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Saturday26 July 2014

What makes a view special?

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Like the green belt, London’s protected views are a sacred cow that needs challenging. Partly it’s because there’s confusion about their purpose.

For heritage campaigners, being able to see St Paul’s from 10 miles away is part of the capital’s heritage and its present day charm, but the legislation’s practical role is to inform developers about London’s topography and where tall buildings can be built.

This has become the subject of much heated debate in recent years when the previous London mayor Ken Livingstone, seeking sites for his key-worker housing, and canny developers spotted that each would stand to benefit if the viewing corridors were narrowed.

Had the corridors worked as they should, this would have been a strong argument for widening them again to how they were before Livingstone’s reign. But they haven’t worked. SOM’s new Broadgate Tower which looms up behind St Paul’s is just one example of where the legislation has failed simply because the view from the terrace of the National Theatre is not one that is protected.

And just as green belt land is often ordinary farmland with no special claim to preservation, we need to ask why we are protecting particular views that — with some notable exceptions — are no more special than others. Of course no one can not enjoy seeing St Paul’s from the top of Primrose Hill or Richmond Park, but why is this more special than the view from the terrace of the National Theatre?

The most powerful argument for keeping the viewing corridors is to remind developers and planners that some things really are sacrosanct.

Rafael Viñoly’s tower at Battersea, which would have popped up behind the Palace of Westminster like a Disney animation, set alarm bells ringing, but why did it take a year before the developer was forced back to the drawing board?

We need to ask why we are protecting particular views that are no more special than others

Mayor Boris Johnson is fully justified in wanting to see the tower axed. But his office should be ensuring that all developments of a certain scale and in a certain position are not squeezing their smaller neighbours rather than trying, and failing, to protect a chosen few.

Quiet giants of the north and south

In their interests in the topography, light and climate of their respective countries, Alvaro Siza, in London this week to receive the RIBA Gold Medal, and Sverre Fehn, the Norwegian architect who died on Monday, have much in common. Neither has ever been wildly fashionable — theirs is

a slow-burn architecture that is restrained and quiet — but both create timeless places of subtle beauty.

Siza is the more famous, partly because he has increasingly strayed outside his native Portugal to build across Europe and, more recently, in Korea and Brazil. Unlike Fehn, he has shown the capacity to adapt himself to different architectural cultures.

But nothing can surpass Fehn’s Nordic pavilion in Venice’s Giardini. While the other national pavilions do not attempt to capture the essence of their country, in Fehn’s you feel as if you are standing in a Norwegian wood. The three massive trees in the centre help, but it is the way the light filters through their canopies and the roof’s perpendicular concrete fins that mean on hot afternoons, when every other pavilion feels stuffy and small, a short visit to the Nordic pavilion is restorative, calming and cool.

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