Dealing with the growth of tall buildings in London

Friday 25 April 2014

Tall buildings can come to the aid of London’s acute housing shortage, but they are not the only solution.

And there is a pressing need for a new voice to ensure that the next generation of buildings avoid some of the design failings of those which have already slid beneath the radar and onto the capital’s skyline.

Those were some of the views expressed at a special half-day conference at the NLA yesterday, which looked at how the capital has planned for over 200 buildings of over 20 storeys that are on their way to London’s skyline.

Strategic planning manager at GLA Colin Wilson, describing himself as ‘an OCD skylines person’ said that there is a plan in place for London and that people could rest assured that there will not be tall buildings in 80-90% of the capital. Neither would it resemble Dubai, as some critics have claimed. He added that the mayor believes that we should try and accommodate London’s growing population in London, and that there is space to do so. ‘But tall buildings aren’t the only answer – they are part of the answer’.  Neither were all of the 1960s tower blocks ‘disasters’, he said, with the best ones those which are managed and run correctly, while places like Vauxhall Nine Elms were the product of a clear plan with a landscape strategy, created with a mapping model and public consultation.

GL Hearn Planning director James Cook said that this is ‘a very real and exciting phase in London’s development’, and that some 77% of towers assessed are located in the central and eastern regions of London. But for Nigel Barker, planning and conservation director at English Heritage, tall buildings policy since the GLC has been one of ‘growing confusion and complexity’. The amount of applications citing London View Management Framework issues as their only justification were ‘legion’, and, while change is ‘vital’ for the historic environment there needs to be a more detailed understanding of the impact tall buildings make. English Heritage, added Barker was tending to be ‘shot as a messenger’. ‘Tall buildings were once the exception; now they are becoming the norm.’

The conference also heard from Montagu Evans partner Chris Miele, who felt that although the system works well in the main, the lack of an authoritative design body was a hindrance, and JLL head of residential Simon Hodson, who claimed that far from media representation, there are very few overseas landlords buying flats and keeping them vacant. Michael Bell, Strategic Planning Manager, Development & Renewal, LB Tower Hamlets and Gerard Maccreanor, Founding Director, Maccreanor Lavington took the audience through how the Council is looking to manage increasing numbers of proposals for tall residential towers through preparing a masterplan for the South Quay area.

Consultant Ziona Strelitz said that in the 10 years since the last LPAC strategic guidance on tall buildings she felt that she had been ‘oversold’ and had ‘a sense of real disappointment about the way that certain projects have been realized, adding that some ‘important cards had fallen out of the pack’, such as Grimshaw’s Minerva Tower. Architecture critic Rowan Moore went further, saying that the GLA’s faith in its policies was ‘shocking’ in its complacency, and that with buildings like Strata, Walkie Talkie and the Vauxhall Tower, the physical manifestation of that policy ‘did not add up’ and the schemes were ‘not the best a city can do’. Allies and Morrison director Artur Carulla said that he shared concerns, not about the ‘picturesque preservation of the skyline’ but in the importance of the identity and character of our city it portrays, and its place in attracting visitors. ‘Tall buildings make cities more alike’, he said, ‘rather than more distinct.’

For a longer version of this report and a tall buildings special, see the forthcoming summer issue of NLQ, out in June.

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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