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Ground Control: Ellis Woodman looks at how London's towers meet the street

Can any of London’s recent towers claim to be models of how to introduce a tall building onto a street? asks Ellis Woodman. Photography by David Butler

As Londoners come to terms with the impending construction of more than 200 tall buildings across the capital, it is the impact of so much minimally co-ordinated development on the skyline that is proving the principal source of concern. And yet the change to the experience of the city at pavement level is set to be no less dramatic and, potentially, every bit as damaging.

London is not without compelling examples of how towers can be integrated into significantly lower fabric. Alison and Peter Smithson’s Economist Buildings of 1964, for example, comprise an ensemble of three Portland stone-clad towers of varying height, deftly sited on a podium that maintains a reading of the encompassing streets. The project was designed in accordance with the 5:1 plot ratio that then governed the scale of development across much of central London. To build high therefore necessitated a concomitant provision of public space - a requirement that the Smithsons fulfilled through the creation of a plaza at podium level.

Do any of London’s recent towers achieve such a reciprocity between their height and their contribution to the public realm? Can any be claimed as models of how to introduce a tall building on a street? Do any convincingly negotiate their encounter with the ground? With these questions in mind, I headed off to five recent additions to London’s stock of tall buildings to give them an up-close assessment.

30 St Mary Axe by Foster + Partners (2004)

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Foster + Partners has always placed great store in the value of formal consistency, and few projects exemplify the strengths and weaknesses of that inclination better than the Gherkin. On London’s skyline, the 41-storey building appears as an object of soap-bubble perfection: its expression the product of one unifying geometric idea. Encounter it at ground level, however, and you might wonder at the urban compatibility of such a dogged adherence to a single concept.

The building occupies the middle of its plot, the encompassing ground serving as a granite-faced plaza. It is an attractive space, but its impact on the legibility of Bury Street to the east is particularly questionable. This is the site of Holland House (1916), Hendrik Berlage’s sole building in Britain and a seminal work in the development of the steel-framed office. Its delicate elevation of terracotta-faced mullions was designed to be viewed tangentially, but the plaza now affords an unwelcome head-on view.

The Gherkin’s meeting with the ground also invites doubts. Stripped of its glass cladding, the diagrid structure extends to the paving, forming a monumental covered entrance: a gesture that signals the front door effectively while honouring the governing logic of the building. However, the cladding of the diagrid in aluminium panels represents a disappointingly weedy expression of this crucial junction, while the provision of handrails to stop you banging your head on the diagonal struts only accentuates the air of pathos.

Strata SE1 by BFLS (2010)

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Still to be absorbed into the cluster of towers planned for Elephant and Castle, Strata is a startlingly conspicuous presence on the city’s skyline, its non-functioning wind turbines a constant feature of views from miles around. At ground level, however, the building enjoys nothing like so expansive a relationship with the city. It is wedged between an elevated railway and Draper House, a 25-storey council block which was once the tallest residential building in London, but now appears positively dainty when seen alongside its 43-storey neighbour.

The development includes a four-storey block, decked out in the same livery of black and white stripes as the tower, and the two buildings have been sited to frame a space that is nominally a square. Permanently overshadowed, assaulted by traffic noise and littered with desultory granite planters stuffed with box hedging, the result is not a success. Four years on from the project’s completion, neither of the retail units accommodated in the ground floor of the tower has been let.

Broadgate Tower by SOM (2009)

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Its role in James Bond’s last cinematic outing, Skyfall, hardly suggests that this office and retail development on the City of London’s northern fringe is a project that enjoys much connection with the character of the capital’s architecture: the film uses it as a stand-in for Shanghai. And yet in its accommodation of some exceptionally complex site conditions - including viewing corridors above and a railway line cutting below - this is in many respects a quintessential London scheme. As well as the 164m tower, it incorporates a lower, street-facing building by the same architect creating a covered arcade between the two.

SOM’s description of this space as ‘a modern Leadenhall Market’ is overstated, but it provides an attractive spill-out area for cafés and wine bars, and has been lent an undeniable drama through the introduction of a series of epically-scaled diagonal props, required to spread the load of the tower between both sides of the below-deck railway cutting.

If there is a criticism, it is that the far end of the space makes a distinctly perfunctory connection to the city to the north. The considerable level drop to the pavement doesn’t help, and neither does the fact that the plot across the street has yet to be developed. When it is, it is to be hoped that a more fluid connection can be forged.

Saxon Court and Roseberry Mansions by Maccreanor Lavington (2013)

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Rising to 16 storeys, this residential development at the north end of the King’s Cross Central site ranks at the lower end of what we might consider a tall building, but embodies valuable lessons that might be applied to projects of still greater height.

Representing a type that enjoyed extensive use in New York and Chicago at the turn of the last century, and which Hans Kollhoff has more recently employed for a number of projects in Berlin, the scheme’s tallest element comprises a tower that emerges from a lower eight-storey block. This hybrid arrangement ensures that the street maintains a scale that is recognisably that of London, while the use of brick builds on the city’s predominant materiality. Precast concrete reveals at ground level articulate a base condition and introduce a note of ornament which finds further expression in the Gio Ponti-inspired lining to the covered entrance.

To the south and west, lower blocks frame a garden and play area providing the development with an intimately scaled social hub. As a lesson in how to build tall while making believable spaces that acknowledge the character of London, it is sadly all too unusual. 

The Shard by Renzo Piano Building Workshop (2012)

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The argument that tall buildings should be sited at points of transport interchange has been nowhere more forcibly pursued than at London Bridge. Renzo Piano’s 87-storey leviathan rises directly alongside London Bridge Station and has made a significant contribution to the cost of its long-deferred redevelopment. The building has yet to be fully let, so it remains to be seen how the station will cope with the daily influx and exodus of 12,000 office workers from Piano’s vertical city.

There is certainly an argument that our transport network would be less heavily taxed by a more dispersed distribution of tall buildings. What is already clear, however, is that the ground level of the Shard is altogether its least convincing. As it crashes into St Thomas Street, its crystalline form suddenly gives way to a gaunt expanse of unrelieved brickwork, making precious little contribution to the horizontal city in which the rest of us find ourselves living.

Ellis Woodman is The Daily Telegraph’s architecture critic

Readers' comments (1)

  • Again an uneducated assault on Strata without investigating the facts, PICK UP THE PHONE and ask the managing agents why the turbines don't go around its an EASY thing to do and has a straight forward answer, again you have neglected to do this. Of course its 'wedged' between the viaduct and Draper House as its foot print is tiny and it fills its site as effectively as possible. Your comment regarding 'permanently overshadowed' is irrelevant, all towers are in their own shadow part of the day, as Strata faces north to the city the open area receives sunlight from the south. which is as to be expected and not a negative in an urban environment. OF COURSE ITS ASSAULTED BY TRAFFIC NOISE! its next to the elephant and castle roundabouts, its not in rural countryside, get a grip man! The planters form seating areas, you have very little long term memory, if you did you would remember what this area was like before. it had the highest crime rate for drug dealing in the UK, by taking out the nooks and crannies and making the area open the crime rates have dropped massively. You need to seriously do some investigation and research before you write your editorials!

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