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High principles

London can't turn its back on tall buildings, but will the support of Mayor Ken Livingstone be enough to ensure that the capital maintains its status as a city of contrast and counterpoise? Kenneth Powell reports on the debate from the AJ's 'Tall Storeys'

'I feel that tall buildings are very often expressive of nothing - except making money.'

A strange admission, you might think, from the architect of an office tower that, if realised, will be the tallest building not only in London but the whole of Europe.

Delivering a keynote address to the AJ's 'Tall Storeys' conference last week, however, Renzo Piano had the audience firmly on his side. The 304m-high mixed-use London Bridge Tower, with six floors of public space was, he explained, a powerful gesture towards intensifying urban life.

Cities, according to Piano, are facing a dramatic choice: explosion or implosion.

Southwark Council may well come out in favour of developer Irvine Sellar's high-profile, high-density 'shard of glass' - already significantly reduced in height - but it's anyone's guess whether it will ever be built.

'The tall building is the landmark of our age, ' wrote Ada Louise Huxtable, 'a structural marvel that breaks the traditional limits on mankind's persistent ambition to build to the heavens.'

English Heritage (EH) doesn't quite see it that way. Banned by the government from participating in a contentious debate in the election run-up, EH chief executive Pam Alexander issued a written statement, warning Londoners against being seduced by the 'Manhattan factor' and carefully slating the Hilton Hotel and Knightsbridge Barracks - rather than Centre Point or the Millbank Tower (both of which, ironically, have been listed at EH's behest) - as ugly intrusions into the London skyline.

Acting on EH advice (following a prolonged debate within its own ranks), John Prescott called in the proposed Heron Tower on Bishopsgate, although it remains unclear which irreplaceable vista is actually threatened by the project. As Lee Polisano of Kohn Pedersen Fox pointed out, the Tower is wellsited (close to a mainline railway terminal and Underground links), environmentally progressive and rather good-looking (it replaces two dire post-war structures). So why has it been called in?

Foster and Partners' Swiss Re, now under construction on the former Baltic Exchange site, has fared better. According to Foster partner Ken Shuttleworth, Swiss Re is 'the culmination of everything we've done over the past 25 years'. The Hong Kong Bank ('a series of Willis Fabers placed one on top of the other') and the Frankfurt Commerzbank, with its series of sky-gardens, marked important stages in the evolution of the 21st century eco-tower. High buildings, Shuttleworth argued, are powering innovative, low-energy services programmes just as an earlier generation of skyscrapers generated radical structural solutions.

The British have a problem with highrise buildings - not just an aesthetic problem, but one that is political and social in equal measure. Office towers are seen as symbols of commercial greed, while highrise housing is still widely associated with the underclass.

The American and Asian examples shown by Adrian Smith of SOM varied from the horrific (Shanghai's Jin Mao Tower) to the magnificent. SOM's John Hancock Tower in Chicago, completed in 1967, is one of America's great modern buildings. Its 100 storeys contain 750 apartments as well as 74,320 m ofoffice space - there is a supermarket on the 72nd floor.

The apartments in the Hancock are for the affluent, but both David Marks of Marks & Barfield and Dickon Robinson of the Peabody Trust argued that a new generation of high-rise housing could foster mixedincome communities and address the acute shortage of affordable homes in inner London.While Marks & Barfield's Skyhouse is a brilliant conception, though densely concentrated - Marks suggests the Greenwich Peninsula as a potential site - the effect of 12 or more of them could be overwhelming.

Nearly everyone, in fact, even English Heritage, agrees that tall buildings are acceptable 'in principle' - it's all a matter of where they are sited. EH backed Swiss Re, against protest from elements of the heritage lobby, and Westminster City Council commissioned EDAW to produce a high buildings study. The conclusion was that only one significant part of the borough was suitable for high-rises - the regeneration area around Paddington station. Yet Westminster councillors have already effectively quashed proposals by Rogers and Grimshaw for towers at Paddington - no new building in the area is likely to exceed 100m.

Westminster planning director Carl Powell described his council's approach as 'cautious' - the understatement of the day.

In the context of recently issued planning guidelines, which suggest that it simply does not want modern architecture at any price, Powell's stance places Westminster at odds with the development industry and with London Mayor Ken Livingstone.

Livingstone's rousing speech produced ringing applause from an audience heavily weighted towards the commercial property sector. London, Livingstone argues, can't afford to be complacent in the face of international competition. He seems to be in sympathy with elements in the City of London who want the restrictions imposed by view corridors, for example, at least significantly eased, if not scrapped.

Although declining to endorse the commercial free-for-all demanded by the Corporation's Peter Bennett, Livingstone suggested that a few more pre-emptive antidevelopment strikes of the Heron Tower variety could undermine London's financial industries.High buildings, he argued, define the identity of a world city and promote the density such cities need. Piano's 'breathtaking' tower should be built.

Livingstone has no desire for a battle with English Heritage, hence his recent 'productive' discussions with EH on the first of a series of 'clusters of interesting tall buildings' on the north-eastern edge of the City, with the former Bishopsgate goods yard as the epicentre. With his deputy, Nicky Gavron, now a member of EH's London Advisory Committee, his dialogue with the organisation will become more intense.

EH's powers in London are those once exercised by the Greater London Council - a democratically elected body, rather than a government quango. But nobody, least of all the Mayor, wants to see historic buildings and areas needlessly ravaged. None of the current proposals for towers involves the demolition of buildings of interest.

Livingstone is scornful of those - prominent among them journalist Simon Jenkins - who accuse him of seeking to turn London into Manhattan.Yet, like many on the left, he is impressed by American can-do attitudes and by the dynamic impact of inspired municipal government in many US cities (where there is no John Prescott figure to overturn local decisions).

Livingstone's support for dense, often (though not necessarily) high-rise developments close to public transport nodes is consistent with his transport policies. Livingstone's approach found support from Paul Morrell of Davis Langdon & Everest.

'Dense clusters of tall buildings located on transport interchanges are far more effective in environmental terms than any number of so-called green buildings, 'Morrell insisted.

'Tall Storeys' highlighted the differences that exist between the Mayor, the City, Westminster, English Heritage and other regulatory bodies (such as the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, also forbidden to put in an appearance at the conference) on the future look of the capital.

Rapidly emerging as a powerful supporter of new architecture, the Mayor has the power to delay projects he does not like. Can he derail traditionalist low-rise schemes and suggest that the developers opt for modernist towers instead? It also underlines the unlikely alliances that those differences are forging. Livingstone must be well aware that London's standing as a global financial centre owes a great deal to Margaret Thatcher's deregulatory legislation in the 1980s.

Livingstone himself would presumably agree with the AJ's Paul Finch, who insisted that 'London's tradition is to thrive, to prosper and to make money - it's always been a commercial city.'

Whether London finally embraces a new breed of commercial buildings depends on the outcome of an ongoing battle of wills.

The future approach of central government if Prescott is, as widely predicted, sidelined, may be crucial. Amidst plenty of evidence that tall buildings are not the most obvious route to fast profits - they are hard to finance, difficult to pre-let and don't always command the highest rents - there are plenty of developers anxious to build them.

Recession may yet see the vision of a city of towers fade. Yet the urge to build high is unlikely to diminish. London has the talent to address it memorably, with dignity and style, and to add to a rich and varied heritage that depends for effect on contrast and counterpoise rather than consistency. It cannot simply turn its back on tall buildings.

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