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Skyline campaign: A tale of two towers

When London has no skyscraper strategy, good architecture becomes a matter of chance - as Rogers’ elegant Cheesegrater and Broadway Malyan’s joyless tower show, writes Robert Bevan

A trio of explosions has informed the history of tower building in London over recent decades. The first was metaphorical, Margaret Thatcher’s Big Bang - the deregulation of the UK’s financial services sector in 1986. This, together with technological innovations, turned the City of London and Docklands into a forcing frame for new offices, both groundscrapers (which, we were told briefly, were essential for large trading floors) then skyscrapers, as the arrival of flat screens and rapidly changing practices meant trading floors were out, so it was time to think taller rather than Broadgate.

The next big bang for London’s financial architecture was the evening of 10 April 1992 when the Provisional IRA detonated a one-tonne truck bomb outside the Baltic Exchange in the City. Later the same night, a second massive IRA blast tore through Staples Corner in north London. London felt under siege. As was the intent.

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The Commercial Union Tower after the 1992 Baltic Exchange IRA bombing. The building has since been reclad

The City of London Corporation’s rattled response was the ‘ring of >> steel’ around its domain. Streets into the City were narrowed and guarded by armed police and surveyed by CCTV. Reinforced bollards protecting no man’s land aprons outside buildings turned public plazas into privatised tank traps. This, just as the walls and fences of the Eastern bloc were being dismantled and klepto-oligarchs were looking to London as a place to launder, then pile, their stash.

The third explosion, of transatlantic force, was, of course, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center that gave pause to high-rise ambitions as corporate icons became terror targets. There were predictions that companies worldwide would flee conspicuous city-centre high-rises for low-rise, suburban business parks.

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The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center temporarily halted high-rise ambitions

That never happened. Instead, after building codes were checked for structural safety and means of escape, towers rose once more in our cities. But that does not mean that the consequences of 9/11 are not still unfolding for London’s architecture. The echoes of these three powerful bangs are now combining with dramatic effect on London’s skyline.

As New London Architecture’s London’s Growing Up! report and exhibition demonstrate (see AJ 04.04.14), some 236 buildings above 20 storeys are now in the pipeline - from those proposed or approved to those on site. If all built they will change the capital forever. They represent a search for security in a world turned upside down by the financial mayhem unleashed by post-1980s neo-liberal economics, and the chronic global instability that has only intensified post-9/11 - a new world disorder. Despite being no less a terror target, London is seen as politically stable - a safe haven for investors.

Among the many architectural leviathans to have emerged recently are two skyscrapers, each more than 50 storeys high - Broadway Malyan’s The Tower at One St George Wharf, Vauxhall, and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ (RSHP) Leadenhall Building in the Square Mile, which completes at the end of the summer and is popularly known as the ‘Cheesegrater’.

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Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ Leadenhall Building by is set to complete this summer

The City has always been a club, huddled together to protect its privileges from first the crown, then parliament over in Westminster. A mess of merchants and gossip in the past, today the City corporation argues that its propinquity is vital to its success as a global financial centre. But now it is a fortress with an outlier citadel at Canary Wharf. The Square Mile could have steadily spread its largesse east, regenerating a vast mixed-use swathe of Tower Hamlets between Whitechapel and the Isle of Dogs the process. Instead it has dug in, spread upwards rather than outwards. Long monocultural, the City has resisted new residents with a vengeance. It has eaten itself and its history and now, in the form of earlier towers now up for renewal, its children.

The 225m-tall Cheesegrater sits within a cluster of towers that is a product of both violence and deference. Violence in that it is sited close to the Baltic Exchange bombing site that transformed this part of the City. The old exchange itself has been replaced by Foster + Partners’ Swiss Re tower at 30 St Mary Axe. The Cheesegrater site is the east side of a plaza formed by the erection in the late 1960s of two sub-Miesian buildings at right angles by GMW Architects - the former Commercial Union Tower (now the Aviva Tower, its 24 storeys reclad after the bombing) and the 15-storey P&O building demolished to make way for the Leadenhall Building.

On the south side of the plaza is Rogers’ Lloyd’s Building and the dynamic between this earlier building and the practice’s latest is extraordinarily powerful; the porte-cochère canopy of the inclined ‘Cheesegrater’ reaches out across the narrow Leadenhall Street towards its parent. The Leadenhall Building’s glassy angular wedge, 22 wall-climbing lifts and diagrid mediate between the crafted intricacy of Lloyd’s and the diagonal structure of Swiss Re’s smooth bullet. Built speculatively by British Land, it will be occupied by the insurance companies that dominate this quarter.

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Foster + Partners’ 30 St Mary Axe was built on the Baltic Exchange site

The existing square is a dreary affair, shaded for much of the day and the Cheesegrater can’t undo this. Instead, the building perches 30m above the street on diagonal legs with its lobby and a restaurant and bar reached by escalators that animate the undercroft entrance. It should be particularly effective when illuminated after dark. The additional public space created under the soffit is, though, like much of the city’s new ‘public’ realm, actually a private and controlled affair. Jacking the building up no doubt helps with security too. Control is not relinquished.

Stepping back 750mm between each diminishing floorplate, the tower is designed to reach its maximum height while deferring to the protected views of St Paul’s Cathedral. This, like the Swiss Re, is achieved with an admirable simplicity and elegance that makes its upcoming neighbours (Kohn Pedersen Fox’s ‘Scalpel’, Foggo Associates’ ‘Can of Ham’ and, if it restarts, the Swiss roll of KPF’s ‘Pinnacle’) look exactly what they are - silly one-liners from architects of a certain generation who have watched Blade Runner once too often.

That London’s skyline should be radically altered by such throwaway gestures is appalling but at least, in the City, these additions are for the most part clustered with purpose.

If the Leadenhall Building is high-rise architecture at its best, Broadway Malyan’s 53-storey, catherine-wheel plan offering on the river at Vauxhall shows it at its worst. Grandiloquently christened The Tower, One St George Wharf, it is the tallest residential tower in the UK and rarely has crassness been achieved at such a scale. It is so utterly bland that there is no danger of it garnering a nickname out of either affection or disdain.

It rises 181m from the west side of the lower St George Wharf ‘flappy birds’ housing and office development with all the joy of a PFI hospital, and also by the house of Broadway Malyan, that fills the former industrial site between Vauxhall Bridge and a new pocket park.

Instead of its lower neighbours’ cheap green glass, precast concrete and grey framing, The Tower has a cheap grey glass and metallic finish. At its foot is a two-storey podium containing a gym and lobby (guarded by a bowler-hatted, white-gloved flunky), while at its peak, it steps back for penthouse terraces and is crowned with a 10m-high wind turbine in a cage that can’t possibly have been worth the effort.

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Broadway Malyan’s The Towerat St George Wharf in Vauxhall is the highest residential tower in the UK

The Tower meets the ground defended by raised flowerbeds, a gravel-filled mini-moat, and a locked and gated driveway and private garden (not shown in earlier CGIs) that shouts SLOAP - space left over after planning. Black granite-blade garden walls, a mix of paviours, metal fencing and a tiled water feature surround it like a dust-up in a samples library.

One could go on about its many design failings, but that would miss the larger point of its role as a shock trooper pushed through by Ken Livingstone and John Prescott to gain territory for a rash of even higher towers planned between here and Battersea, including One Nine Elms (58 and 43 storeys) that will, unpardonably, muscle in on the setting of the Palace of Westminster when viewed from bridges east of Big Ben’s tower, and throw more of the Thames into shade. This would matter less if we were guaranteed the exceptional quality one would expect of such a site in a world city.

Some 80 per cent of the 236 towers on their way are greedy, vertical gated communities of this ilk built as investments; a three-bedder on the 23rd floor of The Tower is already for resale at £3.1 million through Savills. The ghost streets of Kensington & Chelsea’s international super-rich will be joined by ghost towers elsewhere in the capital.

That this has come to pass is partly the result of the slow death of strategic planning - another legacy of neo-liberalism coupled with global political and economic strife that has seen capital dash to London as a place of greater safety. Such architectural braggadocio is a sign of weakness, not strength. These are not towers of hope for a world city, but towers of fear in a world of instability - the clustering progeny of a global cluster-fuck.

Robert Bevan is a regeneration consultant and writer on architecture and urban design

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