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Arguing about skyscrapers rarely results in sweetness and light

In debates over tall buildings, there is not nearly enough discussion about the ground plane, says Paul Finch

The Skyline campaign has demonstrated that it is easier to write a manifesto than it is to get an agreement on what it actually means. The success of the campaign is such that there is a perception in some quarters that anyone who declines to think in a binary way and declines to sign up is now being characterised as a social menace.

I was disappointed to read Gerard Maccreanor’s argument in the AJ last week that identifying areas where tall building would be welcome would ‘undermine the aggressive individualism currently allowing London to hold centre stage’. If aggressive individualism is such a great idea, then why does he want to protect us from it by extending heritage protection of even more views in the capital?

Maccreanor claims the London View Management Framework (LVMF) encourages a ‘contextually varied skyline’, which I presume means different buildings in different places. The LVMF does not actually encourage anything of course; it tells you where you cannot build, not where you should.

My suggestion that we should switch to positive planning is dismissed as ‘politically and practically unfeasible’ - no explanation why. Perhaps it is lack of imagination. I certainly prefer it to Maccreanor’s idea that the ArcelorMittal Orbit (slips off the tongue, doesn’t it?) needs view protection. It would be better to put it out of its misery than start genuflecting.

As is often the case with debates over tall buildings, there is not nearly enough discussion about the ground plane - and when there is, the assumption on the part of the anti-height brigade is that skyscrapers inevitably mean urban design disaster. In reality, the ground can either be well designed or badly designed. But then that is true of groundscrapers, too.

Another point that people are reluctant to acknowledge is the potential virtue of the ‘good ordinary’ tall building, which allows an outstanding design to be just that. One of the downsides to the City of Peter Rees is that the new towers are all so distinctive that there is a slight danger of zoo-itis, excellent though the new examples generally are.

That is why, in general, I support clusters rather than singletons. Julia Barfield made a clear point last week when she said that a beautiful building cannot blight the skyline; but it is far from clear who might determine whether something is beautiful. This is much more than being well designed, and clearly to a large extent it is in the eye of the beholder. It may be that a single new tower changes or spoils a view, rather than a skyline where no built form may be visible. Hence the fuss about wind farms.

The final contributor on the subject in last week’s AJ, Nicholas Boys Smith from Create Streets, has a pleasingly direct line on tall buildings: they are a waste of time and cannot properly address the housing shortage. On the other hand, who exactly said they could or would? What they can do is satisfy the investment market with what it needs, which means that overseas buyers can sate themselves on Norman Foster and Frank Gehry at Battersea (pictured), leaving other parts to the rest of us. Tall and short are not mutually exclusive.

In any event, if international capital wants to invest in a city like London, we should accept it as a condition, not a problem, and just keep building for the domestic market until supply matches demand.

Maccreanor can then sleep easy knowing that aggressive individualism is being catered for, while his own practice does valuable public service by working out how to intensify London for the better. Sometimes with towers, sometimes not.

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