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Clare Melhuish reviews conflicting views on the value of London's skyline

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Speaking at the ICOMOS seminar on London's skyline, Lora Nicolaou of DEGW highlighted the problem with so much discussion about urban planning - that development issues are highly emotive, and often there is no language available to discuss them objectively and constructively. As a consequence, 'nimby' constituencies triumph repeatedly, simply because their voice, driven by shrill self-interest and resistance to change, can be heard louder than any other.

Nicolaou's contribution was to set out a framework of objective considerations to be taken into account in discussions of changes to London's skyline, and to stress how 'limited as a tool' in such a discussion is the 'London views issue'. All speakers agreed that the Greater London Authority's proposal to scrap many of these protected views has generated an imperative to develop clear new forms of regulation mechanism, and DEGW has provided guidance on how to do this. For a start, Nicolaou suggested, any discussion about new towers should start not from a negative position - don't put them there - but from a positive one:

how can they contribute? Secondly, there needs to be greater research into how people actually experience the city from far away. Her own studies suggested that views, as such, are registered less by people than activities in a particular place, and 'navigators'. She also proposed that the discussion about towers and their impact had been given undue prominence, since 'large flat buildings' can have just as much impact on people's experience of the city; hence the conversation should be broadened to embrace large comprehensive developments in historic cities in general.

Nicolaou's approach was challenged by other speakers, including George Ferguson and Hal Moggridge. Ferguson said it was 'indefensible for us to have high buildings at a developer's whim', and suggested that English Heritage had been 'intimidated' by such parties, and that CABE was 'tending to fall into the 'trendy norm' that it's retrogressive not to support the next tall building.'As for the mayor, he was 'not being scientific enough in his analysis, nor getting proper advice' - an opinion that wouldn't greatly impress DEGW.

Moggridge, explaining the Royal Parks' proposals for a new 'skyplan' protecting the city skyline by recording it precisely, argued that 'there are certain iconic views in London which are London'. It is also equally important to protect 'places of seclusion' on which views do not actually encroach.

Ferguson and Moggridge couched their arguments in terms of the 'spiritual health' of the city - a dimension Nicolaou had omitted to analyse, but one which surely transcends the claim by a GLA spokesperson that the protection of views (including that of St Paul's) which do not have equal cultural significance to different communities could be illegitimate: another example, like the hot cross bun debate, of cultural relativism gone awry.

'London's Dynamic Skyline' was an ICOMOS-UK seminar in collaboration with, and hosted by, the RIBA on 10 April

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