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Profession divided over new tall buildings guidance

PLP Architecture's latest proposal for 22 Bishopsgate - formerly the Pinnacle [aka the Helter Skelter]

New guidance from Historic England (HE) to help with the planning and design of tall buildings has received a mixed reaction from the profession

The 14 page document warns that ill thought-out skyscrapers can ‘seriously harm’ places and result in some areas being ‘badly and irrevocably damaged’.

The updated guidance comes amid a surge in new applications for tall buildings. In the past few weeks plans have emerged for the City of London’s tallest tower, designed by Eric Parry Architects, and a controversial 72-storey giant by Renzo Piano in Paddington (AJ 10.12,15). PLP’s 278m-tall replacement for KPF’s scrapped Pinnacle tower at 22 Bishopsgate was also recently given the nod by London Mayor Boris Johnson.  

Historic England said there needed to be ‘careful consideration [over] the location and design of tall buildings’ and that the new advice reflected its ‘recent experience and restated the commitment in national planning policy to protect the historic environment’.

Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, said: ‘There are many tall buildings being proposed at the moment, particularly in London, that could have a profound effect on the character of the places where people, work and live. The aim of the planning system is to deliver economic success while reinforcing local distinctiveness. We can do this if we all take real care to ensure that tall buildings are not just beautifully designed, but also in the right place.’

’London is at risk of being badly and irrevocably damaged’

He added: ‘London’s historic environment is one of our greatest assets – culturally, socially and economically. It lies at the heart of London’s identity and distinctiveness, and its very success. It is at risk of being badly and irrevocably damaged.’

HE’s new guidance was welcomed by architect Barbara Weiss, who has campaigned under the Skyline banner for a rethink of the capital’s tall buildings policy.

She told the AJ: ‘London is experiencing as never before a deluge of planning applications for super-tall buildings – some up to 70 storeys high – mostly residential, mostly for sites that ill-afford their presence, whether because of lack of appropriate infrastructure or because of the harm that they will cause to unique historic landmarks and to the very fine grain of London’s urban fabric.

‘Council policies are being rewritten to allow a free-for-all and complex, large-scale applications are being rushed through the planning process by the boroughs before Boris leaves his post.

‘It is therefore extremely important for the future of London that HE should be defending its historic environment and character, not allowing commercial, generic developments to take priority over the quality of the city we all wish to live in.’

Unlike its previous advice in 2007, the guidance is not badged as a joint document with Design Council Cabe, although it is understood a separate document penned by both Historic England and Cabe will be published next year.

Former Cabe chief executive Richard Simmons said that, while the new guidance was ‘worthy’, it could have been ‘so much more useful if it had the wider focus that Cabe or others concerned with developing cities with an eye to the future could bring.’

‘The guidance looks too narrow for modern needs’

He said: ‘It is common sense to have a plan and good design; obviously tall buildings should be “in the right place”. But the guidance looks too narrow for modern needs: so bent on protecting the “historic environment”, “character” and skyline – especially in London – that it misses vital questions: are tall buildings the right way to change a city looking forward, not just back? Are we getting tall buildings because we won’t ease up on the Green Belt – what should give, skylines or fields? Can super–density deliver good quality of life?’

He added: ‘The guidance echoes the old Cabe/English Heritage advice, but the world has moved on. The dilemmas tall buildings present are no longer just about ‘character’ and how places look. They are at the heart of the debate about how we adapt to global urbanisation. I hope that when joint guidance with Cabe is eventually produced it will address some of these issues. Meanwhile architects and planners should see this document as dealing with only one dimension of a bigger picture’

Planning expert Peter Stewart of Peter Stewart Consultancy added: ‘This was previously a joint Cabe/English Heritage note, but this new version is badged solely by what is now Historic England.

‘HE’s remit is the historic environment, and tall buildings can have an effect on the historic environment. But heritage issues are no more than a subset of the range of issues raised by tall building proposals, other of which are outside HE’s competence.’

‘It is unsatisfactory the only guidance of skyscrapers comes from a heritage organisation’

He added: ‘There are some great new tall buildings being built in London, but also some terrible ones – and the problems with the terrible ones are not mainly to do with “heritage impacts”. There are two main issues: not enough planning and not enough quality control. Neither of these are heritage matters.’

Stewart concluded: ‘There’s nothing much wrong with what this new guidance says, but it seems unsatisfactory that the only national guidance on the subject comes from a heritage organisation.’

A height comparison of London's newest skyscrapers

A height comparison of London’s newest skyscrapers





Readers' comments (2)

  • Ben Derbyshire

    The proliferation of tall towers is one controversial aspect of the trend to densify cities but not the only one. At HTA, LBA, PRP and PTE Architects, we were also concerned about the immediate social and environmental impacts of very dense developments and their long-term sustainability. We also observe that this new superdensity – which we’ve dubbed hyperdensity when it’s over 350 homes or dwellings per hectare - derives, not from our cities' distinctive and popular urban forms, but from global development patterns. We may well ask, is London especially becoming a victim of its own success, meeting demand by sacrificing the very distinctiveness which makes people want to live and work there?

    Though the rash of tall towers is a concern, our report, 'Superdensity - the sequel' is not another campaign against those per se – that genie is out of the bottle. Rather, it gives positive guidance on how to combine ambitious densities with popular and familiar urban forms.

    It can be downloaded as a pdf at www.superdensity.co.uk

    Ben Derbyshire
    Chair, The Housing Forum
    Managing Partner, HTA Design LLP

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  • EH and DC Cabe consulted on joint guidance12 months ago...so why the delay? In fairness, this HE Advice Note is not narrowly heritage focussed; it identifies some advantages of tall buildings in the right places and advocates the identification of such locations in local plans. Nevertheless, with so many tall building proposals around, it is urgently needed to highlight the damage they can cause to historic places and to guide imminent decisions. Unfortunately guidance often gets ignored by powerful decision makers, as when the execrable 20 Fenchurch Street was approved. The cover photograph on the Advice Note, showing it in conjunction with Tower Bridge, just about says it all.
    Typically, the AJ relates the guidance exclusively to London, but of course it is relevant to all our great cities.

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