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Tall buildings and heritage are absolutely not irreconcilable

Paul Finch
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Ending the year on a high – whatever the heritage implications

Eric Parry’s impressive tower design, along with RSHP’s Cheesegrater, PLP’s replacement design for the Pinnacle, Wilkinson Eyre’s adjacent project and the Gherkin just across the road will make a small patch in the City of London a focus for the best cluster of office buildings in the world.

An extravagant-sounding claim but justified, I believe, because these buildings have been designed to work not simply as commercial envelopes, but to embrace and contribute to ideas about the public realm that extend from environs to interior uses that are invitational rather than excluding.

A small patch in the City of London has the best cluster of office buildings in the world

In the case of the Cheesegrater, its diminishing profile broke new ground in the City by creating offices where every floor has a different area. It previously appeared to have escaped the attention of the world of estate agency that occupiers do not require replica floorplates. More importantly, the impossibility of providing significant facilities at the top of the building has been offset by the generosity of space (and volume) at the base, creating a significant civic presence.

The Pinnacle replacement is a different kettle of fish. Slightly lower than the Helter Skelter design granted planning permission a few years back, it has managed to pack in a huge amount of additional space in what might have appeared as a monolithic slab but for the presence of more exotic neighbours. The internal programme is anything but conventional, however, since it includes public space and facilities, shared social space for occupiers, and a generous ‘public room’.

This last feature is now a requirement by the City of London planners in respect of significant towers, and follows two precedents. The first was provision of collective space at the top of Foster’s Gherkin, plus a restaurant floor. Both these features were and are private, and it is a sign of the changes in thinking that these days the requirement would be for public or quasi-public space. The precedent for that is, of course, the splendid top floor of the Walkie Talkie, a building that acts as a magnet for moaning minnies. Even they cannot deny its generosity of provision (including dedicated lifts), which is now being replicated in other buildings.

Parry’s building provides an amalgam of elements described above. It has a generous public square at the base, continuing the piazza idea of the Miesian Commercial Union tower by GMW, which it replaces. It has a large public room. It has what is described as Europe’s biggest rooftop restaurant. It lacks a nickname, but then so does the Pinnacle replacement; ditto the Heron Tower.

Compulsory reading for anyone with an interest in towers, is the latest guidance on the subject by Historic England (HE). It is worth noting that the Pinnacle replacement design prompted the most positive imaginable response from the heritage body, perhaps because of that modest height reduction. In practice HE is not necessarily opposed to tall buildings. However, the document’s overall impression is profoundly negative. This may be the result of the experience of HE’s predecessor English Heritage in fighting major public inquiries over the Heron, Shard and Walkie Talkie. It lost all three and its contentions about view impact were roundly rejected.

It would have been wiser to produce revised joint guidance with Cabe, which we are promised next year. Tall buildings and heritage are absolutely not irreconcilable, as the recent history of the City of London amply demonstrates, but this requires more skill and commitment than is evident in too many towers now proposed across the capital. As ever, design quality is critical.

 

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