The City of London’s planning chief Annie Hampson talks about the issues facing the Square Mile ahead of her trip to MIPIM
Next month, Hampson will celebrate two years in post after succeeding the long-serving Peter Rees as chief planning officer at the City of London Corporation.
This week, she is part of a corporation delegation to Cannes, selling the City as an investment destination for the world’s top property developers.
With increasing controversy over ever taller skyscraper development, including rights of light issues, the Architects’ Journal sat down with Hampson to discuss her vision for the City in the coming decade.
How long will it be before the City can’t squeeze in any more tall buildings?
’There are an awful lot [of tall buildings] in the pipeline, delivering quite a lot of floor space. But at some point around 2025 people might start beginning to say, ’How do we generate even more floor space?’ We anticipate at that point more than 400,000 people will be working in the City.
’We’ve got to recognise that there will become a point where the City will just not be able to accommodate more - I don’t think we’re by any means there yet, though.’
Are you saying that the City is objectively restricted in terms of what it can do in terms of creating opportunities for future development?
’Well, we obviously have a lot of constraints in terms of height from the safeguarding of strategic views across London plus conservation areas and planning policy on height restrictions around St Paul’s Cathedral, not to mention the flight path for City Airport.
’But Peter used to talk about a vegetable patch concept – to some to degree these buildings can come and go. Buildings don’t have an infinite life. In the City we have redeveloped buildings which are 20 or 30 years old, so even some of the early skyscrapers may well one day come up again for redevelopment.
‘But although I don’t think we fix the skyline forever, one has to recognise the City is a Square Mile – it is not a huge area. It is possible that in a future world someone might say that the settings of St Paul’s and the Tower of London aren’t as important as they are considered now. But within the constraints that we’ve got at the moment there aren’t an infinite number of sites.’
Source: Visualhouse and Dan Lowe
What issues does the finite space in the City have for future building design?
’There’s very much indication that the City is intensifying its use. So the days of huge boardrooms, senior staff having huge amounts of space, I think are over. Already, people are working in very different ways. While the numbers working in the City are hugely increasing, are they in the City every day of the week? Are they working two days or three days or hot desking?
’Buildings might work harder in the future as opposed to sitting empty while people are sort of on foreign business trips for two or three days a week. That’s really changing.’
One justification which helped win planning for the Gherkin – the building which kicked off the City’s current high rise cluster - was its high quality design. Do the buildings which have followed in its wake it have to work as hard to prove their design quality?
’We are still very, very keen to attract buildings of very high quality in the City. They are still marking the skyline and are truly significant buildings for London’s image and the City’s image in London. I think there has been some discussion as to whether they all need to shout or whether they need to have a dialogue with each other.
’But it’s very important that the City retains its connection with high quality architecture - it makes us slightly different from some other areas where they haven’t had that sort of privilege to attract those sorts of buildings. I wouldn’t like the image to go out that we’re dumbing down architecture in the City because it doesn’t matter anymore. I think it very much does matter.’
Stirling’s No 1 Poultry
But could encouraging high quality architecture which could be listed in 30 years’ time store up problems by restricting future development? We have seen with James Stirling’s building at No1 Poultry that even making alterations to some of these offices can be very controversial.
’No1 Poultry was a particularly sort of sensitive building because it was such a controversial building in its day. As you know a lot of listed buildings were demolished for it. You’re right though, and it is something both we and Historic England and others have discussed - what do you do about these key sort of buildings that you’re creating. Are they potentially the listed buildings of the future? Lloyds, as you know, has been listed.
’It would be a very sad position to be in in terms of architecture to say: ‘Well we’re just going to build awful, square box buildings’. I have talked to developers who seem relatively relaxed about it and so it is not grounds for dumbing down architecture and it is important that we do create world class buildings.’
Already on some days the Eastern cluster can be quite crowded and difficult to walk around. During office hours it is probably the most densely populated place in the UK. How can architects help to relieve this pressure, which is only likely to increase?
’It is an issue we are very conscious of. There are all sorts of other things that are potentially happening. Something like 22 Bishopsgate was envisaged as a sort of village community, which was almost intended to limit the degree to which people need to move about. There are going be internal facilities, food courts and that the workers will be able to get their dry cleaning done in the building. There is going to be a doctor, there is going to be dentist on site. So to some degree it is going to create its own sort of community. It is anticipated that nearly 12,000 people will work in that building.
So you are creating something that is like a community. But equally we do recognise that people absolutely like to get out of buildings and sort of breathe a bit, don’t they?
’One of the things that happened with the Cheesegrater was that effectively a six storey space was created underneath. We are very keen, wherever we can, to replicate that. We recognise there are tensions and security issues but if we can get access to buildings at ground floor level either through straightforward retailing or open areas which have the flexibility to be used for exhibitions, meeting spaces, and so on, we do very much sort of encourage that.
‘Again, if there are opportunities to creating roof gardens, green walls, green roofs, green whatever, again that is something that we would very much encourage. We are very keen to work with architects and developers on their schemes and like to see them come in as early as possible so that we can work together creating beneficial spaces.’
How can wider urban design – looking at the spaces in between buildings – help the densification agenda?
’It is about looking at the City as a total planning environment as opposed to purely buildings. Crossrail is set to make the City even more attractive as a location for office because means huge numbers of people can get here very, very quickly. The City was very supportive of Crossrail but we don’t deny that there is a potential tension in how we accommodate all these people. We are doing some work with spatial research firm Space Syntax on, among other things, how we get people out of the Crossrail stations and into the main body of the City safely and how we can improve the areas that are immediately around the stations as places. It is ongoing work and is fairly raw at this early stage.
’We are very much looking at whether we can improve various transport interchanges. We are doing a lot of work at Aldgate and effectively creating a new urban square. That is a very significant new bit of open space in the City and Make Architects has designed a pavilion for that.
’At the Bank junction we are looking at whether we can take as much traffic out of that as possible to make it a much better environment for streams of people. We recognise that most people, once they’ve done their journey by public transport, are largely either pedestrians or cyclists in the City. Possibly that is very different to anywhere else.
’Virtually nobody is now driving into the City, so we don’t have that problem. Most buildings now are built without any sort of car parking at all.’
’It could be that there will be more shared spaces like at Exhibition Road in Kensington, so that the City has a different feel say in the mornings than it would at night. We are exploring all those sorts of things to maximise space for people in the City without stopping it actually operating which clearly it needs to.