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Tower inquiry to set tone for London's skyline

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The Heron Tower inquiry started on Tuesday and is due to run for four weeks. Clare Melhuish considers the pros and cons of an inquiry that will gauge how the events of 11 September have influenced attitudes towards the construction of high-rise buildings The atrocities of 11 September have firmly placed the issue of construction of high-rise buildings in the spotlight, particularly in high-risk areas such as international financial centres - in this case the City of London.

But it seems that, after the initial shockwave of reaction, the case in favour of tall buildings, represented in guidelines produced this summer by both CABE and the GLA, remains largely unchanged. The GLA, which has always supported the Heron Tower proposal, sees it as an important test case for the justification of tall buildings, designed with proper regard for architectural quality, security and evacuation procedures - and one which should never have been called in by the Secretary of State last January in response to criticisms voiced by English Heritage.

The Bishopsgate site, occupied by buildings dating from the 1960s and '70s, and located near Liverpool Street Station, was put forward by the Heron Property Corporation as the subject of a limited design competition in 1998. Architect KPF, a practice with a long track-record of designing tall buildings, notes that its winning scheme was not originally particularly tall.However, due to the development of the brief for highquality, flexible office space targeted towards prospective multinational tenants, and the constraints of the site, the current scheme now stands at 222m, including a 39m mast.This makes it the highest building in the City after Tower 42 (the former NatWest tower).

Lee Polisano of KPF stresses that the current proposal is the result of an intensive process of refinement, through consultation and collaboration with various parties. Notwithstanding the work which has been done, EH continues to stand in opposition to the scheme, alongside Westminster City Council, Save Britain's Heritage, St Paul's Cathedral and Tony Tugnutt (a former planner with the Corporation of London), while the Corporation, GLA and CABE will endorse its merits.

THE CASE FOR The scheme sets a high standard of design and strategic thinking which would provide an exemplary model for future tall buildings.

As a model of high-density, innovative contemporary office design at the heart of the City, the tower represents a significant contribution to the economic future of London.

The site is well-located for such a building, forming part of an 'Eastern cluster'of tall structures and is placed at close proximity to the major transport interchange of Liverpool Street.

There is an increasing shortage of available land for redevelopment within the city, compared with financial sector growth.

The tower will make a symbolic contribution to the skyline of the City and constitutes a new 'gateway' to it at this point.

The provision for high-density development, incorporating mixed-use from lower ground to first floor level, provides a focus for urban regeneration in accordance with the recommendations of the Urban Ta sk Fo r ce .

The tower makes a positive contribution to the vitality of the public realm by creating a new, permeable public space at ground level with shops and cafes.

The height of the building allows for a slim, elegant profile in conjunction with a highly efficient form of internal organisation hingeing on an 'offset' core placed on the south side as a solar buffer.

The tower form can be seen 'in the round', ensuring that it is of equally high aesthetic quality from every aspect.

The design of the internal workspace, subdivided into 'villages'of three storeys each, focussed around individual atrium spaces, is distinguished in generating a high level of socialisation and interaction at work.

The quality of detail, materials and engineering craftsmanship is high, and the light colour and transparency are a significant improvement on the existing buildings.

The scheme sets a new standard for environmental efficiency, comfort, and responsibility, in the design of tall buildings.

THE CASE AGAINST By vastly increasing the value of the site, a planning permission for a building of this height, publicly supported by the mayor, opens the way for a free-for-all for developers.

Recent research shows there is no case for arguing an economic need for tall buildings to sustain London's position as a World City.

Such a high-density development would place an unbearable strain on an urban infrastructure that is already overloaded.

The profile of the building encroaches on views towards and from the Tower of London World Heritage site, and on views of St Paul's Cathedral from Waterloo Bridge and Somerset House Terrace, creating a new precedent for erosion of protected views.

The tower dominates and overshadows the local street environment, including existing historic buildings of architectural significance, such as the church of St Botolph, Bishopsgate, and the Middlesex Street Conservation Area The scheme sets a precedent for competing boroughs to vie for ever higher buildings, posing a potential long-term threat to London's uniquely green and tranquil quality.

LIVINGSTONE OUTLINES SKYSCRAPER POLICY London mayor Ken Livingstone last week issued his interim guidelines for tall buildings.

The mayor's guidelines highlight the benefits of tall buildings to maintain a supply of top-quality floorspace, promote regeneration and 'landmark' important locations. The guidelines also identify the advantages of locating concentrations of new office floorspace close to existing public transport infrastructure.

'These guidelines will give all those involved or affected greater certainty of the criteria I'll be applying to the applications that come before me for decision, 'said Livingstone.

The criteria include varied and interesting elevations, well articulated tops of buildings, the wind impact to be within acceptable limits, largely publicly accessible ground levels, appropriate materials and the surrounding area to be capable of handling increased pedestrian traffic.

The mayor also reiterated the need for the ten existing strategic views to be reviewed.

The full report can be viewed at www. london. gov. uk .The final draft of the London Plan is due in early 2002.

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