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How can the planning process deliver great tall buildings?

Amanda Levete, Alison Brooks and Clare Devine of Design Council CABE share their thoughts on the AJ/Observer Skyline campaign

Last week the London Assembly debated the AJ/Observer Skyline campaign and mayor Boris Johnson responded to the issues raised by calling for a focus on design quality and building longevity. Here, leading architects and Skyline supporters Amanda Levete and Alison Brooks set out their views, while – for the first time – watchdog Design Council CABE responds in detail to the campaign.

Amanda Levete

Founder and principal, AL_A

The rise and rise of London’s skyline is nothing new. Looking back at a piece I wrote seven years ago on this subject, I argued for ‘a clutch of new skyscrapers for living’.

In the intervening period residential developments have indeed outstripped the offices that were once the norm. But the majority are speculative developments of very uncertain quality, designed to appeal to foreign absentee buyers, rather than skyscrapers for living.

The Skyline campaign has rightly focused on the quality of high-rise developments and the creation of a mayoral commission at the planning stage to enact positive discrimination in favour of the world-class architecture that London deserves.

It is mystifying that the expertise of our very best architects is viewed with suspicion

When it comes to the current planning process, it is mystifying that the expertise of our very best architects is viewed with suspicion, rather than acceptance of pre-eminence. Peer reviews are embedded in the medical world and in modern science, where new ideas and discoveries would never see the light of day without being submitted for careful critique from qualified colleagues.

For an expert Skyline Commission to have an effect, its views must be statutorily incorporated into the planning process. It must balance the localism of councillors with perspectives that are not limited by boundary.

This is not a wholesale reinvention of the planning system but the addition of a structure to broaden its base and increase its effectiveness.  

But to ensure that a commission and the wider planning system has the muscle to make a difference, it must continue to engage with clients and architects beyond the granting of approval. During construction, the arguments put forward by developers, their lawyers and accountants, can quickly reduce those hard-won gains and bring about a dramatic loss of quality. It often results in a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ of an outstanding design.

Building at height should be seen as a privilege and a responsibility

No one is anti-quality; no one actively pursues mediocrity. Excellence in the design of tall buildings should be part of a demanding quality initiative, designed to engage the public in a positive way. Building at height should be seen as a privilege and a responsibility, not a right. Perhaps the very best designs should be allowed to extend their upper reaches in order to become an inspiration to the rest. London has to be brave when it sees exceptional design – tinkering around the edges of excellence diminishes individual buildings and promotes mediocrity.

A masterplan for London and its tall buildings, one that restricts the looseness and regulates the chaos that has served the city well, doesn’t sit well with our past nor with our culture. We need to find a way to create an irresistible cityscape that respects the past, can adapt to the changes of tomorrow and respond to the exigencies of today.

Alison Brooks

Founding director, Alison Brooks Architects

The skyline of a city is an aesthetic conceit; it is also an expression of collective values and isolated structures of land ownership. It conjures up a silhouette of towers of various shapes and profiles, preferably in the evening. But if the shape of a city’s profile indicates its success, why are there so many cities with dramatic skylines in decline? Should we really care about how London’s skyline compares with that of Dubai, Shanghai or New York?

Politically motivated ‘economic drivers’ might not serve the long-term interest of London

The real debate is about how tall buildings, whether in clusters or standing as isolated totems, will affect London’s urban quality and character as experienced from the street, on the ground, in a neighbourhood and as places to live and work. This debate is not a dialectic between few versus many tall buildings. It is a calling into question of the methods used by local authority planning departments, the planning system and the London Mayor’s office to evaluate the collective impact of tall buildings and the individual impact of uninspired, un-neighbourly, unbeautiful tall buildings. We all need to acknowledge that the often politically motivated ‘economic drivers’ used as alibis for hyper-development might not serve the long-term interest of London and its inhabitants.

London has a kind of flattened density that breeds creativity, stimulates subcultures and allows most of us to find a place to feel ‘at home’. But do any contemporary tall residential developments in London provide the kind of diversity in occupation, demographic or tenure as a typical street in Fitzrovia? Do any residential or office towers built in the past 10 years provide beautiful, useable, lively streets, or work hard to make the best of their neighbours’ situation?

The political and economic forces at work in London over the past 10 years have created conditions where various boroughs have produced either exceptions or relaxations to their planning guidelines, in order to permit exceedingly high development in surprising places. Surprising to us, because London lacks both an overarching urban design strategy and a city-wide ‘planning radar’ to pick up incoming missiles. If the proposed Skyline Commission creates a forum for an informed, transparent, public and professional debate about both consented and future development, then this must be a good thing. But let’s not limit the discussion to ‘skyline’. What London needs is arm’s length urban stewardship, that sponsors inspired urban design (foresight) and demands tangible architectural character and quality for neighbourhoods, for the ‘person on the street’. Only then can an informed urban constituency contribute to a meaningful dialogue about place and placelessness to replace the dialectic around ‘skyline’.

Clare Devine

Director of architecture and the built environment, Design Council CABE

We welcome the debate and strategic assessment of London’s skyline that the Skyline campaign has provoked. This could be a valuable element in discussing the future of London and its continued growth.

The outcome of this debate should be informed by a thorough and robust examination of the issues, a wide consultation and any evidence that the current approach is not working should inform consideration as to how this may be best addressed.

We believe the debate should inform any changes to process. However, we believe that the current system of strategic planning through the London Plan and local planning is critical to ensuring good‑quality development of the appropriate scale and type, in the right place at the right time.

Tall buildings require the greatest care in their setting and context, design and cumulative impact

We agree that tall buildings require the greatest care in their setting and context, design and cumulative impact. In addition we think it is just as important to look at the way tall buildings meet the ground and how the public space around their base is designed. Environmental issues play an equally important role.

We have been part of this important debate for many years. An independent body providing review of schemes can provide valuable scrutiny. CABE provided this as statutory consultee in London and there is still a need to provide a process of scrutiny.

Effective use of the strategic and local plan, Design Review, and updated guidance, taken together, can, we believe, help to deliver well-designed and well-located tall buildings.

Readers' comments (3)

  • I wholeheartedly endorse the points made above by Amanda and Alison. Tall buildings have an impact both at their immediate
    neighbourhoods and street level, but also one of a much more far reaching dimensions - space and time.
    The suggestion of Peer Review is of course critical, and essential, and should be directly proportional to the distance from which the the building is visible, and the outcome of any review should be taken forward via design enabling via one of the 'Peers' to ensure continuity of the review outcomes, thus future proofing quality, and protection from value engineering.
    Part of the assessment must also be testing environmental impacts at street level by experts - (having worked next door to Bridgewater Place in Leeds for 5 years I can testify personally the adverse conditions for the pedestrian walking past). At application stage the predicted windspeeds were described technically as 'brisk business
    walking' .

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  • The Planning Process can't be developed to produce good versions of any building type, let alone great versions, however you define good and great. That's not what Planning is about.

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  • Design reviews are widely accepted - the Skyline Commission would merely be a more specific form of review. But first we need to change London Plan Policy 7.7A to require tall buildings to make a positive contribution to London's skyline - at present it has the rather lower test of not having "an unacceptably harmful impact on their surroundings". We should expect better.

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