Tall stories: Rowan Moore scrutinises the arguments in favour of building tall
Will owners of £5 million flats really use the Tube? What is modern and progressive about the Shard? Is planning bad for business?
Since the Skyline campaign was launched, almost every conceivable point of view has been expressed. The mayor of London, among others, has had his say. What follow are the arguments in favour of building tall and against greater controls. Then the counter-arguments are set out.
It has to be repeated, as it keeps being forgotten, that this campaign is not against tall buildings in principle. The campaign’s opening statement said this explicitly. It is based on the belief that, the more prominent a project, the greater care needs to be taken in its design and planning - care which is not evident in the current development of London.
But it is relevant to the debate that the case for height is sometimes overstated. The purpose of challenging arguments in favour of towers is not therefore to attack the basic idea of building high, but to counter the views that it is necessarily the best solution to given problems, and that it cannot be better directed than it is at present.
London and other cities need to attain higher densities in response to population pressure and to use land more effectively. Towers are the best way to achieve these densities.
This is the strongest argument in favour of height. A tower, self-evidently, fits more on a given plot than a lower building. For this reason, Manhattan and Hong Kong are dense.
On the other hand, towers also need clear space about them, for reasons of overshadowing and daylighting. In the 1960s, Lionel March demonstrated that courtyards and squares can achieve the same densities as point blocks. It is well known that Paris achieves much higher densities than London, with its pattern of medium-height blocks and few towers.
Applying these principles to London and other British cities is not straightforward: it is not feasible to rebuild them as Parisian-style apartment blocks and boulevards, or in the shape of Lionel March’s squares. But if you take the approved plans by PLP Architecture for Ludgate House and Sampson House in Blackfriars, which would deliver 489 flats and reach 49 storeys at their highest point, you will find that the great majority of these homes are delivered at 20 storeys or below. The redevelopment of King’s Cross achieves high densities without great height.
London is in desperate need of new homes, and towers address this need.
The majority of new towers proposed for London are residential, and, through planning gain, help pay for affordable housing.
But it should be asked whether a building like Ian Simpson’s One Blackfriars - which will be opposite Ludgate House and Sampson House and will contain studio flats starting at over £1 million - is the best answer to London’s housing needs, and whether the long-term impact upon the townscape is the right price to pay for short-term fixes. Lower-rise projects also contribute to affordable housing: land can be intensively used without building towers.
Most of the new London towers are located near to good public transport, which makes them more sustainable.
This is a good thing but, again, the argument is similar to the one on density: it would also be possible to put large numbers of people near to public transport with lower buildings.
It should be asked: how much will the owners of £5 million flats use the Tube? And this argument for the sustainability of tall buildings has to be set against their environmental costs in servicing and structure.
Towers make cities vibrant and exciting.
On the streets of Manhattan and Hong Kong, you would say: yes. But there is nothing very exciting about standing at the bottom of towers in Dubai, recent London buildings like Strata SE1 or even great ones from the past, like Balfron Tower. Towers have an important drawback when it comes to vibrancy: they put a distance between the life that goes on in their flats and that of the streets outside.
Tall buildings are modern and progressive.
As a building type, skyscrapers have been around since the 19th century. And towers, of course, are almost as ancient as architecture itself. London’s current tallest building, Renzo Piano’s Shard, is about the same height as the Chrysler Building, which was completed more than 80 years ago. It is hardly modern to reach a level first attained when the talkies had only just been invented.
Tall buildings are icons or landmarks.
The Shard and the Gherkin attract international attention to London, and affect the external image of the city. Smaller cities - Kuala Lumpur, for example - have managed to raise their profile by building tall. At a more local level, it almost certainly helped establish the identity of Canary Wharf to have, for a while, the tallest building in Britain.
It is more doubtful whether the new clusters of towers in Vauxhall and Blackfriars make London more distinctive. Rather, by resembling similar clusters in Shenzhen, Mumbai and the United Arab Emirates, they make the city more like others.
If they send out a message, it is this: ‘This city will be extremely accommodating to the wishes of investors, and will bend its planning policies accordingly.’ Is this really the message Londoners want their political leaders to send out?
Tall buildings are what the market wants.
Developers are putting forward applications for towers, so in that sense the market wants them. But many of the current proposals respond to a bubble in international investment in London residential property, which may be short-lived. So they might not be in the best interests of the city’s long-term prosperity.
Planning is bad for business.
The short answer to this is to point to the New York zoning ordinance of 1916, which placed limitations on the design of tall buildings, while also creating opportunities. New York then became the most dynamic city in the world.
A slightly longer answer is to point to Elizabeth House in Waterloo, where it has taken a decade and untold costs in consultants and wasted opportunities to reach a conclusion. Sensible planning is not bad for business; vague and inefficient planning is.
London is a dynamic and ever-changing city. Why stop now?
It is, and over the centuries it has progressively increased in scale. But this is not an argument for thoughtlessness in its growth. Nor is it inevitable that dynamism and change is best achieved by height.
It is not in character for London to have clear planning rules.
Untrue. London invented the strategic views that still govern parts of the city, and contributed to the invention of the idea of the Green Belt. It once had floorspace area ratios, and more recently the mayor published the London Housing Design Guide. Whatever the merits or otherwise of these policies, they show that the city is capable of regulating itself.
The public has already been consulted: there is no need for further discussion.
Much of the growth of tall buildings derives from policies in the London Plan and its revisions, which were available for public scrutiny. However, at no point have the visual and spatial implications of the plan been made clear. No images or diagrams of cumulative effect were published. Most people who see what is happening now had no idea that policies were leading this way. This is not meaningful consultation. It is also relevant that some of the most prominent projects were found by planning inspectors to breach agreed policies. These inspectors were then overruled by ministers, rendering the policies and their consultation processes valueless.
It is too late: permission has already been granted for tall buildings in critical locations, and trying to limit them now is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.
New London Architecture’s current exhibition shows a map of the city with the locations of proposed towers. Certainly there are many, in significant locations, but there are also extensive blank spaces, where potentially more tall buildings could be built. New tower proposals are coming forward all the time - in areas where precedents for height are and are not in place, not to mention in cities outside London. In either case, the quality of these projects matters.
In other words, a great deal is undecided, and should be open to proper debate.
Rowan Moore is architecture critic of the Observer