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The Tulip’s design is not what makes it truly objectionable

Dbox foster + partners the tulip gondola

London doesn’t need any more viewing platforms, and certainly not one with so much embodied carbon, says tourism expert Dan Anderson

Now that the decision is in, there is no need to rehash all the arguments for and against Norman Foster’s proposed Tulip in the City.

This was a difficult project to get excited or agitated about. Like the Garden Bridge, it was all rather silly and unnecessary and a bit of an imposition on the London skyline. But unlike the Garden Bridge, this was about private money on private land. Maybe not my cup of tea, but if that’s how rich guys in the City get their kicks, who am I to complain?

A full reading of the mayor’s ‘reasons for refusal’ does raise a couple of interesting questions about future development in London though.

Planners need to stop putting these ‘publicly accessible’ rooftop spaces into their section 106 wishlists 

The reasons for refusal are many and varied. It ‘would not constitute the very highest quality of design’ and would be detrimental to the skyline, the public space around it and the historic environment of heritage assets like the Tower of London. Further reasons were given about adverse effects on strategic viewing corridors, pedestrian movement, cycle parking and energy consumption. But the report is disappointing in two respects. First, it seems to blindly accept the somewhat frivolous reasons for building the Tulip in the first place; and second, it is mostly silent on the vital issue of climate change.

It repeatedly criticises the fact that the viewing gallery – which is ostensibly all there is to the Tulip – is not ‘free to enter’ and it reiterates Policy D8 of the draft London Plan which requires free public viewing galleries in tall buildings. That whole policy is misguided. These high-level viewing experiences have had their day. A city only needs two or three of these experiences before they all start competing with one other for the same finite number of visits.

Planners need to stop putting these ‘publicly accessible’ rooftop spaces into their wishlists for section 106 agreements. It’s not helpful. They think it takes the sting out of a tall building consent, but it’s really just window dressing. Developers should build great big penthouses at the top of these buildings, sell them for a fortune, and then spend the money down at street level where it will make an actual difference to the communities affected.

Dbox foster + partners the tulip atrium

Dbox foster + partners the tulip atrium

Source: DBox

A second reason given for the Tulip was the supposed need for London to keep pace with New York City, Hong Kong and Tokyo in some mythical race to have the spikiest skyline. The planning application said: ‘The proposed development will help move London up the rankings and improve its global reputation as a place characterised by landmark architecture’.

This is reminiscent of the old Garden Bridge argument that we had to have it because ‘Paris has more bridges than London’. It is the same copycat sentiment that underpins the construction of The Tide on Greenwich Peninsula – London’s supposed answer to New York City’s High Line. It is all just ‘clickbait urbanism’ (coined it!) – a phenomenal waste of time, money and resource for the sake of a Wallpaper* listicle. And it’s a self-defeating game, as every time we win a cover story in Monocle with one of these gaudy tourist attractions, we probably slip a couple of places in the Economist’s ‘liveability index’.

The GLA report makes only a glancing reference to climate change, limits its commentary to narrow, technical considerations about energy use. There is no mention at all about the embodied carbon of a massive structure that nobody really needs, though it is mentioned in the accompanying review panel’s report. The developer never made a compelling case for why anybody needs The Tulip and in our state of climate emergency, demonstrating need can no longer be perceived as the box-ticking exercise of nit-picking bureaucrats.

A comment on the AJ article reporting the project’s rejection tellingly said: ‘I detect shallow virtue signalling by the climate-change snowflakes’. In fact, with the digital ink still drying on the Architects Declare statement, it is a little surprising that architects did not come out en masse against the Tulip. By my count, the project contradicts at least 8 of its 11 principles. ‘Virtue signalling’ is about valuing conspicuous expression of virtue over action. Norman Foster’s silence on this one is understandable – the other 515 signatories have no excuse.

Dan Anderson is a tourist-attraction expert who works at consultancy Fourth Street


Readers' comments (4)

  • Kieran Gaffney

    Great stuff. Especially this:
    "with the digital ink still drying on the Architects Declare statement, it is a little surprising that architects did not come out en masse against the Tulip"

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  • This proposed project was simply an expression of 'conspicuous consumption' to coin a phrase from the economist Thorstein Veblen's 'The theory of the leisure class' (1899). In other words, an unnecessary, disfunctional and vacuous vanity project to 'keep up with the Joneses' or other major capital cities.

    If the so-called signatories to a sustainable future really want to show their 'virtue signalling' credentials, I challenge them to design and fund social housing, which might actually make a useful contribution to the triple bottom line of sustainable development in London.

    Or are they also reading the court room scene of Ayn Rand's novel 'The Fountainhead', and imagining themselves as Howard Roark while preparing for the new occupant of Number 11 Downing Street. Actions and not words will suffice in response to this challenge.

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  • For Number Five: Could it also have been intended as a tribute to the wealth and influence of the Safra dynasty?
    We might have been spared from something that - apart from its visual connotations - could be interpreted as a monument erected in praise of some 'fat cats'.
    They should contribute the money saved in doing what they can for the desperate plight of the original source of their wealth - Aleppo.

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  • Quite so Robert, and the last thing we need anywhere are any more obscene symbols of mega-wealth, invariably achieved by exploitation, illegality and immorality. If you are in need of a memorial, make it genuinely useful to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, to quote Jeremy Bentham.

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