The AJ/Observer's Skyline Campaign is not anti-skyscrapers
Sign up to our Skyline Campaign and help raise the bar in the design of high-rise architecture, says Rory Olcayto
This week we launch Skyline, a joint campaign with the Observer calling for better standards in the design and delivery of London’s tall buildings. Coincidentally it comes just days after Prince Charles denounced London’s ‘faceless’ towers and called for more high-density mansion blocks to counter the capital’s housing crisis. Yet, despite the creditable nature of his foundation’s 62-page report Housing London: A Mid-Rise Solution, it is important to distinguish between the Royal stance and ours.
Firstly, Skyline is emphatically not against the building of skyscrapers. Far from it. We don’t want to see opportunities fall away. We just want the design of tall buildings to emerge from a plan: a holistic, thoughtful plan that ensures high-quality architecture but also gives something back to the townscape that tall buildings by their nature, cannot help but dominate.
We understand too, that many of the hundreds of tall buildings planned for London are of reasonable and, in some cases, exceptional quality. Yet we firmly believe such projects have emerged despite the current rules and because architects have learned to negotiate the pitfalls and jump cleanly through the hoops. But this shouldn’t be the way tall buildings are planned and designed.
Neither is Skyline anti-development: of course tall buildings have a role to play in London’s sustainable growth. Yet it must by now be abundantly clear that a huge number – 191 – of the 236 proposed tall buildings that are designated for residential use are a side-effect of London’s hyper-inflated housing bubble. With land prices spiralling upwards, so too are the developments planned for them. And, with London’s reputation as a bricks-and-mortar bank for the wealthy global elite much of what we are building is aimed at servicing this money-spinning scam.
Already we have the support of many of the profession’s leading lights: David Chipperfield, Adam Caruso, Peter St John, David Adjaye, Kevin McCloud, former RIBA president Angela Brady, current RIBA president Stephen Hodder: the list goes on. Clearly our campaign has struck a chord. Skyline then, is as much about architects rediscovering their lost role as civic leaders as it is about raising the bar in terms of design. The taller you build, the more you must give back. How can you argue with that? As David Chipperfield said when he signed up to Skyline: ‘Backing the campaign is like voting for good weather.’ Here’s to sunny days.
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Skyline also coincides with the Farrell Review, an impressive survey of the built environment and the role architects can play in shaping it for the better. Sir Terry has usurped Richard Rogers as the politicians’ go-to guy for all matters urban in this so-called new Age of Austerity, and it is not hard to understand why: he’s good at proposing cut-price solutions (remember his aviation strategy for London, which saw existing airports linked up with new rail routes, instead of a Foster-style mega-hub?). So his suggestion to use the ecosystem we already have – the talent, for example (too often used on keynote projects but rarely housing) is a winner. Interesting, too, is his emphasis on ‘place’, which is obviously a legacy of CABE’s decade of cheerleading this very idea. It is here where his report dovetails with Skyline, which in essence is all about making better places. Farrell’s other focus on interdisciplinary thinking is another strong point of the review. Shame, then, that, despite his call for the industry to pull together, a spokesman for UK Contractor Group, when asked to comment on Farrell’s findings, said: ‘We have had a proper look and there is nothing here that we would comment on.’ But then, contractors are conspicuous in their absence from Farrell’s circle of report advisers.