If the profession is unwilling to reject damaging projects it should at least speak up, writes Ben Flatman
Everyone has the occasional bad day, or perhaps even year, in the office. The problem for architects is that getting things wrong doesn’t just lead to an annoyed boss or aggrieved clients. When we do our jobs poorly, the results are there for everyone to see, usually for years to come. This is particularly the case with tall buildings, where the architect is putting their head above the parapet in the most literal way. A poorly executed high-rise can leave the designer very exposed to a public shaming.
Central London’s skyline is currently going through a period of unprecedented change. The character of the city is being irrevocably altered. The sense of a mid-rise European city with a uniformity of height and density is giving way to one where towers are increasingly dominant. Once uncluttered skies are now interrupted. And quiet streets are increasingly overshadowed and overlooked. We have also noticeably failed to develop a high-rise vernacular that is particular to England’s capital. Familiar London streetscapes have begun to blur into Dallas or Dubai when your gaze rises above the roofline.
Maybe worst of all – and it doesn’t really matter which angle it’s viewed from – the City’s high-rise cluster looks increasingly like a discordant mess. The impact at street level is equally depressing although, to be fair, much of the City had already been wrecked in the post-war period and some of the new skyscrapers simply replace previous not very good buildings. But because of their height the impact is now felt much further afield.
As London undergoes this explosion of seemingly uncontrolled high-rise development, I often wonder whether the architects involved take pride in what they’re doing. Do they really believe they’ve added something positive to the city? If not, then is there any sense of shame or embarrassment at what they’ve done? We forget at our peril the lingering resentment and disrepute that architects incurred (sometimes misdirected) for often poorly conceived high-rise housing in the 60s and 70s.
Obviously not all tall buildings are bad architecture. Taken individually a high-rise can sometimes be a beautiful object in itself, although this doesn’t necessarily make it good architecture either. I suspect most architects share the view that tall buildings have their place but recognise that context is everything. Done well, they can become familiar and loved way-finders or civic symbols. In the context of a certifiably high-rise city such as New York a skyscraper can simply be part of the warp and weft of a cityscape. But what is happening to London doesn’t seem to fall into this category. Mostly because it isn’t historically a high-rise city. The qualities that made it distinct are being destroyed as tall buildings proliferate. And I fear that the generally poor quality of London’s new skyscrapers does not compensate us for what we are losing.
I often wonder whether the architects involved really take pride in what they’re doing
So why do we do it? As a salaried architect, helping to implement someone else’s investment vehicle, it’s easy to fall into the “I was only following orders” defence. As a young part II graduate, I spent a year on a London high-rise project in a highly sensitive location that I had very mixed feelings about. I accepted the job mainly because I thought it would be a great calling card for the future. But throughout my time on the project I had a nagging feeling that what we were working on wasn’t right for the site or wider context. In the end, the scheme was never built, giving way to a mid-rise replacement that is mediocre but at least doesn’t go completely against the grain of the city. Part of me is rather relieved.
Perhaps architects should be more willing to walk away from clients and jobs where they feel the building is doing more harm than good. Maybe I should have turned down the offer to work on a project I wasn’t that sure about. In reality, though, there was rent to be paid and student loans looming. And for the practices themselves, the need to earn fees and cover costs are overriding imperatives. Plus, any self-respecting architect always believes that they can make a better fist of a tricky brief than the competition.
Maybe it’s unfair to expect architects to take full responsibility for the wrecking of London. Developers, politicians, and the seeming indifference of the public are all surely as much to blame. But if architects aren’t also custodians of the built environment, what are we? Why do so many British architects seem to have been reduced to acting as the servile agents of capitalism, regardless of its impact on the city they all claim to cherish?
Whether we like it or not, architects will be blamed for the damage being inflicted on London, and other British cities. And at some level we do share collective responsibility, even if it’s just through our failure to have lobbied effectively for coherent planning policies on high-rises. The profession is complicit in what is happening and will be judged for it and standing by mutely in silent disapproval will not save us from the opprobrium of future generations.