The ‘verified views’ submitted to planning cannot possibly replicate the lived experience of seeing with one’s own eyes, says Paul Finch
Last September, the Landscape Institute issued guidance on camera focal lengths that should be used in respect of verified views. This challenged orthodoxy by rejecting wide-angle 24mm lenses in favour of 50mm lenses, said to closely approximate what the eye actually sees; 35mm might be suitable in respect of tall buildings. Amenity group lobbyists are looking to government and heritage authorities to make this standard.
The problem about verified views is not simply, as some lobbyists claim, that they are used to hoodwink planners and inspectors into approving inappropriate development. The problem is that, as two-dimensional representations of a three-dimensional world, they cannot possibly replicate what the eye will ‘see’, because that would require an entirely bogus proposition about individual human beings and their psychological condition when they look at the ‘view’.
As ever, language and the meaning of words take a pounding when the worlds of property and planning meet, or, as often happens, clash. The word ‘view’ itself is far from being value-free.
Opponents of development often claim that a view ‘will be destroyed’; the way buildings are described, as having an ‘impact’ on their environment, is to adopt the language of the car crash. Disgracefully, we now have a world in which heritage dogma, that all new buildings are assumed to be ‘harmful’ to existing views unless it can be proved otherwise, is written into planning law.
The madness of a system which approves the new on the basis that it does not do ‘substantial harm’, even though it may cause some ‘harm’, has to be read to be believed. It is neophobia of a bizarre sort, completely oblivious to the rather obvious point that, to quote the townscape sage Peter Stewart, ‘everything was new once’. Did the rebuilt St Paul’s Cathedral do ‘less than substantial harm’ to the City of London skyline? Let’s hope so.
In various public inquires where I have given evidence, this question of views has been a bone thrown to the planning QCs for them to chew on as they grill their witnesses. In respect of Rafael Viñoly’s ‘Walkie Talkie’ tower in the City, it was suggested that on one of the pages in a 400 hundred-page set of documents, there was a verified view of how it would appear from (I think) Waterloo Bridge. Would I agree that this is what it would look like? I said it wouldn’t. But how could I deny the truth of a verified view, came the question?
My answer included points I still feel are valid about the arcane world of view production and debate. It would not look like the image as printed because (a) it was that two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world; (b) it discounted the effect – not impact – of foreground and distance; (c) the fourth dimension was missing, that is to say the viewer was treated as a statue rather than a living, moving being; (d) it assumed weather conditions which were a matter of untested prediction; and (e) it assumed that I knew or could remember what the previous ‘view’ would have been.
It is embarrassing when opponents of a development cast around for a single view from the 360 degrees available, which will be deeply offensive (to them at least), and then imply that the destroyed view is the only one that matters.
It is not necessarily developers who play fast and loose with the idea of visual “truth”
In the case of KPF’s Heron Tower in the City of London, English Heritage (now Historic England) and Westminster Council colluded in the chopping of trees along the Thames embankment – they called it ‘pollarding’ – in order to expose a view which had not previously existed! They then said this view was being destroyed. Luckily, they lost the appeal, in the process showing that it is not necessarily developers who play fast and loose with the idea of visual ‘truth’.
Here are some words that are relevant to what you may see from any given point: eyeline, skyline, horizon, border, foreground, backdrop, background, colour, light, sun, rain, day, night and so on. They are not synonyms; all can be important. Then there is the question of what you may be feeling like when you look at a ‘view’, or just look. You may have, for example, just trodden in some dogshit, or fallen in or out of love, or have a headache.
In short, claims about verified views, as with most other things in life, need to be taken in the round, never forgetting that here is always the possibility, if you don’t like what you’re looking at, of looking at something else.