s left of Cabe or run bodies such as Save. Many are either professional do-gooders or paid advisers — nothing wrong with that, but they might want to ask themselves if they have been effective in protecting the thing they profess to care so much about. Finally none of them represent the generation most in need of somewhere to live.

A good handful of the NLA’s list of towers, including the Shard, are already built or, like the Chessegrater and 20 Fenchurch Street, about to finish.

CGI of how future London will look, part of the NLA London's Growing Up exhibition

Source: CPAT/Hayes Davidson/Jason Hawkes

CGI of how future London will look, part of the NLA London’s Growing Up exhibition

Others – such as Maiden Lane, a 20-storey tower on the edge of the Maiden Lane estate in Camden – are significant regeneration projects that have taken years of consultation. And anyone who believes towers are being rushed through by slapdash councils, might want to research the planning history of 2-12 High Street Stratford, which worked with six bodies, aside from the Newham council planning authority, before planning was finally granted.

A couple are in the City such as 40 Leadenhall by Make and 52 Lime Street by KPF, a handful are student accommodation; a number are on hold or at design stage including The Blades, two 40-storey towers for the Ministry of Sound. Some are clearly in La La Land and won’t be built.

The architects being accused of blighting London forever include four Stirling Prize winners: RSHP, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, Stanton Williams and Herzog & de Meuron. Nearly all the architects on the list are decent, and award winning, including Studio Egret West and AHMM.

None of these towers have been given planning permission from a sketch on the back of a fag packet, neither have they been rushed through, as implied by the campaign.

Some have been held up by the recession and others still don’t have their funding in place. There are some funny shapes, but not many. The most offensive tower on the list is the Walkie-Talkie, which was given its leg up by Cabe. Do we believe a “skyline commission” is going to be any better at spotting the duds?

Writing in the Observer on Sunday, architecture critic Rowan Moore said: “It is shocking that such a profound change is being made to a great city with so little public awareness or debate.” 

But the clue to campaign’s raison d’être comes in his next sentence: “These towers do not answer the city’s housing needs, but respond to a bubble of international investment in London residential property.”

And it’s true that most of the towers on the NLA list are residential. Between them, they are adding around 20,000 apartments to London — many of them described as “luxury” or “private”, and too few as “affordable”.

We have all watched as property is sold to foreign investors – often before it’s even marketed in the UK — and then left empty. This makes us all angry, and it would have been more interesting if the NLA had also researched the percentage of these apartments that will be truly affordable.

But that is a different debate and it is dangerous to confuse the two.

London’s unique character is not under threat from 200 towers, but the fact few Londoners can afford to live in them.

London’s Growing Up!

New London Architecture’s exhibition London’s Growing Up! opens April 3 at The Building Centre 26 Store Street, London WC1E 7BT



Readers' comments (8)

  • It is absurd to state 'London's unique character is not under threat from 200 towers' - what planet is Amanda Bailleu on? It is also crazy to suggest that long consultations, delays due to recession and lack of funding guarantee or result in good architecture!

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  • Amanda is absolutely correct that the problem lies with the influx of overseas investment, in the same way that parts of Belgravia are becoming wastelands as the owners of properties there spent only a handful of days in residence each year. There's no point building towers that nobody lives in. But this doesn't mean that building towers per se is wrong.

    Critics roll out this "unique character" thing all the time without defining what it really means. The threat to London from vacant dwellings and unaffordable house prices is far greater than the addition of a few shapes on the skyline. London's unique character comes from the people that live here, not how it looks from the top of Primrose Hill.

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  • SomeoneStoleMyNick

    @Peter Scott:

    The planet Amanda Bailleu is on is called "intervene quickly to fend off any notion that BD might be against development".

    The whole ethos of BD, since long before Bailleu, is to be on the side of the developers (whilst appearing to be "reasonable").

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  • james francis

    Amanda Bailleu is expressing her opinion in an editorial and it is important that journalists can be able to do so and be open about their views as this allows their readership to make an informed judgement on other articles.

    It seems to me that many commentators on this website seem to look upon debate as an aggressive and highly confrontational process and are all too keen to attack an individual for daring to express an opinion rather than explore the issues at hand.

    Sorry to be as blunt as I have just stated others are but I am concerned at the number of times people are attacked for expressing an opinion or a view while the subject matter seems to be considered irrelevant. I feel it is important to bring this up though as in an industry that should be about understanding the needs, views, rights and beliefs of the public who are inherently impacted by the results of our actions we need to have the skills to engage, discuss, understand and communicate (even when it is that agreement cannot be reached).

    Finally the article makes some insightful observations and while expressing a clear view point is written in a manner that invites investigation and debate. I don’t always agree with Amanda’s editorials but where would architecture be without the blade of debate to keep our creative pencils sharpened?

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  • amanda baillieu

    Thanks James - it goes with the territory so I am very used to it !

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  • It is a very strange campaign and it seems unclear what the point of it is.

    Commentators like Rowan Moore says these towers have somehow sneaked past every one but he and other like him had commentated on towers in London for well over a decade.

    Having people like Chipperfield and Kapoor as figureheads is also an odd choice. The Orbit is widely ridiculed and used as an example as to why and where a tall building should not be placed and Chipperfield, apart from the highly contentious Elizabeth House has also had a large slab approved at Canada Water that couldn't be more out of context so what exactly are they signing up for?

    Places like Vauxhall with its cluster of approved towers being used heavily in this campaign as an example an unplanned frenzy is anything but. Lambeth Wandsworth and the GLA have worked together over several years defining this cluster and its context. In fact most of these tower clusters have been long in gestation and in borough plans and dozens of commentators have written pages of on the subject matter over the years.

    The 200 + figure is not something sudden but the gestation of a tall building policy from the early 2000's largely endorsed by the GLA in its London pan within the entirely sensible policy to build tall centrally and near transport nodes. Almost every tall building has been heavily scrutinised with around a dozen highly publicised public inquiries which have been reported at length in the media.

    By all means have a debate about the quality of these buildings but the question as to how many and where is a rather redundant argument when most of these 200 already have planning and are or will be built. Clusters whether you agree with it or not have been already established in places like the City Canary Wharf Vauxhall the South Bank, Stratford and Croydon amongst other places. This campaign will do nothing to change this simple fact. If it achieves better quality for future towers then great but beyond that it seems like a lot of hot air and posturing with little substance and at least ten years to late.

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  • amanda baillieu

    Completely agree with you Stephen and well put. It's a campaign that's too late - if you think towers are destroying London, which I don't - and has some very odd supporters . David Chipperfield ? More sensibile architects who were asked to support the campaign, like RSHP, refused.

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  • And why don't you think towers are destroying London?

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