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Gwyn Richards: 'The Shard shouldn't have been built'

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Gwyn Richards, recently appointed head of design on the City of London planning team, on the capital’s skyline

How do you and your predecessor, Peter Rees, differ?
You are not likely to get as many sound-bites and controversial statements from me. Peter’s style is recognised as being quite colourful, but the important thing is that it is business as usual.

Are you hoping to redefine town planning within the City?
No, what I am hoping to do is refocus on the historical character. I am passionate about making the City much more inclusive. It has this reputation as an exclusive place for the rich and privileged.

Is public access essential in changing perceptions?
It is key. I absolutely understand the huge uneasiness about 20 Fenchurch Street [The Walkie Talkie]. It is a building which has attracted a lot of negative responses. But what is lost is that it is absolutely nailed down legally that you will be able to get free access to the top, and you have that sense of ownership, which can hopefully allow these buildings to be more endearing to the public.

Does the City of London have a more responsible approach to tall buildings than other London boroughs?
We don’t approach the City in a street-level view. We can escape from the criticism of other parts of London, which has seen an unregulated rash of tall buildings put up willy-nilly, seemingly without any kind of vision of where they should go.

Do you see a role for more architects in planning?
The worst buildings I can think of are the ones where planners have dabbled in the project. The architect can design a very good building, and then the value-engineers can come in and they start chipping away at the design quality. Architects are in a very difficult position to stop that from happening, but we are in a strong position to, because we can recommend a scheme depending on its quality and refinement.

Do some architects put their own egos into schemes rather than designing a building which would be best for the City?
Whether it is the architect or the developer, they often want to put their signature on the skyline. It’s important that these buildings have their own personality. But what we don’t want is a series of tombstones. If you take the Shard, it ruins protected views of St Paul’s and of the Tower of London. It shouldn’t have been built.

Westminster Council (where you came from) fought against plans for towers in Waterloo. Do you still oppose those schemes?
In Belgravia and Pimlico you have a timepiece, an 18th century impression of masterplanning the great estates. It has a strong identity, and towers would jar with and harm the overall sense of composition.

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