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Hitting the heights on design strategies

Tall buildings are as controversial as ever. In the run-up to May's AJ-backed conference on the issue, 'Tall storeys', we look at how their design quality should be assessed

Towers are back in fashion with developers and architects - whether they will find the same favour with local authorities and the government is less clear. Last week supporters of the tower form were disconcerted when John Prescott decided to call in for public inquiry the Heron Tower in the City of London (AJ 1.3.01, pictured above).

No doubt there will be similar debate in respect to the London Bridge Tower, being designed by Renzo Piano, which would be the capital's tallest tower, and which would inevitably have an impact on the panorama of London seen from the north.We await final designs for this project, and for another City of London proposal being designed by the Chicago tower-meister, Helmut Jahn. The City Corporation and Southwark Council are both broadly supportive of tower applications that conform with their own local requirements: the Greater London Authority, in the form of the mayor, Ken Livingstone, is also a supporter of tall buildings, provided they are evidence of world-class architecture, whatever precisely that may mean. In the case of the London Bridge Tower, it meant bringing in Piano as lead architect with Broadway Malyan continuing to provide local input.

There is one significant exception to a general local authority welcome for towers in central London: Westminster. Itself the location for many high-rise blocks, the council now has an aversion to height. Its study of potential locations for tower buildings, drawn up by EDAW, showed a significant opportunity for tall buildings in the Paddington area of London. The first test of whether that potential might be realised came to a grinding halt: the council's planning committee gave a decisive thumbs-down to proposals from Chelsfield, the developer, and Railtrack, designed by Richard Rogers Partnership and Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners respectively. Back to the drawing board.

London is not alone as a location where tower schemes are becoming commonplace; Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds all have significant applications under consideration, and in all instances, planning officers and their committees are getting to grips with fundamental questions about what contributes to the quality or otherwise of this particular building form.

While the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and English Heritage may differ over the particular case of the Heron Tower, relationships between the two bodies are cordial, not least because there are many points of agreement in respect of the appropriate criteria for assessing the design quality of towers, and indeed other buildings. The two bodies have been working on a joint consultation paper on this subject, which it is hoped will be published before the summer, and which may assist both applicants and planning authorities in their considerations.

There are some aspects of tower design on which CABE, EH and the GLA were able to find common cause in discussions which took place last year. For example, all three bodies would find it difficult to support towers located far from significant public transport facilities; anything located near trains, buses and underground systems at least has a chance of making it to first base. Another common view was the importance of the ground plane: a tower should not be an isolated fortress, but a structure that contributes to the public realm in a positive way, both in terms of permeability and its uses or facilities. And, of course, both the base and the top of the tower should show evidence of high-quality design thinking.

As to what constitutes 'tall', it is a truism but it is all relative. A 12storey building in a two-storey environment is tall; in the City of London it would not be notable. But in either case, there are general planning requirements which treat all buildings as sui generis.For example, planning policy guidance notes 1, 13 and 15 would almost certainly be relevant, dealing as they do with general policy and principles, transport, and the historic environment. Housing proposals would be guided by PPG3, and so on. Local planning policies would apply as appropriate, for example in relation to topography in Birmingham, where there is a view about the appropriateness of development in relation to valleys and ridges. Policies on density apply to high buildings, though it should be noted that 'groundscrapers' can be equally dense.

There are particular criteria that designers would be well advised to take into account, however, in addition to those discussed above. Among them are the effect on context; open spaces, conservation areas and listed buildings; internal and external public spaces; permeability of the wider area; the effect on the local environment in terms of microclimate, overshadowing, vehicle movements and noise; and last but never least, sustainability.

A final point: any applicant proposing significant tall buildings should expect to be asked for photo-realist montages, to take the guesswork out of the effect of the proposal on its surroundings. Presentations should be as sophisticated as the products being proposed and CABE will do all we can to prevent 'dumbing down' of good designs once permission has been approved.

Paul Finch is publishing director of the AJ, and deputy chair of CABE, where he also chairs the design review committee

TALL ORDER: PUT IT IN YOUR DIARY London mayor Ken Livingstone, Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers will be among the speakers at a one-day AJ conference on the design of tall buildings, taking place at the RIBA on Tuesday 15 May.

Other speakers will include Paul Morrell of DLE, Ken Shuttleworth of Foster & Partners, and Lee Polisano of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates. Panellists will include CABE chief executive Jon Rouse, and English Heritage head of London Region Philip Davies.

The ticket price is £250 plus VAT (£225 plus VAT for AJ subscribers). See the advertisement in this week's issue, or reserve a ticket by calling Martin Davies on 020 7505 6613.

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