AJ NEWS FEATURE: Unprecedented demand for office space could lead to a new crop of high-rise buildings appearing within the Square Mile, writes Colin Marrs
In early March, a group of Corporation of London officers and politicians gathered in a dark Guildhall committee room. Their discussions focused on a document outlining a number of options which, if pursued, could leave a profound mark on the capital’s skyline over the coming 20 years. The report mooted an extension of the current Eastern Cluster – where tall buildings are currently guided – along with an option to allow more skyscrapers on sites elsewhere in the Square Mile.
The economic basis for the discussion is strong. Over the next decade and beyond, development pressure in the City is only set to grow, according to Dan Bayley, head of office leasing at property adviser BNP Paribas Real Estate. ‘We are at a stage where vacancy rates in the core prime area are at historic lows and prime rents are at, or close to, historic highs,’ he says. ‘If you look at the high-level fundamentals, employment growth in London is forecast to grow significantly, so we are going to need more office space.’
The current rate of office construction is a tangible sign of the City’s recovery from the global downturn. In 2013, just 111,500m² of office development was completed in the City as a whole, according to figures from Deloitte’s London Office Crane Survey. That figure is set to jump to 278,000m² in 2016. Data for winter 2015 – the most recent available – shows 528,000² of office space under construction, which makes up more than half of London’s total.
The cluster’s origins stretch back to April 1992, when 100 pounds of Semtex wrapped in a tonne of fertiliser exploded in a van parked outside the Baltic Exchange. As well as killing three people, the IRA bomb weakened the building’s structure so severely that English Heritage recommended its demolition and replacement with an outstanding example of modern architecture. At the time, the City was facing another space squeeze, and a decision was taken to build high – with the first manifestation of the new approach by Norman Foster nicknamed the ‘Erotic Gherkin’ (the first part of the epithet didn’t last long).
The Eastern Cluster was embedded into planning policy, although the way it developed owes much to the informal guidance of the City’s former chief planner Peter Rees. The cluster was never defined as a line on a map – Rees was wary of this creating a ‘cliff’ between one side of the line and another. Instead, his vision (never written down but largely implemented) was to create a ‘cone’, sloping down from the centre building, Kohn Pedersen Fox’s aborted Pinnacle, which has now morphed into PLP Architecture’s 22 Bishopsgate.
Bryan Avery, principal at Avery Associates, describes Rees’ approach as a ‘poetic vision’. ‘The idea was to create this horizon which appears to be a natural form – Peter talked of it as a mountain range,’ he says. ‘The only way of maintaining that vision at the same time as allowing more development would be to expand the cluster. Allowing outliers to spring up around the edges on random sites creates incongruity.’
However, Avery says that the principle of clustering tall buildings comes with drawbacks. ‘By its very nature, the cluster diminishes the design of each building within it. The Gherkin has been upstaged by the Cheesegrater. Now that will be upstaged by the PLP and Parry buildings, even though they are more conventional and ordinary in design terms.’
Gwyn Richards thinks there are enough organic-shaped buildings and designs need to calm down a bit
It is a problem that City planners are aware of and already attempting to address, according to Chris Wilkinson, founder of Wilkinson Eyre, which is currently working on a 40-storey tower at 6-8 Bishopsgate and 150 Leadenhall Street. ‘We are working with Gwyn Richards – it is one of his first projects as the corporation’s new head of design. He seems to think there are enough organic-shaped buildings and designs need to calm down a bit. They have to respond to each other rather than all shout for attention.’
Barbara Weiss, founder of the Skyline campaign, which aims to stop inappropriate high-rise development, calls the cluster an ‘uncontrolled mess that nobody knows what to do with’. She says: ‘I was at a conference organised by New London Architecture this week and I got the feeling that people are quite apologetic about it. It feels like an unresolved design problem with all the gaps in between buildings.’
Despite her reservations about implementation of the cluster, Weiss is firmly in favour of the restrictions it provides, and would resist moves to expand it further. ‘The Skyline campaign had a hands-off approach when it comes to the City,’ she says. ’The problems are different between commercial and residential tall buildings – offices in single ownership are much easier to pull down when they are past their sell-by date.’
Expanding the cluster or allowing more tall buildings nearer to existing residential areas would be a mistake, she says. ‘The idea is exactly the sort of thing we are fighting. It is one thing working in a canyon of towers and another to be living in or next to one.’
Existing planning rules may be what stops the City from allowing more tall buildings outside the cluster
Even Eric Parry, the architect behind 1 Undershaft, a 73-storey tower that is set to become be the tallest building the cluster (planning committee 24 May), urges a pause before a change of strategy is considered. He says: ‘We need a breathing space to get a better perspective on the question of tall buildings across the whole capital. The 20-year process of building the cluster is coming to a head and we need to review it. With all respect to CGIs, it’s only when the thing is fully built that you can judge its success.’
In any event, existing planning rules may be what stops the City from allowing many more tall buildings outside of the Eastern Cluster. The mayor of London’s planning policy protects views of St Paul’s Cathedral from different points around London, and Wren’s masterpiece is also protected by corporation rules limiting the height of nearby developments. When you throw in conservation areas and even the City of London flightpath, there is not a lot of room left.
For this reason, Rees’ successor Annie Hampson says she does not expect the current process of reviewing the corporation’s strategy to result in radical departures from existing policy. ‘I think the boundary of the Eastern Cluster might adjust very slightly,’ she says. ‘There are one or two areas where you might just be able to deliver a tall building without breaching the rules.’ One of these, she says, might be the northern end of Broadgate, stretching up the west side of Norton Folgate towards Shoreditch. ‘It won’t deliver hundreds of new skyscrapers. We might be talking one, two, three sort of tall buildings in those locations,’ she says.