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Hand-wringing won’t help us come to terms with tall buildings

Paul Finch

Regarding London’s skyline, the question is not whether height is acceptable but whether what is proposed is well designed, writes Paul Finch

New London Architecture and GL Hearn have set the cat amongst the pigeons with their most recent report on the wave of tall building proposals now being made within London’s boundaries – more than 400 towers, defined as rising 20 storeys or more.

This is not secret information, since planning applications are a public matter. On the other hand, the aggregation of current applications makes intriguing (and, for some, disturbing) reading, since the numbers roughly double the amount of towers that currently occupy the capital’s skyline.

Since the launch of the Skyline campaign (supported by the AJ) to review/question/delay/block tall buildings, the numbers being proposed have risen inexorably. It must be a disappointment to the organisers that their efforts appear to have been entirely in vain.

Those questioning the transformation of London’s skyline are thoughtful people concerned about the future of the capital, so it is worth considering exactly why the new trend for height has assumed such proportions, and whether the task of height-sceptics needs to be redefined to have some positive impact in the light of developments coming our way.

There is no evidence that you get density as a result of height

My observation is that the sort of people who oppose tall buildings also oppose green belt development. Their values are not those of the property industry, they do not like the idea of untrammelled development and in some cases they just want development pressure (wherever it manifests itself) to go away. I have yet to hear a principled argument from the anti-height brigade in favour of new towns and green belt development as an alternative to densification of the city.

The irony is that we know that towers are not a synonym for density. Unless you think Hong Kong proximity is desirable, there is no evidence that you get density as a result of height. The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea is first or second in the London borough density league, yet it has relatively few towers and lots of green space.

However, it has to be acknowledged that, when it comes to density on a specific single site, tall building frequently beats anything else in terms not just of density, but profitability, too. That is why we have 400 tall building applications going through the planning process – calculated development gambles based partly on overseas investor demand but also on the more important shortage of housing generally. By the time they are built, prices will probably have risen by a significant percentage.

This looks too good to be true. I would put it the other way found: it is too true to be good.

We can agonise all we like about the failure of the political class in the UK, and in London in particular, to deal with the most fundamental environmental requirement of citizenry – decent housing. Whatever the analysis, it won’t help us deal with the specific dilemma posed by all those tall building applications, which is whether, broadly speaking, we welcome them as a way of producing much-needed housing, or whether we go into shock-horror mode and reject this form of housing supply as an aesthetic non-starter.

The failure of successive administrations in London to develop a proper tall buildings policy, as recommended by Cabe and English Heritage at the start of this century, is a minor tragedy. The failure to provide sufficient housing is a major scandal. I believe we will have to accept that we are going to have a wave of tall building development and the question is not whether height is acceptable, but whether what is proposed is well designed, particularly at the base.

Pragmatism is likely to determine what happens next. The horse has already bolted.


Readers' comments (2)

  • I personally think that's how you define a world city, by the tall buildings in the sky line, I would personally like to see more. I am very proud of them. Would New York, Shanghai or Dubai be the cities they are without the tall buildings

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  • Tall buildings should be judged by 2 things:
    1. What they give back to the public locally, principally at its base to the public realm, &
    2. Design Quality.
    Given they are seen from further afield and have a wider impact, they should meet a higher quality threshold than buildings with only local impact.

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