Corporate and residential towers are being proposed across London, and are overshadowing World Heritage sites from Edinburgh to Bath. For some unaccountable reason we seem determined to vandalise the few remaining sites which retain the kind of human scale and timeless character that so attract people to them. In chasing the corporate tenant or the buy-to-let investor, we may not only be destroying our heritage, but killing the goose that lays the golden egg, for we will destroy what makes our cities and towns so attractive to tourists in the process.
If we look at London’s skyline, and compare it, say, to Paris, where up to now building heights have been regulated far more precisely, we are immediately struck by how much less is protected here than abroad. The current debates about tall buildings in London would have been unnecessary and superfluous in Paris, where tall buildings have been concentrated in the urban quarter of La Défense – outside of the historic area which, of course, continues to attract tourists and their spending power. This kind of approach can help to achieve a far more coherent sense of harmony and civic self-confidence than the alternative ‘free-for-all’ that will leave London and our other cities with a pockmarked skyline. Not just one carbuncle on the face of a much-loved old friend, but a positive rash of them that will disfigure precious views and disinherit future generations of Londoners.
The argument has been made that London must build tall buildings in order to protect its place as a global financial centre. Surely business seeks glamorous buildings? If this is so, then Canary Wharf already provides, like La Défense, a place for those statements of corporate aspiration to be made. Why can they not be concentrated there?
I am not opposed to all tall buildings. My concern is that they should be considered in context. If new skyscrapers are to be built, then it seems self-evident that they should stand together to establish a new skyline, and not compete with or confuse what is currently there. If clustered, then the virtue of height becomes something that can be truly celebrated. This solution, so clearly the case in Manhattan or La Défense, requires locations where intrusion into historically protected views can be avoided, and is therefore difficult to justify in places such as the City of London.
There is a real and urgent risk looming over us that in the drive to make historic cities like London and Edinburgh ‘world cities’ in the commercial sense, we simply make them more like every other city in the world. In doing so we dishonour and discredit their status, character and local distinctiveness. I suggest that the impact of new buildings can be softened by an acceptance of the existing street rhythms and plot sizes.
This is an edited version of the speech given by the Prince of Wales at the New Buildings in Old Places conference in London on 31 January