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Narrow views, heritage dogma and fear of the new

Paul Finch

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.


Readers' comments (13)

  • "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’ " Probably because that is what it was - a recognised tree management method. They didn't make the term up, proving I guess that the ‘truth’ of language is indeed slippery...

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  • It didn’t fool the planning inspector.

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  • I don't know about the planning inspector, but the trees in question surely aren't evergreens so wouldn't the view 'being exposed' have existed every winter?.
    Incidentally, the developer behind Heron Tower was the estimable Gerald Ronson, who - with the estimable Sir Eric Pickles - are the members of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation (an appendage of the MOHCLG, surprisingly enough) most involved in pushing the government (the planning application having been taken out of the hands of Westminster Council as planning authority) hard to take over Victoria Tower Gardens as the site for the National Holocaust Memorial.
    The Foundation's most recent press release, on 12th February - issued by Pickles and Jenrick - is worth reading.
    Robert Jenrick reaffirms his commitment to building the memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens, and the previous day's extraordinary general meeting of Westminster City Council's planning committee (to consider the pros and cons of the project before the proposal is heard by the Independent Planning Inspector later this year) is reviewed in decidedly partisan fashion.

    The Lord Pickles said:
    'While the announcement by Westminster City Council is no more than an expression of opinion, they should be thanked for their cooperation on technical aspects of the application, which will help the Secretary of State (or nominee) make the actual decision".

    Can anyone tell me whether the 'Independent Planning Inspector' is the same (if not in person) as the one whose comprehensive decision the hon Robert Jenrick decided to ignore on the WestFerry Printworks proposal?

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  • John Kellett

    I think people forget the simple fact that in NIMBY terms each and every Parish Church would have been a "monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend" as the places in which they were built were, at the time, nearly all consisting of tiny cottages. As indeed so would St Pauls Cathedral at the time of construction.
    What is needed is for contentious planning applications be accompanied by 3D models that can be 'investigated' in VR etc. If only for the simple reason that some planning officers and committee members cannot read drawings.

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  • 'Heritage dogma that all new buildings are harmful to existing views unless it can be proved otherwise'? Tosh. Written into planning law? Hardly! There's none so blind as them with only one eye. The assumption is not that any new buildng does harm. Nor are approvals where there is less than substantial harm to heritage, only harmful - in order to comply with policy, the harm to heritage must be offset by wider public benefits. I've rarely heard a thinner argument for abandoning requirements for design quality, or in support of naked greed in thrusting ever upwards for its own sake, which is clearly what the author supports.

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  • Thank you for re-stating my point, which is that evaluation of new design is framed in terms of assumed harm, which has to be prevented or mitigated. Even 'less than substantial harm' is still harm. Absurd neophobia. Incidentally, people with one eye are not blind.

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  • John Kellett, some people might not have liked individual designs, but parish churches are almost without exception intricately-detailed buildings with complex massing and high levels of design quality, and built of natural materials. To suggest that modern skyscrapers have any of the qualities of these buildings, or indeed of St Paul's, is so ridiculous I can only assume you're being facetious. I agree though about committee members and planning officers often not being able to read drawings (see if you can find the unbuildable visuals for Preston station's new entrance, and compare with the as-built result!), and that there is now no excuse for not having every new proposal 3D modelled in its context.

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  • 'Modern skyscrapers'. There's a phrase to conjure with. The first one appeared in 1887.

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  • John Kellett: parish churches were built for, and often by the parishioners as social spaces, and not for some foreign investor who wants to monetise a tiny plot for his advantage alone. The comparison between a parish church and a shoddy glass and steel thing, foisted on the local community all too frequently to its detriment, is naive.

    It doesn't matter how the thing is presented at the design stage - fancy 3D models cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

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  • Using single "key" viewpoints of a proposed development, whether a tall building or something of more diminutive scale, only provides part of a meaningful assessment. Kinetic views are much more likely to give a genuine representation, and need to be in a format which gives depth and perspective. In some cases, the viewer only needs to move 10 or 20m for impacts to change.

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