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Tall buildings are the challenge of our era

London skyline
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It is the challenge of our era to deal with the development of tall buildings in London, says Chris Wilkinson

London has developed slowly since the Great Fire in 1666 apart from the WWII blitz which precipitated a lot of necessary rebuilding. Restrictions championed by English Heritage set up the strategic views of St. Paul’s Cathedral and, although this has been successful in many ways, it has not helped in securing a coordinated and beautiful skyline.

If anything, the constraints have led to the growth of isolated high rise towers, apart from, of course, Canary Wharf which has successfully achieved its own high rise cluster.

The main City cluster would be fine if not for the Walkie Talkie

The main City cluster, which was defined in Peter Rees’ time as chief city planning officer, would have been fine if it had not been for the Walkie Talkie building which stands outside it. But generally, the new City tower proposals reinforce the strength of the cluster.

I am totally in agreement with Gwyn Richards in establishing some calmer architecture to these towers, because there are only so many funny shapes you can fit together without creating chaos. The new Eric Parry proposal at No. 1 Undershaft is a good example of a calm piece of high rise architecture that doesn’t appear too bulky and our 6 – 8 Bishopsgate building also makes a calm contextual intervention alongside the Cheesegrater at a lower height.

Surely, visual bulk is the third main issue for the planners to deal with after height and shape. Tall buildings have a responsibility to contribute positively to the London skyline and the planning policy should be concentrated on achieving elegant forms that can exist in harmony with each other. A gradation of heights is also important in a cluster to create an ideal skyscape.

I am generally concerned about the apparently random growth of tall buildings outside the main City clusters, although there must be some freedom to allow towers in key locations. The Shard, for instance, fulfils an important role in defining the south side of the Thames opposite the City. Through its height and elegance, it provides a positive presence to the overall skyline and there are other places where tall buildings can make a similar contribution.

The new Stanton Williams tower on the north side of Vauxhall Bridge balances out the older tower on the other side of the road and successfully creates a gateway. Similarly, the Simpson Tower at Blackfriars Bridge will work well with the AHMM tower and other proposed towers nearby when they are completed.

Each tower has to be judged on merit

Each contender has to be judged on merit and it isn’t acceptable to allow poorly designed towers in poorer areas where the excuse might be that that won’t make it any worse. I would like to see Croydon, Vauxhall and Elephant and Castle competing with exceptional architecture for the Stirling Prize although at the moment this seems unlikely.

Historic England have, this month, issued Advice Note 4 on Tall Buildings but it is fairly general and doesn’t include anything unexpected. They do, however, raise the valid criteria of architectural quality, credibility of the design, contribution to public space, the importance of views and its impact on the local environment, particularly at ground level. 

Of course guidance is important but, at the end of the day, it is down to us, the architects, to deliver quality architecture that is sustainable and works well in its context.

Chris Wilkinson is co-founder of Wilkinson Eyre

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