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Q&A: A debate with Rowan Moore on London's future skyline

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The Observer’s architecture critic Rowan Moore answers questions about the newspaper’s joint Skyline campaign with the AJ and discusses the threats to the capital from a new wave of poorly designed towers

The author was asked about the future of the capital’s skyline and the campaign during an interactive session on The Guardian’s website yesterday.

Q: Zavaell
Is the [capital’s] planning strong enough to take an overview of each application? And what environmental standards does the Mayor’s office work to?

A: Rowan Moore
No planning is not strong enough. It’s a fundamental weakness of tall buildings that they require higher levels of servicing. I’d like to see this point taken on board more when considering planning decisions.

Re: standards, they have to conform to current building regulations, plus commercial developers often like to give them a high BREEAM rating (though that is optional). Under Ken Livingstone conspicuous towers were encouraged to be “sustainable”. One result are the laughable turbines on top of Strata SE1. The top section of the Shard was also supposed to have an environmental purpose but in the end they found easier to put some kit in the basement.

[Broadway Malyan’s] St Georges Tower is also supposed to have a windmill on top - I am not sure what is actually happening with this.Future generations may wonder at these weird, seemingly purposeless, doodads on top of these towers.

Q: SimonLegg
People want to live in towers. The higher up the flat, the more they are willing to pay - look at Trellick Tower, or Metro Towers at the Elephant. And towers add shape and contrast to cities. They make geography. And they’re not occupied by the super-rich, but by people who simply choose to live up high. Two hundred new towers? Not one tenth as many as we need.

A: Rowan Moore
The recent Ipsos MORI poll found that most Londoners wouldn’t want to live in towers, but many do.

Happy to see towers built as part of the mix of types available. I just want some thought applied to where they go, what they look like, and what kind of urban places they make.I’d also challenge the idea that London ‘needs’ towers. I think the Trellick looks terrific, but it’s pretty hideous at ground level.


Q: ConcernedofNottingHi
What proactive measures can ordinary Londoners take in hope of preventing this proposed blight on our cherished skyline, or do you think it is too late to preserve our unique urban landscape?

A: Rowan Moore
For a start write to your MP, your GLA member, and Boris. Get as many other people as possible to do so.

A lot of people are saying that objecting is ‘too late’. Certainly a lot of ill-considered towers have already been approved. But there could be very many more in the future that might be prevented.

Q: fripouille
Do you have any ideas on how this much-needed public debate should be structured? For example, should it be a one-off major debate that would involve finding a global solution for the whole of the city, or could it be divvied up and organised in more detail according to the needs of each area to be developed in order to involve those who live there?

A: Rowan Moore
I’d say by all means possible. A debate is planned at the LSE in June, and we want to keep it going via the Observer, Guardian Cities, the Architects’ Journal, and New London Architecture.

It’s a genuinely difficult question - what would be the best planning structure for London - which is all the more reason for a full discussion of the options. Boris and co haven’t shown much an interest in such a thing.

Last week I went on a school trip with my daughters (age 10) class. We changed trains at London Bridge station. All the kids were extremely excited seeing the Shard close up and they recognised all the other iconic buildings, the Gherkin, Walkie talkie etc. Boys and girls were equally thrilled. The new generation has embraced the ever-changing London skyline.

From my window I can see the Shard in the distance. But I am more concerned about the bleakness of the landscape in between [the towers]. My question is, how can we ensure the right mix of buildings, iconic, functional and affordable. In many ways architecture can offer answers to practical solutions.

A: Rowan Moore
I wonder how excited these kids will be about 200 towers rather less inspiring than the Shard. You’re right about the bleakness of the in-between spaces, even when you get close to these new towers. I find it amazing that you can stand ten feet from the Shard, and in spite of the huge amount of money that has poured into the site, the surroundings are still a mess.

The view from your window - glittering tower plus bleak streets is a diagram of a city I don’t want.

Q: mmp997
The basic contrast is between continental planning - cities like Vienna, Prague, Paris, Copenhagen, or Stockholm - and what an Austrian architect friend of mine calls ‘Anglo-Saxon chaos’ which creates the kind of dynamic exemplified by one commentator above: ‘London is so ugly anyway, why not throw in a few more skyscrapers?’ You want beauty, you have to think of the city as a whole.

Otherwise London will soon be like Bangkok or Shenzhen - ugly as sin.

A: Rowan Moore
For sure London is looser, more dynamic, and therefore less pretty than Vienna.

But it’s wrong to say that therefore it has to be completely chaotic. It has a proud history of decisive public interventions that have shaped its built fabric - the building acts following the Great Fire, the Clean Air acts, the invention of council housing, the strategic views of St Pauls, the Green Belt. All were invented in response to new challenges. We need something similar now.

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