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How should London respond to the Skyline campaign?

After three weeks outlining the challenges tall buildings present to the city, the AJ asks three leading figures what should happen next

The AJ/Observer Skyline campaign has received huge coverage and support from a raft of big names including David Chipperfield, and peer and possible London mayoral candidate Doreen Lawrence. There has been much discussion about the threat facing the capital, and how a disjointed planning system has already allowed a glut of poorly designed towers through. Attention is now turning to what positive changes can be made. The AJ has asked three leading lights about what needs to be done next.

Julia Barfield

Julia Barfield of Marks Barfield Architects

‘When we completed the London Eye in 2000, it was the fourth tallest structure in London. Now it is the 22nd.

Across the world, the number of buildings over 200m is snowballing. London need not compete in any global skyscraper race. As a mature, pre-eminent global city we do not need to strut our stuff on the global stage in quite the same way that young emerging cities do – however, we ignore this international context at our peril. In an increasingly fast changing world, to stand still is to effectively move backwards. I do not want London to become an atrophied heritage city. Equally, I would not want a free for all. Tall buildings have a role to play in intensifying the city and helping to solve the housing crisis.

Part of London’s continuing success has been its ability to always embrace change – integrate the new with the old. But, as the Skyline campaign demands, we need to direct and control that change to ensure quality, and not be at the mercy of global market forces.

The existing planning system has let some real clangers through the net. My top two are the Strata Tower in Elephant and Castle and St George Wharf Tower, which is offensive in its blandness. (The Shard, however, is beautiful in the way it reflects the changing light of the sky and echoes London’s church spires.)

There’s a need for a pause for thought about the effectiveness of the planning system

There is clearly a need for a pause for thought about the effectiveness of the planning system. The system is the mechanism for creating a balance between social and market forces – between public benefit and private profit. It is also the mechanism that can help make judgements that balance the protection of past while allowing the creation of a future heritage.

We should not forget that tall buildings are already part of our built heritage. There are 11 listed tall buildings in central London – recognised as successful examples of the integration of tall buildings. They share a discrete dignity, a coolness and restrained structural logic with a forthright and logical use of materials. The Economist Building and New Zealand House get better the closer you get because of their use of high-quality materials. Centre Point works well not only because of the strength of its form, but because it is located at a major crossroads in the city. Tall buildings do not always have to be in clusters. None of them is a funny shape or inspired by Mr Whippy.

Because they are highly visible, tall buildings need special attention in the planning system to ensure that only the good ones get built. You cannot blight the skyline with a beautiful building. We need to get better at agreeing what is good-quality design and set the bar a lot higher.’

Gerrard Maccreanor

Gerard Maccreanor of Maccreanor Lavington

‘Paul Finch says that ‘current skyline policies are based on where you cannot build tall’. Instead, he calls for all boroughs to identify appropriate locations and heights where you can.

This is not only politically and practically unfeasible, but it would undermine the aggressive individualism currently allowing London to hold centre stage. Tony Travers, director of LSE Greater London Group, rightly points out that any Skyline commission would mean a ‘transfer of power upwards’, and that an expert panel may in all likelihood perform worse than the existing checks and balances. 

London has a well tried and tested policy in the London View Management Framework (LVMF). It has been shaping the city skyline for more than 30 years. Originally established to protect 10 specific views, it has been extended over time to now cover 27 views. It defines view corridors to and from important ‘assets’ so that the heights of new developments inside are controlled. The view corridors cover a small percentage of the city’s area, but have a large impact. 

From one particular viewpoint, you can see the Tower of London in its historical setting as the tallest building on the skyline and in a backdrop of mature trees. Move 100m along the riverside path and the building is set in sharp juxtaposition to the glitzy effusive and magnificent skyline of the Square Mile. The LVMF already gives London a unique skyline through establishing eccentric relationships and – to those not aware of the LMVF – seemingly irrational clustering. 

London is in a period of unprecedented expansion with the majority of this development coming in the east of the city and characterised by tall buildings. The LVMF was arguably set up to protect views of ‘assets’ in central London. As a new city is built upon the city in the east, it is now time to extend the LMVF to bring the same protection and the same encouragement to develop a contextually varied skyline.

The London 2012 Olympic Games was both a historic moment for the city and a catalysis for regeneration in the east. The ArcelorMittal Orbit tower – whether one appreciates its design or not – is a marker of that event on the skyline. Other eastern icons such as the Millennium Mills in Silvertown – one of the last impressive buildings to survive demolition that reminds us of the Royal Dock’s working past – could be considered for protective views alongside the World Heritage Site at Greenwich. 

Let us debate and extend the use of the LVMF, acknowledging the future city. Why reinvent the wheel when we already have the tools to shape our skyline at our disposal? And let us act quickly before the chance is lost.

Nicholas Boyas Smith

Nicholas Boys Smith, director of Create Streets, a social enterprise encouraging urban homes in terraced streets

‘The Skyline campaign should turn to London housing. Skyscrapers are not the right answer to the housing crisis. High-rise living has been consistently unpopular with most British people and correlates with less good social outcomes even when you adjust for socio-economic circumstances.

Ex-City planning officer Peter Rees is right that the ‘residential towers going up in London are simply safe deposit boxes … They are not homes, they are residential investment opportunities.’ Bits of central London risk hollowing out, and strong consistent majorities of British people would rather live in more modest buildings nearer the ground. If you are a child in social housing, you are 16 times more likely to live on the fifth floor, or above, than a child in private housing. With social housing again being built in large buildings, this is social inequality.

The evidence strongly suggests that multi-storey living is bad. Controlled studies show that the residents of high-rise blocks suffer from more strain and mental health difficulties than those in low-rise buildings. No study has found high-rise living beneficial to children. One study matched 99 children on economic well-being and found that children in high-rises suffered from more behavioural problems.

It is not necessary to build high in order to solve the housing crisis

Huge buildings are not even great economics. The best property to own over the last 30 years has been conventionally designed streets and, according to Savills, conventional well-connected neighbourhoods are worth more.

Large buildings cost up to 100 per cent more to manage. And, notably, many east end high-rise ‘executive apartments’ built 15 years ago now house the homeless. That was not the business plan.

It is not necessary to build high in order to solve the housing crisis.

So much of London was redeveloped post-war at very low densities (Southwark’s population fell by two thirds). We could meet housing need for the next 10 to 15 years just by instating Pimlico-style housing densities in post-war estates and on brownfield sites.

Creating streets, not skyscrapers risks less backlash, and would allow a major increase in housing that is more popular, better and more flexible.’

Readers' comments (5)

  • The Walkie talkie at 20 Fenchurch Street is particularly hideous, looming ponderously up into the City skyline as it does.
    These 230 plus towers, if they are built, would destroy the look and character of London. London is not Singapore, Dubai or Shanghai, nor should it want to look like them.
    Tower blocks are not suitable for family living, that was proved back in the 1960s and 1970s.
    These towers may be described as residential by the developers but they would not be affordable to ordinary Londoners and so do nothing to solve the housing crisis in the capital or the urban sprawl which threatens the greenbelt surrounding London.
    The Prince's Trust has sensibly proposed mansion blocks of between 5 to 8 storeys grouped around garden squares to solve the housing crisis and build on a human scale.
    There is a lack of proper scrutiny going on, otherwise vanity projects like Walkie Talkie, Vauxhal Tower, Strata etc would not have got off the drawing board. The GLA has a lot to answer for and is not fit for purpose. Peter Rees is also culpable in my view.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • London reluctantly has tussled with the idea of planned city wide growth, despite efforts by many, and agencies like SEPLAN, GLC, GLA. It has benefitted from this 'antagonism'. However, whilst that opposition enabled the post war growth with the then contemporary modernist models of municipal housing, the new demands and new models, also seemingly 'modernist' and now 'tall' drive a new antagonism. Tall buildings are cast in the shadow of modernisms failure, and so trying to offer a democratic regulation via a view management regime is like trying to tell Nigel Farage to shut his mouth - it won't work, and those that have will keep and those that havenet will get. Maybe, now, being wizen and wiser, we need to establish a city wide growth and regeneration strategy, like, the ones Gerard which you know in Rotterdam, that can lead, marshall and help better equalise growth. Tall buildings are not bad buildings per se, yes they need the best design, and yes they add more greatly and beneficially than lower buildings do - when carefully set, considered and planned. In one way any view management strategy whilst respecting the old must also incorporate what has yet to come. Over to those that can equitably 'see' London as a whole, in time and place.

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  • The London Skyline is a topic of great concern, especially relating to the possibility of Fire in a high-rise building. As buildings get taller the consequential risk of fire increases with every additional floor. Fire fighting, externally, is limited and gridlock streets makes the task even more hazardous. It must be born in mind that 40% of the fires globally are the result of electric cable malfunction. Accordingly, fire management and modern predictable communication systems, have to be absolutely fit for purpose but are the cable systems employed likely to perform, as one would expect, in real fire conditions? That is the question.
    The common understanding amongst most specifiers, sellers, installers and users of electrical cables, which are manufactured to meet the requirements of common fire Performance tests like: Flame retardance tests: Smoke obscuration tests, Halogen and acid gas emission tests, is that the cables they subsequently specify, buy and use will provide a similar performance under real fire scenarios that the test methods suggest. Unless the cables are exposed exactly to the same conditions, as documented in the test, which is unlikely, this is not likely to be the case and with disturbing consequences.
    Three technical documents are available, on request, from the author, Richard Hosier, relating to “Electric Cables Fire Performance”, which may be of interest to AJ readers on the performance of electric cables in real fire conditions. (Flame Propagation, Fire Load, and Life Span). We would be pleased to discuss and modify the articles, which we believe should have greater publicity. The Great Fire of London is a chapter in the great City's history, lets all hope that our buildings are suitably equipped to deal with a major fire should the situation ever arise in the future A big ask - I'm afraid?
    Geoff Williams
    Business Consultant Fire Management
    MInstMC. MInstM.
    TRM/MICC Group of Companies
    Email: wgwilliams@trmltd.co.uk
    www.temperature-house.co.uk
    Tel: +44 [0] 1704 214997
    +44 [0] 191 416 8884
    Cell: [0] 7710 525284
    Why not visit You Tube and view the Fire Survival Electric Cable Video!

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  • there are significant energy implication on the surrounding setting that will be as direct result of these towers. In brief, these energy effects include changes to the micro-climate and changes in the energy management of the surrounding low lying buildings… whilst all these effects might not be bad, these effects are little considered - and regardless of all other issues (i quite like the look of some of them) in terms of energy management and sustainable development – without proper control these buildings will become ‘selfish giants’

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  • It is not about aesthetics only. We may have to think how vulnerable London is, if climate continues to put more pressure to health and safety of its inhabitants. Could you imagine what could happen in cases of atrocious floods and other natural disasters in the next few decades? How could you evacuate a city which is growing vertically so rapidly upon such narrow streets? How much more urbanisation can London support? Have we got any statistics, research on this? There are many questions to be answered unfortunately.

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