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A whole tower of trouble in the shadow of Tate Modern

Despite ticking all the right boxes, the Tate Tower scheme in London will go to inquiry next week. Is it the victim of a 'planning lottery' and emotional opposition, or is it really a 'gross over-development', asks David Taylor

A planning inquiry begins next week into a residential tower proposed to sit on a site on the bank of the Thames near Tate Modern.

The scheme, called 44 Hopton Street but nicknamed Tate Tower (to the chagrin of museum director Sir Nicholas Serota), has, according to architect Philip Gumuchdjian, ticked all the right boxes. It is 'sustainable'; it gives something to the public domain (£485,000 of improvements, including a new community garden); it casts little shadow, interrupts no real views; and it adds quality architecture to an area already transformed in the past 10 years by key architectural projects - first the Globe, then Piers Gough's Bankside Lofts scheme for the Manhattan Loft Corporation, and latterly Tate Modern and Foster's Millennium Bridge.

There is more. It has had universal support from the statutory authorities with which it consulted, among them government design watchdogs CABE and English Heritage, the Greater London Authority, the Corporation of London, Lambeth, the Environmental Agency and Southwark's own planning officials. It has been the result of a long process of careful and expensive consultation with those initially sceptical planners and others, with the result that an earlier application for a 32-storey, 119m tower was withdrawn in favour of the 20-storey, 63m tall building at issue today.

And all along the developer persisted with the proposal rather than cynically chopping it into 14 housing units to get away with providing no social housing, because it believed in the design and was confident its qualities would shine through, especially with so much backing. But it was wrong.

London Town director of development Peter Harris believes he is in the inquiry situation because of the 'lottery' of a planning committee meeting on 16 October 2002, which saw local councillors vote seven to one against the proposal, based purely on what he terms 'emotional' rather than judicial reasons, or those informed by extra technical knowledge. Harris doubts even that the councillors concerned read the welter of technical documentation that came with the project (though this is difficult to prove). If they had, they would have seen, for example, how it would provide much-needed retail and other amenities at its base in an underprovided area, and how issues such as downdraft effects and rights of light are adequately dealt with.

True, there were considerable objections - 144 from 130 properties and 56 via a circular, with more from the Bankside Residents for Appropriate Development (BROAD). And though the developers believed that through consultation they had won over Serota and Peter Wilson from the Tate, two weeks before the planning committee hearing they sent, via Drivas Jonas, their own objections. It is worth looking at these and those of the residents.

The Tate complained that 44 Hopton Street would have 'a negative impact on the street environment and surrounding area as a result of height and massing of the building'. It felt, too, that there would be a loss of 'orienting' views from Blackfriars Bridge and an overshadowing of the street it is proposed for, as well as Hopton Square and the forecourt of the Tate. The museum claimed it would detract from the Tate's own consented plans for landscaping of its western forecourt, including a canopy over a new cafe area, and also that a 20-storey building would have a detrimental effect on the Tate and conflict with the Bankside Urban Study prepared by Richard Rogers (Gumuchdjian's former colleague at RRP and now London mayor Ken Livingstone's architectural adviser). Finally, it would create 'an oppressive precinct-style environment' and 'gross over-development', conflicting with Southwark's UDP policies and Regional Planning Guidance relating to the Thames.

Moreover, Serota said it would be like 'building a tower block in the forecourt of the British Museum'. 'The public invested £135 million in the creation of the gallery, ' he said. 'A very tall building so close to its main entrance will inevitably diminish the quality and value of the space for millions of visitors.'

Poppycock, say the defendants of the scheme. First, on massing, it is worth noting that four of the proposed buildings would fit inside the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern - even the Anish Kapoor sculpture is bigger. It is also one-tenth of the size of the 'shard of glass', the Renzo Piano tower approved by Southwark, now subject to a public inquiry taking place just behind Tate Modern.

After extensive work with the architects and developers on the proposal, the planners declared that it passed on the views issue, falling outside view corridors, formed a 'localised cluster of tall buildings', was 'appropriate' and, since it was lower than the Tate's 99m tall chimney, 'will not compete'.

Furthermore, it found it 'would be a quality building of significant architectural merit' with contemporary materials, a view echoed by English Heritage and CABE. Investigations into the impact on amenities of surrounding residents also pass various pieces of BRE guidance. EH historic buildings inspector Malcolm Woods said it passed all local, regional and national policies, and that, so long as the developers did enough on Section 106 agreements and the original architects (Kevin Dash Architects and Gumuchdjian Associates) see the project through, they had no problem with it.

So what of the residents' own views? Again, their objections - on the grounds of traffic generation, height, size and location, the 'wind-tunnel effect', and loss of privacy and sunlight - are all investigated and dealt with by the planners. In particular, their concern over whether the building is 'viable' causes more angst for Harris. 'That's not a material planning consideration, ' he says, though he admits that share prices have plummeted at his public company.

Harris believes his firm is doing everything it can as a developer committed to good design. It could, of course, have simply cut back the building from 28 to 14 units, taking it below the threshold for providing a high proportion of affordable housing (15 units and above), or dumped the architects. That easy route, to go low and fat, might even have been a more profitable enterprise, he claims.

As it turned out, after Livingstone threatened that he might order refusal, London Town and its architects chose to lift the proportion of affordable housing to 35 per cent - short of the 50 per cent the mayor wants to see, but better than the 25 per cent originally proposed (which was anyway in keeping with UDP policy). Livingstone has relented.

The developers want to make money on the scheme, of course. They bought the site, an old paper mill, for £7.65 million and put build costs at around £18 million. But London Town announced £3 million losses for last year, more than £2 million of which Harris ascribes to the costs of the delays. And he reports that there are wider issues: the institutional investor funds he works with - companies such as Xerox and General Motors - are becoming less likely to get involved with urban regeneration because of the lack of 'clarity' in the planning system.

This comes at a time when the government is preaching about the need to build quality housing stock, and when Harris's company is trying to pioneer residential in this area.

It is Gumuchdjian's view that the consultation process was helpful. But he feels that, having negotiated almost every hurdle successfully, the councillors were 'overawed by vociferous residents' and 'influential neighbours'. Getting stuck with that extra layer of 'confusion' is the 'tragedy', he says, and there is clearly a 'hiccup' in the system. Is, he asks, the recommendation to the next client to go straight to appeal? Can a reasonably small building afford to do that?

Harris believes that the scheme has been thwarted thus far only by 'internal, political problems' and local objectors overriding a national need for homes, including affordable housing. That need, he argues, might be boosted by a proposal that is mixed-use, 'sustainable', high quality and (reasonably) high density, on a brownfield site. As they claim, all the right boxes.

The inquiry, which will feature the Tate's urbanist, Jan Gehl, presenting a report on his beliefs about overshadowing, begins next week, on 13 May. But perhaps it should not be taking place at all.

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