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Rowan Moore: London’s high-rise free-for-all

With hundreds of skyscrapers planned for London, we need new guidelines to ensure they are of high quality, says Rowan Moore

There are some things that might be counted among the useful skills and values of architects: foresight, the ability to reconcile complex and competing demands, attention to the public good, sustainable design, the ability to see things in the round. To say nothing of the pursuit of quality in detail and finish, proportion, or aesthetic judgment. It is these qualities that are lacking in the wave of towers that is hitting London and, in different forms, will hit other British cities.

The most spectacular fact unearthed by New London Architecture for their exhibition London’s Growing Up! at the Building Centre until 12 June is that more than 200 towers – that is, buildings of 20 storeys or more – are in the planning pipeline. The most shocking is that no one in authority, including the mayor and his advisers, seemed to have any idea that this was happening. One senior figure in City Hall even denied it could be possible.

The profound transformation of a great city is taking place without oversight or vision

In other words, the profound transformation of a great city is taking place without oversight or vision. The technology exists to visualise what London might be like under different scenarios of building tall, but such images do not exist. On these pages we show to a greater extent than ever before the impact of proposed towers on Thames-side locations, but even these only show part of the city and don’t include further proposals yet to be registered with planning authorities.

The average kitchen is designed with more consideration. Worse, Londoners are disenfranchised by being kept in the dark. It is impossible to have meaningful debate about what kind of future city we might want, when we can’t see what the options are. A recent poll by Ipsos Mori carried out for the NLA shows that more Londoners like towers than don’t, but that a majority believe in the importance of siting and design. Yet decisions on these are made blind.

The thoughtlessness that applies across the whole city is found at smaller scales, in the planning of specific areas, of individual buildings, and in their details. It is hard to look at the cluster emerging at Vauxhall and Nine Elms and say that there is a guiding concept or structure to them, an idea of what they might collectively create, beyond a fight of competing forms. The open spaces squeezed between them are by-products, unconsidered residues which might at best benefit from landscaping of above-basic specification.

As for individual buildings, one could take as representative examples one built, Strata SE1 at Elephant and Castle, and one unbuilt, the 31-storey student housing block near The Shard, called the Quill. Neither building takes much account of its surroundings, nor is designed in a way that could allow it to fit well into any future assembly of new buildings. Strata SE1 makes little significant contribution to public space outside, or living environments inside, and, if there is something pleasant about its variegated aluminium cladding, it escapes me. And then it has its infamous turbines on top – sops to sustainability that are rarely seen to turn. Both projects combine a poverty of ideas with aggressive, gesticulating add-ons: random cladding patterns, strange spikes, clashing colours (with the Quill), and odd forms.

Towers are part of the repertoire of modern cities and it would be absurd to ban them

There are the issues that might arise with any tall building. Towers are part of the repertoire of modern cities and it would be absurd to ban them, but they have their downsides. They tend to be inflexible and hard to adapt. They require high levels of servicing, structure and maintenance. Above a certain height it becomes harder to give homes such things as opening windows and outdoor space. After the 1960s, tower blocks went out of fashion and it became widely accepted that towers were bad places to raise families, at least without considered provision of the sort of communal spaces that you don’t see in new developments. Other urban forms, such as medium-height apartment blocks, are more efficient at achieving density. And, of course, towers are highly visible, which means exceptional care should be taken with their appearance.

At this point in the debate, someone will say that taste is subjective, and that therefore no one has a right to object to buildings they don’t like. This is not far from an argument against any form of architectural aspiration, or any attempt to plan cities. And, if you take almost any principle ever espoused by architects, projects like this fail on each count. Form follows function? No. Buildings should have human scale? No. Or integrity and coherence in form and detail? No. That they should take account of orientation, of the direction of sunlight and wind? No. That they should respond to context? No. That what matters most are the spaces formed between buildings, or that new developments should contribute to making cohesive neighbourhoods? Again,no. God is in the detail? Hardly.

Not all architects, nor the general public, will subscribe to all these ideas, but to value none of them is nihilism. All that is left is the idea of the icon: that if you make something look sufficiently unusual it will strike such awe in spectators that it will justify its existence. A straw poll of public responses to something like Strata SE1 would quickly refute this idea, and the icon is a currency that rapidly debases: if every tower is trying to look different, they cancel each other out. It is sometimes said that London needs towers to distinguish itself on the world stage. But the effect of the impending crop of towers will be the opposite. It is hard to tell them apart from similar developments in the Emirates, Mumbai, or Shengzen.

What lies behind the current situation is a failure of planning, where enfeebled local government is almost powerless in the face of globalised financial forces. In London, the planning of tall buildings is governed in some places by the strategic views of St Paul’s and the Palace of Westminster, which are precise and enforced. Outside these zones there are few rules, but a series of opinion-based decisions by local authorities, supplemented by the mayor, the communities secretary, bodies including CABE and English Heritage, and planning inquiries.

This system is only as good as the individuals involved, who can be subjected to influence, browbeating, and plain bad judgments. It has been progressively undermined by central government’s desire to be friendly to developers, and overwhelmed by the volume of proposals created by the current bubble of international investment in London residential property. While planning frameworks have been prepared for areas including Vauxhall/Nine Elms, they were never detailed or robust, and are being compromised beyond recognition by decisions now being made.

The current system is also inefficient, as the saga of Elizabeth House shows. Here the reasonable desire to intensify the area around Waterloo station met also-reasonable concerns on the effects of tall buildings on views from the Westminster World Heritage Site over the river. This issue was obvious a decade ago, and was susceptible to a clear statement of what might be acceptable, a statement which a small investment in planning and architectural intelligence could have given.

Instead the question was fudged, and several different projects have been proposed by architects of ascending prestige and critical esteem: RHWL, then Allies and Morrison, then David Chipperfield. Large amounts have been spent unproductively on professional and legal fees, on planning consultants and visualisers, during which the site has remained neglected. Finally, exhaustedly, the Chipperfield scheme has staggered through the planning and legal system to the point where it might actually be built. The waste of time, money, energy and professional skill is prodigious.

This story could be compared with the New York zoning laws of 1916, a set of well-defined rules concerned mostly with issues of daylight, which ordained the series of setbacks which shaped modern Manhattan. They gave a framework for making decisions that still operates today – among its successes is the High Line, achieved with a series of trade-offs of landowners’ rights. During the period of the laws’ existence, New York became the most dynamic city in the world, which should kill forever the idea that planning is bad for business.

As for what London might do now, one idea is the mayoral Skyline Commission, proposed by Peter Murray of New London Architecture, which would carry out CABE-like tasks of design review and enabling. Murray also proposes a publicly accessible digital model of London, where the effects of proposals can clearly be seen.

Both are welcome, but the commission will have the same weaknesses as other opinion-based bodies, of relying too much on the strength of mind of its members.

What London needs most is a clear statement of what type of development is acceptable where, and of what principles should guide it. Where there is intensive growth there should be area plans more rigorous than those in place for Vauxhall and Waterloo.

It will be objected that such regulation is not in London’s DNA; but the city has in the past proved capable of inventing the strategic views, as well as such things as building acts and clean air acts. It will also be objected that it is too late, that towers in crucial locations have already been permitted. To which the experience of recent years provides an answer: just when you think things can’t get any more extreme, they do.

  • Rowan Moore is architecture critic of The Observer and author of Why We Build

Readers' comments (3)

  • In the mori poll Strata was voted the publics 5th favourite building in London. Not sure why you don't mention this before your attack on a building which you know little about? For instance the turbines are there because under The GLA plan in force at the time there had to be 'on site renewables' providing 20%. This was the only significant building designed and constructed during the enforcement of this policy, during a massive economic recession. There is no other way to provide this statutory requirement other than turbines but poor journalists do not care to investigate this. Perhaps you should look into why the turbines are not moving rather than speculate, it's very simple and easy to find out but I will leave it up to the AJ to actually pick up a phone and ask someone, perhaps that's too difficult?

    So you think Strata should take its surroundings into account, by that you can only mean the elephant and castle shopping centre, drapers house and the heygate estate. All mostly unloved and 2 of which are being demolished. What context would you suggest is taken from the concrete roundabouts of elephant and castle? Seems to me that the whole area is on the up and the first building there to do that was Strata, it was the first there and it had to stand out and be brave, not fade into the drab context.

    It's about time critics looked at the positives strata has created and asks people who live in it what they think about it. It's probably sparked one of the best regenerations in London since docklands.

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  • Guidelines, some, are necessary, but it is evident that they don´t guarantee design excellence at all. Leave the towers for Canary Wharf and keep London as it is: a beautiful city.
    Foster and Rogers have plenty of work abroad, so plenty that I wonder if they can keep track of "their" projects.

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  • Coming from HK I think Londoners are blessed with such a culturally rich city. Having witness since the 80s - the transformation in attitude towards ethnic diversity and technology in London, I am proud to be part of it. Because London is always on the cutting edge, progressive, moving forward with a wealth of experience without losing it's identity. Constantly evolving, challenging everything! People from all cultures and places in the world make up the London population, these people have different views on what's important for them, what makes the city. In HK, buildings are closely packed together, they all look different, and public spaces are carved through a celebration of diversity, sensory constantly challenged to create memorable experiences, creating maps. Public spaces are not skin deep, nor two dimensional or measured in acres. It's created by the people who do not think in 2D (unless you are an expired architectural designer). Tiny dwelling is a matter of perception, culture and value. We are constantly being challenged in this volatile economic climate about the perception of value (money) for housing, who is to measure what is the minimum and what's value for money? Transportation, local amenity all counts towards a quality of life, something that is again not measured in m². Living in a highrise is a choice, so is living in London, that's why we embrace changes. There is a saying in Chinese "Love the house and the dark crow on it". You love it for what it is, and what it becomes. Here is one for London, please keep evolving, and never be boring...

    The correct spelling for Shengzen is Shenzhen. Have you been?

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