London's vertical towers are creating their own landscape, bringing a sense of modernity and financial dynamism. The growing popularity of high-rise homes has a lot to do with what they bring to the buyer — the expectation of portered, secure space where maintenance is taken care of by someone else, and busy lives catered for by a phone call to the reception desk. Increasingly, it’s a lifestyle affordable not just to the rich, but also to professionals on middle-income salaries all over the capital.
More than 100 residential towers in London are either under construction or have planning consent, says a report launched this week. Soaring land values — up 20.3 per cent during the last year — and population demands have prompted a high-rise revival by developers who know that in a nervous economic climate a skyscraper is a machine for making land pay. But this time around they are hedging their bets and going for the mantra of mixed use. The better the mix of functions, the better the spread of the risk. If the offices and shops aren’t letting, then the apartments are being bought or rented — and it all means income.
The upsurge in planned construction is being driven by the Government’s 2016 deadline for all residential developments to be carbon-neutral.
“This is London’s decade of towers,” says Stephen Miles-Brown, director of property consultant Knight Frank, which has published the Tall Towers report. “There is a pressing need for more efficient use of land, and reaching for the sky can be the best housing solution.”
Towers lost their popularity after a backlash against the council-built concrete block disasters of the Sixties and Seventies. But council tower blocks had lost the plot. The European model of postwar towers were never meant for the low-income groups. And when they were built in the UK on a low budget, all their architectural “goodness” had been stripped away. What the people got was not pleasant.
Today’s towers are designed for luxury living, and architects now acknowledge their responsibility for the prominence of their creations, as well as the quality of the design. While giving the buyer a good view, the architect must also give the citizen a feel-good factor.
Funding still a problem
But not all approved towers are guaranteed to be built. Developers are struggling to obtain bank funding. Currently, 25 residential towers with more than 20 storeys are under way. These include The Heron, The Tower at One St George Wharf, Altitude and Manhattan Loft Gardens at the Olympic Park Stratford.
Ten vast apartments at the 72-storey Shard of Glass, London’s most potent high-rise symbol to date and Europe’s tallest building, are expected to be released early next year. They are set to create a fresh price record for high-rise living in the capital, at up to £50 million each.
Reach for the sky
While skyscraper critics, including a powerful heritage lobby, regard towers as eyesores and vanity projects, planners continue to embrace them. They favour clusters of towers such as those envisaged at Elephant & Castle, Nine Elms, Battersea and Greenwich. The rationale is that clusters are more aesthetically pleasing than a tower in isolation, and they help areas become thriving zones.
“Tall towers work: they allow many thousands more people to live and be employed in the central zones near major transport hubs, and they have tremendous power to regenerate the area around them,” says Chris Brett of planning and design consultancy Barton Willmore.
Towers are also sprouting up outside the central commercial districts, in locations such as Lewisham, Hackney, Brentford and Ealing.
The Mayor’s London Plan sets out clear criteria for assessing tall buildings: they must relate well to the existing urban grain, especially at ground level, and achieve high standards of ecology, design and construction. Public-access viewing galleries and amenities such as restaurants are also encouraged, though the requirement for on-site affordable housing is being relaxed.
Southwark council is allowing developers to build schemes of entirely private flats at two towers on the SE1 waterfront: One Blackfriars (50 storeys, with 274 apartments) and 173-apartment King’s Reach Tower, a former office block being converted to residential.
Tower supporters say high-rise homes are crucial because of London’s demographic shifts. The drift to the suburbs has slowed and the capital’s population is predicted to swell by 10 per cent by 2031. In particular, high-rise living appeals to London’s burgeoning number of singletons and childless couples, whereas families shun towers.
Height of fashion
Several skyscrapers are scheduled for completion next year, when others will be starting to make their mark on the horizon. The Tower, One St George Wharf, is a cylindrical-shaped, 49-storey skyscraper of 223 private flats overlooking the Thames at Vauxhall. Prices up to £3.78 million. Comfort-cooled apartments have Bulthaup kitchens, marble-lined bathrooms and an AV system that dims lights, controls the heating, plays music and movies. The development will be run along the lines of a luxury hotel. Completion is due in 2014. Call 020 7042 7700.
Altitude in Alie Street, E1, is a 27-storey tower with 235 flats due for completion in 2014. Prices from £432,000. Call Barratt on 0844 8114334.
One Commercial Street, a 21-storey tower with 137 apartments, is being built above Aldgate East Tube station. Prices from £465,000. Call DTZ on 020 3296 4043. Ontario Point, Maple Quays, Canada Water, is a 24-storey tower with 144 apartments. Prices from £318,000. Call 0844 8114334. The Heron, on Silk Street, in the City, is a 36-storey black-glass and stainless-steel skyscraper with 284 apartments plus a roof garden and private club for residents. Prices from £525,000. Call 0845 533 8000.
Manhattan Loft Gardens in Stratford, designed by renowned global architects SOM, is said to equal the best of the 2012 Olympics structures, such as Zaha Hadid’s fabulous aquatics centre. It has 248 apartments, while sky gardens carved from the 42-storey building’s form are a modern take on traditional garden squares. A show flat is open for viewing. Prices start at £350,000, and homes are available to buy now, off-plan, with completion due in 2016. Visit manhattanloftgardens.co.uk or call 020 8534 3318.
Baltimore Wharf, on the Isle of Dogs, includes duplex penthouses — dramatic double-height spaces with spectacular Thames views and the glittering Canary Wharf skyline. Prices from £1.17 million. Call Ballymore on 020 7517 8800.
Like the Gherkin, the Helter Skelter and the Walkie Talkie before it, the so-called Cucumber skyscraper at Paddington Basin takes its name from its iconic shape. One Merchant Square, its official name, will rise to 42 storeys and has the distinction of being the only new tall building in Westminster council’s development plan.
It will incorporate a deluxe hotel on the lower floors and be crowned by a glamorous sky bar, with 360-degree views. Apartments will have inset balconies, designed to maintain the elegant architectural lines. The tower marks the final phase of regeneration at the west London waterside complex. Call developer European Land on 020 7993 7393.
The pull of the penthouse
For space, drama and far-reaching views, the only way is up. A penthouse with commanding views of the city’s landmarks is perhaps the ultimate London lair.
Why do people want to live in a penthouse? Hubris, hedonism, machismo? All perhaps apply, says Ed Meads of estate agent Douglas & Gordon.“It is about control, being aloof, on top of everyone else. A penthouse is also a badge of success and a great place to show off.”
Buyers are usually single men, single women or couples. And rarely are penthouses bought “off-plan”. Buyers want fully “dressed” rather than naked penthouses, with bespoke interior design and, at the top end, commissioned artworks.
For developers, the penthouse represents the highest risk and the greatest profit. Risky because so much of the value of each development is tied up in the penthouse units. But the satisfaction is that they come to the market last and the price brings pure profit.
Arguably the most spectacular penthouses are in new, glass-clad riverbank towers, which offer sweeping 180-360-degree views along the winding Thames, big colour-changing skies and shimmering reflections off the water. South-of-the-river skyscraper penthouses have particularly splendid views (plus the northern light favoured by artists).
Posh people often spurn these new-era locations and stick to the safe prestige of a traditional address. But for a younger breed of entrepreneurs and celebrities, fashion, theatre and media executives, places such as Bankside, Bermondsey and Vauxhall are top of the list.