London is expanding faster than any European city.
Powered by an economic boom, the city is reinventing itself through an array of developments - Stratford City, the Thames Gateway, Heathrow Terminal 5 and the 2012 Olympic Village among them. But is this transformation necessarily changing London for the better? Growth is the signature of economic success, but is it mirrored by design quality, effective density and sustainability? The recent Debate London forum, staged at Tate Modern from 22-25 June, brought leading architects, politicians and critics together to address these very questions.
Perhaps the hottest issue was whether London should build tall in order to address the growing housing crisis. The problem, declared historian Tristram Hunt, is that architects are still 'in detention' for the mistakes of experimental postwar regeneration, such as Trellick Tower and Alton West Estate. There is, it seems, an ingrained suspicion among Londoners that designers ride roughshod over their social needs. Los Angeles-based architect Fritz Haeg indicated as much by suggesting architects value buildings more than the people in them.
Compared with cities like Paris and Barcelona, London is low-density. The centre alone has the capacity to absorb many more tall buildings to accommodate population growth. But, it seems, Londoners do not have the stomach for more high-rise. Ben Page, chairman of Ipsos MORI Social Research, spelt out the reality: 'Londoners are a conservative bunch. 60 per cent say they don't want any more tall buildings.'
There is no direct correlation between unhappiness and high density per se. The tightly packed Barbican Centre in the City is one of the most desirable places to live, and commands property prices to match. The challenge then for architects is to somehow overcome Londoners' ingrained suspicion that high density means poor design.
Reconciling Londoners to the concept of a high-rise/ high-density city seems remote, however, if the clash between starchitect Zaha Hadid and independent London mayoral hopeful John Bird, founder of the Big Issue, is anything to go by. A staunch campaigner for improved social housing, Bird argued that architects simply do not understand the needs of people. 'Le Corbusier knew jackshit about people, ' declared Bird. 'Unité was a shithole.
When this template was applied to Roehampton's Alton West Estate, it quickly turned into a social morass.'
True to form, Hadid did not mince her words: 'There is so much crap in London because people like you have no respect for architects, ' she hit back. It seems fair retaliation, given that architects do not make all the decisions for the way sites and buildings evolve.
But the venom between Hadid and Bird demonstrated all too clearly Debate London's divided opinions.
So if we don't go up, we have little alternative but to sprawl out beyond the established boundaries of Greater London. The 2012 Olympics represents an unprecedented opportunity to expand and regenerate the Lee Valley and Thames Gateway - stretching from Canary Wharf and the proposed Stratford City to the Channel. Meanwhile, Heathrow's relentless expansion - marked by Terminal 5 - is the economic dynamo powering London's march westwards.
Again, the danger is to repeat the mistakes of the past.
The key to cogent expansion is the ability to foster a sense of civic pride among Londoners.
This was a factor glaringly lacking in earlier attempts to colonise London's hinterland, namely the Thamesmead Estate.
Tristram Hunt said the project had been blighted by a lack of public transport and social amenities, among other factors.
Perhaps we have learned from earlier experiments with urban growth though. Richard Rogers, chief adviser to London Mayor Ken Livingstone on architecture and urbanism, cited Canary Wharf as the great London success story, where high-density construction sits comfortably with quality design. Championing the Thames Gateway as potentially a great new city, Rogers stressed the relationship between design and social inclusion was very important and could not be considered an add-on as London spreads itself outwards.
In a rare example of unity, delegates accepted that urban expansion - both geographic and economic - is complicated by the push for sustainable progress. How can London grow while simultaneously reducing its carbon footprint?
Sunand Prasad, RIBA president elect and co-founder of Penoyre & Prasad, suggested growth itself was not the problem, rather it was Londoners' 'fetish' for growth.
Suggesting London's business community should take responsibility for tackling sustainable development, Prasad recommended a sliding scale of taxation to fund research and development of green technologies. 'If a boom town can't be green which town can?'
Prasad said. 'Those that are benefiting most from London's economic boom should contribute most, ' he added.
Green Party London mayoral candidate Sian Berry said that a boom town that refuses to be green simply will not function, which means that getting basic urban fundamentals like housing and transport absolutely right is essential. This, she insisted, includes encouraging as many Londoners to cycle to work as use the Tube. Convincing a Thames Gateway resident to pedal 40km every day to work in central London seems a remote dream, however.
At the close of the four-day debate, an audience member - himself an architect - was heard to complain: 'I feel cheated, I got no answers.'
Arguably there is no one solution to balancing good design, sustainability and appropriate density with London's insatiable appetite for living space. But what was strikingly clear throughout the debate was the extreme polarisation of opinion - a sign that London may never agree a coherent strategy for expansion.