Ben Flatman asks why London’s masonry vernacular has been ignored by so many of its tall buildings
Last month Bill de Blasio announced that New York is going “to ban the glass and steel skyscrapers that have contributed so much to global warming”. Even though it turned out the mayor’s “ban” was actually more of a polite nudge towards sustainable construction, the news reports made me ponder what a prohibition on glass curtain walling might mean for London. What would happen if architects designing here were also challenged to think differently?
Putting aside any fundamental objections to the explosion of tall buildings in the capital, it appears that the London skyscraper as a typology is stuck in a conceptual rut. Because there is no strong British history of building tall, we seem to lack the imagination or confidence to define our own tradition. Unarticulated glass cladding dominates. For decades now it seems that few British architects have been able to conceive of a tall building in any other material.
The City of London’s incoherent eruption of glass is the prime example of where it’s all going wrong, but the depressing consequences of this approach can be seen across the capital. The precedents for how to do things differently are already out there. London has developed its own convincing contemporary vernacular over recent years, based on a careful articulation of fenestration and real sensitivity to context and materials. But for some reason this hasn’t translated over into the city’s new high-rise architecture.
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