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How can we improve London’s emerging Skyline?

Three leading tall building experts who back the AJ/Observer Skyline campaign propose practical ways forward for planning in the capital

Two months’ since the start of the AJ/Observer Skyline campaign, the controversial issue of London’s developing skyline remains highly prominent in the public eye. With debate increasingly focused on the practical steps which could be taken to ensure quality buildings emerge in the right locations, three leading supporters of our campaign say what they think should happen now.

Chris Wilkinson, director, Wilkinson Eyre Architects

Chris Wilkinson

‘I see the skyline as a composition, which has to be considered as a whole.

‘In London we don’t have the typical city arrangement in which all the tall buildings are located downtown; instead they are dispersed around the city. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it means that they need to be properly considered, planned and controlled.

‘I firmly believe that densification is preferable to urban sprawl and tall buildings offer a solution to various issues related to urban growth. But the quality of the architecture and its relationship to the context must be treated as a priority.

‘Wilkinson Eyre Architects is working on high-rise buildings in China, Australia and Canada, where of course they have many of the same issues. With these international projects however, clear guidelines have been agreed in principle by the city planners and so decisions are related to the quality of the design.

The tradition of planning in London is incremental and bottom-up

‘The tradition of planning in London is incremental, bottom-up, and not necessarily aligned with this centralised approach. We Londoners need a more interactive forum for deciding the future shape of our city.

‘I would like to see the mayor of London set up a space to host an interactive 3D model that would enable him, local authorities and the public to see and discuss new development proposals for London. It is hard for physical models to be of large enough scale to offer much help, so it has to be a virtual. A detailed 3D model of London already exists – the technology is there – so now we need to develop a means to make it accessible. Without this, we would continue to consider each application in a piecemeal way, which can too often lead to inappropriate developments occurring in the wrong places.’

Ian Simpson, director, Ian Simpson Architects

Ian Simpson

‘The debate about the London skyline and the quality of buildings that shape it is a vital. The truth is that the entirely valid criticism being levelled at the quality of the buildings is a result of a lack of criticism itself.

‘Early on in its life, the government’s design watchdog CABE – especially in the Stuart Lipton-Jon Rouse era – had both the teeth and the mandate to influence the outcome of significant building projects throughout the country. Since CABE’s statutory dissolution, there has been insufficient architectural intelligence brought to bear to counter the contemporary pressures, in London, of perceived housing demand: footloose international capital and local authorities patching up capital shortfalls with Section 106 windfalls.

‘The Skyline debate presents an opportunity to bind together some of the very best architectural talent in the world – evoking the spirit of early CABE – to influence the quality of the buildings that dress the London skyline while at the same time, defining and delivering the spaces and places on the ground in which we are most public.

London’s significant capital projects deserve greater debate and scrutiny

‘London’s significant capital projects deserve greater debate and scrutiny. Scrutiny that not only has influence at the point at which the planning committee gives approval, but scrutiny that continues throughout the process to the point at which the work starts on site.

‘Increasing transparency and extending approval at two critical stages of building buildings – planning approval and pre- contractor start on site – would do more than any other measure to ensure that the author of the consented scheme is able to deliver design intent. With the right people, the right mandate and the right statutory voice, that body could be sufficiently fleet of foot to have influence, without adding clutter.

‘As architects, we owe it to the very permanence of our actions – the creation of buildings, spaces and places that last generations and define and distinguish great cities – to bring a little more intelligence, foresight, experience and criticism to the process.’

Andrew Beharrell, executive director, Pollard Thomas Edwards

‘Only 25 years ago we were busy demolishing ‘failed’ tower blocks, and the typical height of new residential buildings in London was between two and five storeys. Today it seems a building has to be 20 storeys or more to be considered ‘tall’.

‘Before even considering the finer points of tower design (and a few of them are fine), we should be asking whether towers are actually necessary and desirable at all in London.

‘I accept that global competition requires our financial centre to spawn commercial towers, and that outstanding design could transform the City of London for the better. However, the case for residential towers is far from proven.

The case for residential towers is far from proven

‘We are at a point in the economic cycle when the high cost of building and servicing residential towers is outstripped by the even higher increase in values. Until recently, towers were unviable except in a few prime locations. Developers and site owners are understandably rushing to take advantage of this moment, and planning authorities are overwhelmed – too many designers and decision-makers seem to be entranced by the perceived glamour of high-rise, and seem happy to engage in the casual desecration of London’s skyline. 

‘We already have the planning tools to reject inappropriate high-rise and to provide a positive alternative spatial strategy – let us break the trance and use those tools effectively.

‘I admire cities like Chicago and Hong Kong, where towers have evolved as an integral part of the fabric – and places like Canary Wharf, where the cluster is more important than the individual tower. Well-planned clusters of towers, alongside low-rise development and open space, can boost the regeneration of outlying centres with good transport links. But what I abhor are trophy towers dropped at random: these vanity projects, which may be lovely for occupiers, have a negative impact on the area and London’s unique and complex character.

‘Furthermore the economic justification (in the residential sector) is often flawed: the work of Pollard Thomas Edwards and others has proved that you can achieve high densities without resorting to high-rise. A contextual approach, rather than one fixated on object-buildings, can deliver more homes, better homes, inviting public realm and more cost-effective development.’

  • Wilkinson, Simpson and Beharrell last week took part in a debate on tall buildings chaired by AJ acting deputy editor Will Hurst during Clerkenwell Design Week.

Readers' comments (2)

  • Demolish the 'walkie talkie'.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • I nearly wept when The Guardian recently published a photo of the Paris skyline. Not a single tall building in sight!
    London's skyline has been seriously compromised on so many fronts, with such a disastrous impact on so many views that now no longer exist.
    Of course we need densification, but not scattered, apparently randomly, and not with unco-ordinated starchitect buildings competing by histrionics with one another and with the grain of the existing city.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

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