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London skyline ‘trashed’ by wave  of speculative towers, says Rees

London is being ‘trashed’ by a multitude of inferior towers which are disfiguring its skyline, the driving force behind the Square Mile’s high-rise development has said

In the most significant intervention yet in the Skyline campaign to improve the design and planning of the capital’s tall buildings, former City planning officer Peter Rees warned of a ‘wave’ of poorly-designed residential towers conceived as investment vehicles. Rees, who spent 29 years shaping the City of London’s distinctive skyline, left the post this month to become professor of places and city planning at The Bartlett.

Adding his name to the list of leading figures supporting the campaign – run by the AJ and the Observer newspaper – Rees said there was no comparison between the well-known office skyscrapers created by architects under his watch and many of the more recent residential towers.

He said: ‘The clusters of office towers in the City and at Canary Wharf represent the “best in class” against global competition.

‘On the other hand, the inferior designs of the wave of residential “investment” towers which is disfiguring the London skyline should engender a deep sense of shame in those who created and approved them.

‘From Vauxhall to Whitechapel, the cranes are raising the dumbed-down “product” into offensive heaps.’

Rees claimed that borough planning authorities were ‘trapped’ by badly-formulated housing targets and a desperate need to secure planning gain payments to balance their meagre budgets. He called on them to look instead to the best examples of high-density and mid-rise housing. He said: ‘Residential towers do not achieve high densities and leave unusable space on the sites which they do not fill. Those of us who feel passionate about the form and future of our amazing city are sad to see it being trashed.’

New signatories to the campaign also include urban design and conservation expert Richard Coleman of Citydesigner, AKT II engineer Hanif Kara and architects Hugh Broughton and East’s Julian Lewis.

The Skyline campaign last week prompted a 950-word column in the London Evening Standard by London mayor Boris Johnson, in which he acknowledged that 80 per cent of new tall buildings in London are residential, but defended the performance of the planning system.

Comment:

Steven Bee, former director of planning and development at English Heritage and principal of Steven Bee Urban Counsel

‘There is no justification for tall buildings in terms of sustainability or economy.  Over a certain height tall buildings are more expensive and inefficient than other ways of achieving high density.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t allow them.  The beauty or majesty of a great building; the worship of God or mammon; the desire for a new vantage point, can all be good reasons to build high.

‘Advances in design, materials and construction technology allow us to build just about anything, anywhere. This ability has been interpreted by some Architects as an obligation. As a result we have tall buildings that are not just conspicuous, but ostentatious.   Some of them are beautiful, others are not. Some have become popular additions to iconic views, others have not - yet.  Planning policies sensibly suggest clusters of towers around, for example, transport interchanges. Over time this will reinforce the coherence of the three dimensional outline of central London that is so far informed mainly by sightlines to important buildings.  It will also help to modulate the volume of individual buildings from “look at me, to “look at us”.

‘Canary Wharf is a good example of the benefit of clustering. The individual towers are on the whole undistinguished.  As a composition, however, they have a coherence that sits comfortably in the London skyline even though it was guided by commercial expedience and opportunism rather than planning policy or aesthetic principles. One of the great new views in London is that of Canary Wharf from the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich, especially at twilight on a clear evening.

‘We may eventually grow out of the current fashion for building upwards. Until then, we should expect those who wish to do so to acknowledge their civic responsibility to the views they affect.  Views that are, for the time being at least, public.’

The AJ/Observer Skyline Campaign

The campaign aims to ensure the capital’s future skyscrapers are built in the right place and designed to the highest quality.

It has been backed by architects including David Chipperfield, David Adjaye, Eva Jiricna and Ted Cullinan.

To show your support email skyline@architectsjournal.co.uk

Follow #LondonSkyline on twitter

Readers' comments (3)

  • Peter Reece has been to the City what the Medicis were to Florence and Federico da Montefeltro was to Urbino. He has overseen nothing less than a Renaissance of great architecture and spaces in the heart of the capital. He held the design of buildings in his patch under an almost despotic grip, dictating who the architects should be and that nothing less than world class would do. Woe betide a developer who didn’t choose the best. The execution could be summary, brutal, and private. By working the system to his advantage. The strength of the City was that it was able to cede control in such a way and to give Reece unfailing support.
    Which supports my view that Development Control is a process of dialogue between enlightened individuals. Political correctness, scoring, and Design and Access statements are manifestations of a system that has failed to recruit people who are fit for purpose to understand, judge, and more importantly drive and influence the shape of our urban environments.
    Peter Reece for Lord Mayors design champion. That should sort it.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • Rees is talking complete rubbish: so he thinks that the skyscrapers that have come out of his watch represent best in class does he. The bulbous, car melting 'Walkie Talkie', the unbuildable, unlettable, ridiculously conceited 'Pinnacle' and the 'Cheesegrater'. A chapter of comedic nomenclature.

    The one thing the 'distinctive' skyline he leaves behind does have in common is obsolescence. Commercial buildings can be torn down almost at will. Try doing that with a residential building comprising 500 apartments and 500 conflicting interests.

    From conception, residential buildings have to be efficient and built to endure: from every viewpoint. They have to be adaptable and easy to maintain. They have to age gracefully and become thoroughly absorbed into their surroundings.

    Admittedly, it is an extremely difficult trick to pull off and the additional responsibility on the shoulders of a residential developers does lead to a more conservative design approach. But this should not be castigated by Rees as dumbing down or likened to offensive heaps.

    Rees should look more closely at the current crop of calculated City contrivances before he shoots aimlessly from the hip from his own ivory tower

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • Would you trust the aesthetic judgment of someone who dresses like Rees?

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