Not even the recent fire at the Torch skyscraper in Dubai can dent the enthusiasm of the Mayor’s office, the boroughs, developers and buyers for lofty buildings.
This represents a remarkable volte-face from the days when only council blocks were high-rise, and blamed for breaking up communities, spreading loneliness, causing crime and stranding elderly residents on high floors when the lifts broke. Now, it seems, everyone wants a high-rise flat to live in, or more probably, to invest in.
The most high-profile critic of high-rise has been Prince Charles, who last year called for an end to the spread of towers and a return to “human-scaled streets, squares and parks”, plus mid-height buildings the size of mansion blocks. His intervention was dismissed by Boris Johnson as “crazy”.
Harder to dismiss is Simon Jenkins, the columnist and former Evening Standard editor, who claims that each new tower is a “blight” on the historic character and community spirit of London. Jenkins reserves particular ire for the high-rise development of the Royal Mail’s Mount Pleasant site, approved by the Mayor in the face of opposition from Islington and Camden Councils, and in spite of a low-rise option proposed by Create Streets.
But there are other surprising and potent voices against the spread of high-rise. Peter Rees, former chief planner of the City of London, and now Professor of Places and City Planning at UCL, thought the buildings he had overseen in the Square Mile, such as the Gherkin, the Cheese Grater, the Heron and the Walkie-Talkie, were wonderful. He claimed that tall buildings were best kept in commercial clusters where — as in Hong Kong or Manhattan — space is limited and demand is high.
Rees poured scorn on luxury residential developments where flats are bought as investments. He foresees them causing a new sort of loneliness — a ghost town of empty lock-and-leave properties. He is currently living in the Heron Tower and tried to organise a residents’ committee, but found that 25 per cent of the Heron’s flat owners hadn’t picked up their keys 12 months after buying.
There was no need for an extension of the Northern Line to the buildings springing up around Battersea Power Station. He added that a single-decker bus could easily accommodate all the people ever likely to live in them. And Mary Jane Rooney, director of Architecture at London South Bank University, says that poor planning and governance is leading to a “pepperpotting” of substandard skyscrapers across London.
“Don’t just leave the skyline to the market,” she said.
Meeting the housing demand
London needs densified housing, particularly if its population rises from its current record high of 8.3 million to an anticipated 10 million by 2030.
Density can be achieved without building high: architect Richard Rogers has spoken of this, and Sir Terry Farrell’s plan to redevelop the vast site around Earls Court Exhibition Centre for developer Capco is mostly the same height as the mansion block, the unit of scale favoured by Prince Charles.
But many interested parties, even those charged with protecting the past and future quality of the cityscape, believe high buildings must inevitably be part of it. We need to develop the capital more densely.
“This means building high-rise as well as lower rise homes,” says Peter Murray, chairman of New London Architecture. “London is a city of great variety — let’s keep it that way, and have areas of towers with the sort of vibrant street life and amenities that high-density can deliver — a touch of Manhattan; and let’s have streets with medium-rise buildings that provide high-density homes like Paris or Barcelona.”
Jane Duncan, president-elect of RIBA, says: “Great tall buildings capture the imagination, interest and affection of architects and the public equally.”
Nigel Barker, English Heritage Planning and Conservation Director for London, says: “When advising on whether a proposed tall building is acceptable, English Heritage considers if it is in the right location and is of excellent design quality. We are not against all tall buildings, we did not object to the Gherkin or 100 Bishopsgate. Some tall buildings that contribute positively to the identity of London are now listed, for example the BT Tower.”
Champions of tall buildings claim they can give an area identity and even improve the public realm.
Although the issue of privately-owned, but notionally public, space is a vexed one, both the Walkie-Talkie and the Cheese Grater have provided more accessible and pleasing areas at their bases (and at the top of the former) than were there before.
Graham Stirk, of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, says: “The opportunity to build tall, as with the Leadenhall Building, brings with it the possibility to create grand, 21st century public spaces that could not be achieved with low-rise developments, in the financial context of the City of London.”
Glenn Howells, whose practice is building new towers of 50 and 55 storeys at Arrowhead Quay in Canary Wharf, as well as projects at the Royal Docks and the mouth of the River Lea, says: “Increasingly, cities are being defined by taller buildings. Land values are driving density. Excellent residential tall buildings can be part of the tapestry of a city’s identity.”