Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Does London Need More Tall Buildings? London Festival of Architecture, Paul Finch, Sir Simon Jenkins, New London Architecture, The Shard, Strata Tower, Cheesegrater, Walkie Talkie

Towers on London's skyline looking east (© London Intelligence)

The Shard.
The ‘Walkie Talkie.’

‘Urban design professionals’ debate whether London needs even more tall buildings.
Paul Coleman reports.

Towers of London – skyscraping the barrel?

Billboard advert at entrance to Strata Tower, Elephant and Castle, south London
©London Intelligence 2014

London’s skyline might include up to 300 skyscrapers by 2024, according to some estimates, writes Paul Coleman.
By the summer of 2014, over 200 tall buildings have already received approval or are in the planning pipeline.
On Monday 2 June, several hundred people, including dozens of architects, fill the stalls inside Holborn’s Peacock Theatre to debate whether London really needs more tall office and residential buildings.
‘Urban design professional’ Sarah Gaventa, once of the Elephant and Castle Community Forum and a Barbican resident, chairs the London Festival of Architecture debate.
Before the debate, Gaventa asks the audience to show if they believe that London needs more tall buildings – and estimates about 70% raise their hands in favour.

Large audience inside Peacock Theatre for London tall towers debate
© London Intelligence 2014

In favour
Paul Finch, programme director of the World Architecture Festival – described by Gaventa as ‘the godfather of architectural publishing’ – speaks in favour. “This is a hot topic for Londoners,” begins Finch. “We should be thinking about what is appropriate tallness for different parts of London. And, if we build an average of one new tall building in each London borough per year, that would give us 330 over ten years – and we’ve 200 in the pipeline already.”
Finch suggests every London borough – each bigger than most English provincial cities – remains perfectly capable of finding a suitable site for a tall building.

Paul Finch, Programme director World Architecture Festival
Courtesy WAF

Tall purpose
Finch says tall buildings are a necessary part of London’s response as a “global trading city” to international markets. For instance, one of London’s latest tall buildings in Leadenhall, ‘The Cheesegrater’, (224m, 736ft high) provides a global home for insurance giant Aon.
Another insurance global player, WR Berkley, are moving to the 38-storey ‘Scalpel’ tower (190m, 620ft tall) at Lime Street in the City of London.
“That company operates from a mid-rise in Boston but they wanted a tower and London provided it,” says Finch. “As Prince Charles might say, ‘don’t spit on your luck’.”

Sprawl prevention
Finch also argues tall buildings will help London’s development “avoid an inevitable sprawl into its Green Belt”.
He contends unprecedented housing demand in London “requires us to use every arrow in our supply quiver and that includes tall buildings”.
Tall buildings are part of the solution to housing demand in tandem with low rise and medium density developments, says Finch.

Overseas investors
Finch berates people who claim too many towers are built for overseas investors who don’t live in London. “If we don’t build towers to meet that demand, then those investors will buy existing stock and make the housing shortage even worse,” says Finch.
London is a city undergoing radical demographic and ethnographic change – as well as physical change – and Finch says: “We worry about alien forms, intrusive interlopers and changed city character – but do we really want architectural policies that sound as if they’ve been drafted by UKIP.”*
Finch reaches the summit of his argument, saying: “We should embrace a wave of new construction that improves our urban landscape and uses some of the financial gain that towers generate for public purposes.
Support the motion.
Onward and upward.”

Sir Simon Jenkins, journalist and National Trust chair, reputedly dislikes skyscrapers and wind turbines. “I think the Strata Tower** at the Elephant and Castle particularly annoys him,” says Gaventa, introducing Jenkins.
“I shamelessly love London and its evolution,” begins Jenkins. “Nobody ever told us in the last fifteen years that we’d have more than 300 tall buildings in London. The Mayor of London’s policy on tall buildings is pure whim. And there’s no policy document on where tall buildings should go.”
Jenkins says towers now “pepper pot” London rather than rise in clusters in the City of London or at Canary Wharf. “The Walkie Talkie slid down the hill from the City,” says Jenkins. “There’ll be a canyon of towers along the Thames.”

Sir Simon Jenkins, National Trust chair and journalist
Courtesy of National Trust

Secret conversation
Jenkins says Londoners were kept in the dark about the recent very tall outcrop, including The Shard. “They happened after secret conversations between developers, architects and politicians,” argues Jenkins. “Each tower slides through without reference to any overall plan. This wouldn’t have happened in any other city.”
Jenkins disputes the need for more tall buildings. Eighty per cent of proposed towers are for luxury flats. “We need luxury flats in London like we need a plague,” says Jenkins.

High-density low rise
Tall buildings go up in London with foreign money for speculative investment. “None have any civic significance,” he adds. “Their offices are not popular. The Gherkin has gone bankrupt. As did Canary Wharf at one stage. The Shard is proving difficult to occupy.”
Jenkins says London desperately needs more high-density but low-rise housing. “But most of these high rise flats are sold off-plan to overseas investors. As a desperate gesture of a locality to the Mayor of London, the developers of the new tower blocks at Battersea pledged buyers would have to come to London to sign the lease!
“Tall buildings aren’t needed. They’re inefficient and highly expensive to maintain. Honest architects say they’re stuffed full of lifts and deteriorate quickly.
“Tall buildings are alien. They make London look like Dubai. In two hundred years time, people will look back at us and ask ‘why did they put up these strange and mostly unoccupied tall buildings?’
“Oppose the motion. Vote for low-rise.”

The Leadenhall Building, or 'Cheesegrater, in the City of London

Context: The majority of 230 new towers – buildings with over 20 storeys - in London’s planning pipeline are residential, according to GL Hearn and NLA research.
London has seen a surge in tall buildings since 2000 when ‘The Gherkin’ gained planning permission. The Shard opened in 2012. The Leadenhall Building (‘The Cheesegrater’) and 20 Fenchurch Street (‘Walkie Talkie’) are due to open in 2014.

*UKIP = United Kingdom Independence Party, a rising right-wing political force with an anti-immigration stance.
**The Strata Tower in Elephant and Castle, approved by the London Borough of Southwark and the Mayor of London, is home to 399 apartments in a 43-storey, 148m-high building, part of the Strata SE1 luxury residential development completed in summer 2010.

Does London Need More Tall Buildings? A keynote public debate at the Peacock Theatre in Portugal Street, Holborn, part of the 2014 London Festival of Architecture (1-30 June), organised by the London School of Economics, New London Architecture and the Centre for London - and chaired by Sarah Gaventa.

Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, June 2014

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post! I couldn't get a ticket so this is an amazing find. Thank you so much for sharing!