The Towers Debate: Does London need more tall buildings?

Tuesday 3 June 2014

Audience members at Monday night’s towers debate who want to see more tall buildings in London won a narrow, straw-poll vote by around 60% to the 40% who felt the capital has enough of the phenomenon.

But the hands-in-the-air vote showed that speakers at the event, run as part of the London Festival of Architecture by NLA, Centre for Cities and the LSE, had swayed more of the no-camp from a similar poll held at the start of the evening.

The event, chaired by Sarah Gaventa and held before a packed audience at the Peacock Theatre near the LSE, kicked off with Centre for Cities’ Ben Rogers predicting a night of planners, conservationists, architects and developers – but also the public – ‘getting it in the neck’.

Programme Director of the World Architecture Festival Paul Finch led the motion – that London needs more tall buildings – initially questioning what ‘tallness’ really means, since a 12 storey building in the capital would generally offer unobstructed views of the city. But tall buildings had helped London attract key markets such as insurance, with Aeon moving from Chicago to the Cheesegrater and WR Berkeley opting for the Scalpel. Tall buildings could also aid the housing supply problem as part but not all of the answer, while London was blessed with a very good mayoral policy on the phenomena that was as good as any policy any city has.  ‘If we want to avoid the sprawling of London into the Green Belt we need to be able to build up, not just out’, said Finch. ‘We need to use every arrow in our supply quiver.’

Simon Jenkins, Chairman, National Trust ,spoke against the motion, beginning by declaring that talking to what he felt was a room full of architects was like defending wind turbines to oil executives. Jenkins claimed that ‘there was a language of London that was common to us all’ but that ‘the last 15 years have seen that collapse’. Furthermore, the mayor says buildings should not be tall enough to cause unacceptable harm, said Jenkins, but these words are meaningless, since what is ‘acceptable harm’ anyway? There was no document which said clearly where tall buildings should go, the public ‘was not told’ about the ‘rash’ of tall buildings on the way and with 80% of the 236 planned being for luxury flats, ‘we need them like the plague’. Lastly, Jenkins said none of the schemes had any civic significance, offices don’t like them and housing should instead be high density but low rise. ‘These things are alien’, said Jenkins. ‘They’re not London’.

Julia Barfield, Director, Marks Barfield followed, saying that across the world there is a boom in tall buildings, and while London is not immune, she did not want either an atrophied heritage city or a free-for-all, but a balance. The planning system, she claimed, showed itself rather lax in distinguishing between the good, bad and ugly, showing images of the Shard, Vauxhall Tower and Strata Tower to make her point. ‘You can’t blight the skyline with a beautiful building’, she said.

Nicholas Boys Smith, Director, Create Streets spoke instead in favour of buildings that people want to live in, claiming that ‘a preference for conventional streets cascades down the decades’. Boys Smith claimed also that large and tall buildings are not good for you, affecting things like crime and the prospects for raising children, that they are less socially just, were bad financially, and that high density streets would be better to attend to the housing need. ‘Housing policy is playing Russian roulette with its future’, he said. ‘We need to wake up.’

Respondents to the debate included Nicky Gavron, Chair of the Planning Committee, London Assembly, who believed that skyscrapers have their place but must contribute economically, environmentally and socially and should be the subject of far more interrogation. ‘You could say the stable door has been left open for far too long without proper scrutiny’, she said.

Rowan Moore, Architecture Critic, The Observer, said what was lying behind the debate was that London is projected to have a population of 10 million in a future coming ever closer, but that the prospective towers were a sign of failure in a city where developers are now using the housing shortage as an argument to back up their proposals, despite there being no available data from the GLA to show whether tall buildings are helping the shortfall significantly. But it was ‘not terribly useful’ for most people when even a studio flat at One Blackfriars Tower is on the market for over £1m. Moore said he supports the notion of a skyline commission and of a digital model for the whole of London ‘so people can see what is happening’.

The event also heard from LSE’s Tony Travers, who said a skyline commission would need to be empowered by politicians, and that London was different from most other European cities where one, not 10-12 central authorities make the decisions. And deputy mayor Eddie Lister said that London was full of different places, so wanted to continue to see such variety, that the Vauxhall Tower needed a cluster around it (to hide it, suggested one member of the audience in question time), as ‘one isolated tower block on its own doesn’t fit the bill. But London had to double its housebuilding statistics to some 50,000 per year using its available land, ‘or we will not stand any chance at all of meeting our housing need.’

Points raised by the audience included the failure of politicians to release enough housing land, the need for a civic voice on tall buildings, the potential for a tall building tax, the way tall buildings might age and difficulty of corralling monies to reclad them, and the need to keep London ‘special’.

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly  #londonskyine #NLATallbuildings

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