Ken Livingstone ushered in a new skyscraper era during his time as London mayor. But the dash for height has continued under Boris Johnson. Most of the 20-plus towers being built or breaking ground are of inferior quality and fail to meet guidelines, argues our architecture critic. What has happened to the planning system… and where is all the money coming from?
There is no nice way of putting this, but the skyline of London is being screwed. There are now, built and in the pipeline, at least 30 towers, typically in a height range of 150-200 metres (or 490-650 feet. The BT tower is 177 metres high and more slender than anything now proposed). They are the fulfilment of the desires of investors and of the policies of Ken Livingstone, pursued with equal vigour by Boris Johnson, even though he once promised to take a tougher line on height.
With minimum discussion, proposals are being waved through the planning system – and while both the mayor of London and the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, have the power to intervene in major decisions, neither has done so. A decade ago, plans for buildings such as the Shard and the Gherkin were widely publicised, provoked debate and were the subject of public inquiries. Now, developers and architects hold modest public exhibitions in the immediate neighbourhood of their proposals and are not overanxious that they should be more widely known about.
Developers have long represented their projects with flattering, shiny visualisations that greatly over-estimate the seductive power of their cladding systems, which are bathed in an eternally golden glow. Now some of them have a new strategy, which is to act is if they are not there at all: sometimes, on their websites, you get views of plazas strewn with café tables, and pastel-coloured ground plans, and little clue of the large objects that will rise over their heads. If many of the proposals shown on these pages are new to you, that could be because their makers are so reticent about designs which, when built, will be anything but.
Last month, another clutch was approved. Almost all forms of resistance, such as the statutory bodies that are supposed to guide the planning system, have been neutralised, leaving only little-heard neighbourhood groups to voice their protests. All of which, if these tall buildings were making the capital into a great metropolis of the 21st century, might be a cause for celebration. Towers can be beautiful, and part of the genius of London is its ability to change, but what we are getting now are mostly units of speculation stacked high, garnished with developers’ ego. They are invitations to tax evaders to park their cash in Britain.
What is happening now is the culmination of 15 years or more of gathering pressure to build high. In the 1990s, plans were first unveiled for what would eventually be the Gherkin, controversially built on the site of the Baltic Exchange, a building that was listed but also damaged by an IRA bomb. It was eventually decided that, if this building were designed by a celebrated architect, such as Lord Foster, and were an exceptional work of architecture, other planning issues could be overridden.
When Livingstone was elected mayor in 2000, he enthusiastically supported tall buildings. He dined with developers in private, at a huge property junket in Cannes called Mipim, and publicly announced his grand bargain with capital: they should be allowed to build as big as they wanted, as long as he could take a tithe of the proceeds to spend on such things as affordable housing.
He produced a London plan, which encouraged, among other things, building high around major transport interchanges, so as to encourage the users of these buildings to use public transport. It was all part of Livingstone’s then vision that the future of London lay in the never-ending boom in financial services, with which a socialist mayor could cut a deal.
It was repeatedly said that, following the precedent of the Gherkin, tall buildings should be of the highest architectural quality and also in “the right place”, two principles that would turn out to have flexible meanings. The Shard was proposed, and being by the celebrated Renzo Piano and having a certain classiness in its form, was approved following a public inquiry. It has a substantial impact on St Paul’s Cathedral, when seen from Hampstead Heath, a view recognised by planning policy as significant, but not seen as reason enough to stop it. In 2005, Lord Rogers, once a business partner of both Piano and Foster, won permission for the 225-metre Leadenhall Building, or Cheesegrater, in the City of London.
Encouraged by these precedents, further proposals popped up, with increasingly tenuous claims to be of the highest architectural quality or in the right place. They were not just in the City of London, but also south of the river in Southwark, Waterloo and Vauxhall. The 180-metre Vauxhall Tower (the St George Wharf tower to its developers) was proposed, smack in the middle of a view from Westminster Bridge, officially deemed to be important and requiring special care.
There was not much evidence of special care in the design. It went to a public inquiry, in which the inquiry’s inspector concluded that it should not be built. John Prescott, however, who was then the minister responsible for such things, used his powers to overrule this advice. This tower is now being built, its exterior nearly complete.
In the City of London, planning officer Peter Rees long treasured the idea that tall buildings should be in a “cluster”, collectively forming a roughly conical shape that would rise to its peak close to the Bank of England. But then came the “Walkie Talkie”, officially called 20 Fenchurch Street, an office block designed by Rafael Viñoly, whose brilliant concept perfectly captured the money-worshipping zeitgeist of the pre-crash years: it gets fatter as it rises, to reflect the fact that floor area becomes more valuable the higher you go. The Walkie Talkie, whose frame is now rising, is by no stretch of the imagination inside this cluster, but Rees somehow persuaded himself that it is in the “right” place.
On the South Bank, the 140-metre Doon Street tower was proposed. Another public inquiry was held and refusal recommended. Hazel Blears, who by then had inherited Prescott’s mantle, like him decided she knew better and approved it. Construction is under way.
In Elephant and Castle, the 148-metre Strata SE1 was built, which would be the winner of the 2010 Carbuncle Cup, awarded by Building Design magazine to the worst building of the year. Another view considered worthy of protection by planning policy is of the Houses of Parliament seen from the Serpentine Bridge in Hyde Park, its gothic spires framed by trees and water. Here, Strata waddles into the background from stage left, like SpongeBob SquarePants in a production of Hamlet. It is not in the “right place” either.
There was a pause following the crash and the election of Johnson in 2008, whose mayoral campaign had included promises to be less tower-friendly than Livingstone. However, although he has the power to refuse significant planning applications, he has not once done so. Rather, he chose to approve the 237-metre Columbus Tower in Canary Wharf, reversing the decision by the London borough of Tower Hamlets to reject it.
A new wave of proposals has come forward. An application will be submitted shortly for new towers next to the Shell Centre, near Waterloo station, with every expectation of being successful, and two more are planned at Elephant and Castle. Several have been approved near to the Vauxhall Tower, which a few years ago was considered impactful enough to require the inquiry in which the inspector found against it. Some of its new neighbours will be higher and not obviously more beautiful, while their collective effect will be much bulkier, but neither Johnson nor Pickles is using his authority to give pause to the process: at least half of the developments we picture in our gallery have been approved in the Boris era.
And so it goes on. Policies are framed that, generous to start with, are then stretched far beyond any reasonable interpretation of what they might mean. Rules are made, then broken. It is doubtful, for example, whether Vauxhall is a major transport interchange of the kind that the London plan thinks is right for tall buildings, but it is becoming a mini Dubai nonetheless. Developments in the same area are supposed to follow a masterplan drawn up by Sir Terry Farrell, but when he pointed out that two proposed towers by Michael Squire broke its principles, they got permission anyway.
Notions such as “the highest architectural quality”, to quote Johnson’s version of the London plan, are rapidly debased. At one point, tower proposals felt the need to proclaim their sustainability, with ostentatious wind turbines included in the designs for the Vauxhall Tower and Strata (where, to be sure, they are almost never seen to turn). Now, developers don’t even bother with these.
Older applications, including the Walkie Talkie, proposed viewing galleries that, although they would actually be privately controlled, were called “public spaces”. Again, these are no longer on offer. Recently, the developers of the 163-metre One Blackfriars successfully applied to have their once-promised viewing gallery omitted.
London has a multilayered planning system, in which borough councils make decisions and the mayor and minister can then overrule them. Bodies such as English Heritage and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe) advise and public inquiries can be held. Yet these layers, while retaining the ability to complicate and slow things down, no longer do their job of revision and review. Willingly or not, they have been disempowered.
English Heritage has opposed several tower proposals, but after many losing battles (which, due to the cost of planning lawyers, were also expensive) its objections are now reduced to demoralised bat-squeaks. Although, for example, it thinks that proposals in Vauxhall will cause “substantial harm to the setting of the Westminster world heritage site”, it did not even issue a press release on the subject.
Cabe, a watchdog ever fond of nuzzling the developers it was supposed to be watching, has been shrunk and further enfeebled. Even when it summons up the courage to state the bleeding obvious, such as the fact that the Quill, a risible block of student housing next to the Shard, is poorly designed, Cabe is ignored. At the relevant meeting of Southwark council’s planning committee, an officer reported that Cabe supported it, even though it had said it did not. This provoked guffaws from the public gallery.
It doesn’t help that boroughs such as Southwark and Lambeth are unlikely to be tough on new towers, as they can order developers to contribute “planning gain”, which is money to be spent on affordable housing elsewhere in their territory. Livingstone liked them for similar reasons, as well us for the special delight that skyscrapers seem to have for mayors. Johnson is likely to be influenced by the community infrastructure levy raised on new developments, which helps pay for the Crossrail project. Of course, affordable housing and public transport are good things to have, but thoughtless plunder of the city’s airspace is not the way to pay for them; by the same argument, we could build on parks or on the river.
The results of these shoddy processes will be visible all over the capital, in the background of famous buildings, from hills and parks, down the ends of streets. They will change the Thames, bringing a completely different scale to its banks. None of which need be a problem, if they conformed to the official planning line that tall buildings should be well designed and in the right place. Or, to quote Johnson’s policy, that they should form “cohesive building groups”, “contribute positively to the image and built environment of London” and be “resisted in areas that will be particularly sensitive to their impacts.” What is a world heritage site if not the latter?
On the question of being “well designed”, the supporters of these towers will produce the well-worn arguments that design is subjective, that St Paul’s was derided in its day and so on. One could, however, look for what might be thought qualities of good design and usually they will be hard to find.
Do they, for example, show consideration of scale or proportion or try to make a meaningful relationship with their surroundings? Is there anything special about their detail? Is there consistency or integrity in their overall concept? Do they create handsome new public spaces at their base? Does their internal planning produce the best possible living or working spaces, which are well laid out and make good use of daylight?
Failing all the above, do they have any worth in the rapidly debasing currency of iconicity? Are they, in other words, exhilarating to contemplate or innovative – do they transmit some sort of buzzy excitement about London being a dynamic world city? I would suggest that, if that’s what you want, Shanghai and Dubai do it better.
The Shard and the Gherkin, conceived early in the current tower boom, are impressive, going on magnificent, albeit with major defects – I defy you to stand at the base of either and say that you are in a world-class public space. But it turns out that they were as good is it gets.
To take the Vauxhall Tower as an example, it makes no apparent effort to form any kind of relationship with its surroundings, neither a Georgian house behind it, nor even St George Wharf, an existing development by the same architects as the tower, Broadway Malyan, and the same developers, St George. It does not relate to the river in any particular way or, in longer views, to the Palace of Westminster. It is just there, sullenly uncommunicative.
It seemingly wants to be a slender cylinder, but contradicts itself with a sawtooth plan. At the top, it changes its mind again and adopts a stepped, zigguraty form. At the bottom, it is something else again and there is little attempt to reconcile the various elements. Its cladding is an ordinary-looking glazing package. Around its foot is precisely the sort of shapeless, windswept, nothing place that we were supposed to have learned not to do in the 1970s.
There are some honourable exceptions, with purveyors of rectilinear dignity doing better than those attempting artistic flourishes. Allies and Morrison’s 100 Bishopsgate is an example or David Chipperfield’s Elizabeth House at Waterloo station, the result of a rare occasion on which the developers were pushed to improve their initial ideas. They would have every right to be furious, having made an expensive effort with this project, at the easy ride given to other proposals. Others – Strata, the future towers at Vauxhall and Nine Elms – tend to follow their own, similar patterns. They offer a paltry “public realm” of Chinese granite and Costa coffee, standard glazing, a few loops and convulsions, like a dad at a disco, suggesting that they are bit on wild side. They don’t bother at all to work with their neighbours to make a three-dimensional entity.
There is no vision, concept or thought as to what their total effect might be on London, except that it will be great. In planning a kitchen, it is usual to envisage the totality before you start, but a great city has not been granted this courtesy. The onus should be on those who want to make such large changes, and to profit from them, to demonstrate their quality – the more conspicuous a building the more important it is that it is well-designed. As it is, they would rather we didn’t notice them until it’s too late.