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CABE: aim for the sky - but look to the past

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In the run-up to the London Bridge Tower inquiry, CABE and English Heritage are publishing their joint Guidance on tall buildings . Peter Stewart explores the issue

What goes around comes around. In 1894, an American property journal questioned whether in 100 years, skyscrapers (which had then got up to about 20 floors) would have come to be seen as the crude expression of an ostentatious art .

In 2002, English Heritages (EH) pronouncement that Renzo Pianos London Bridge Tower - aka shard of glass - would put a spike through the heart of historic London was a bowdlerised version of the San Francisco gets the shaft protests of the 1960s against the similarly shaped Transamerica Building. It is pretty clear, then, that after 100 years of skyscrapers there is still no sign of consensus.

The consultation on CABE and EH s joint guidance was certainly evidence of this. There were replies from private individuals with an interest in the subject, and organisations in the property, planning and conservation fields. Responses ranged from the wellargued to the intemperate. Both extremes were represented from why are you promoting the destruction of our historic cities with these monstrosities? to why are unelected quangos obstructing the regeneration of our cities by opposing these beacons of progress? (I paraphrase). Most responses from each sector were, however, broadly in favour of the line taken by the guidance, which argues that such buildings, already a part of our cities, can have a positive role if carefully considered, appropriately located and well designed.

Unlike the cathedrals and town halls that were the tallest structures before the industrial revolution, tall buildings today usually contain humdrum private uses - offices or flats. The only difference between tall buildings and other buildings is their height. But more people see them, more of the time, than other buildings, and so they assume a public aspect. This is why there is a legitimate public interest in submitting them to the closest of scrutiny when they are proposed.

CABE and EH can be expected to continue to maintain a firm interest in the subject and demand the highest standards.

The following principles for tall buildings were proposed by Sir Hugh Casson in 1962:

all high buildings (over 30m in London and the bigger cities and over 18m in small towns) demand, and should be given, particular attention at town planning stage;

certain zones could be designated as nationally

RECENT HEADLINE-GRABBING EVENTS IN THE HISTORY OF TALL BUILDINGS

Public inquiry results in go-ahead for the KPF-designed Heron Tower in Bishopsgate, London (July 2002).

Renzo Piano's London Bridge Tower is called in for a public inquiry (July 2002), which will begin next month.

The draft London Plan promotes a role for tall buildings in the capital and proposes a review of protected views (June 2002).

A parliamentary select committee concludes that tall buildings are not essential for urban renaissance, but sees no reason to oppose them in principle (September 2002).

The full consequences of the destruction of the World Trade Center are still unclear, but proposals for tall buildings in the UK continue to come forward.

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