A new exhibition includes shocking visualisations of a London skyline of the near future, when tall buildings are set to put parts of the river in shade. It’s already happening, says Robert Bevan
London has always had towers that command the city, from the white keep of the Tower of London and the soaring 149m wooden spire of Old St Paul’s lost to the Great Fire, to the post-war flurry of skyscrapers in the Square Mile each leapfrogging their earlier rivals in height.
What’s crucial about the exhibition London Grows Up! The Rise and Rise of London’s Tall Buildings that opens on Thursday is that it shows how the trend for towers in the capital has taken a new and radical turn.
There are two vital differences between the office towers to date and the sky-high residential pads now planned. The first is their location, the second their design.
For the most part, the city’s previous towers have been built as offices, clustered together for defence and dealer gossip in the City of London and its outlying citadel at Canary Wharf.
Now, though, of the 236 towers above 20 storeys in the pipeline for London, some 80 per cent are residential — not the suburban council blocks of old but the pepperpotting of inner London with high-rise homes of a scale never seen beyond the usual financial purlieus. London’s planning laws and protected view corridors have not been designed to deal with this phenomenon, which has emerged without any one exercising an overview.
The Canary Wharf and City clusters are less contentious but at particular risk is the setting of the Thames. Apartment developers love a water view — as do we all — but there’s a wall of towers planned for the south side of the river from Battersea to Tower Bridge. While some stretches of the Thames could do with an increase in scale to “contain” London’s river in the same way as Paris’s built-up banks gently cocoon the Seine, London’s proposed towers — some of which rise above 60 storeys, 48 per cent currently with permission, 19 per cent under construction, 30 awaiting planning permission, three per cent with status unconfirmed — will, by throwing shapes and shade, change the river for ever, dominating rather than containing it, blocking the southern sun and shading large stretches of water for much of the day. That rare and uplifting glitter of sun on the Thames will become rarer in valued riverside locations such as between Westminster Bridge and Bankside.
Boris Johnson promised to resist Dubai-on-Thames but, in some ways, that’s exactly what we will be getting, with the added negative that the towers will be strung along an often sludge-brown waterway, not fronting sunny Gulf beaches. In his recently announced cultural strategy, the Mayor promised to focus on the Thames as a key London asset but does the cultural left hand know what the developer right hand is doing?
The spaces between close-spaced towers will also be shaded for large parts of the day. In some times and places this meant a welcome relief from the sun such as among the palazzos of Renaissance Florence (the skyscrapers of their age) or, in our times, from the heat of a summer in Midtown Manhattan. But building towers under leaden northern European skies where dropped litter whirls in eddies at their feet demands different considerations if they are not to privatise urban sunshine. A global city needs also to remember its climatic place in the world.
And while history should not always be allowed to trump modernity, we must pay closer attention to the cumulative effect on the backdrop of some of our most established icons such as the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey. These towers have often been agreed over the heads of English Heritage and Southwark and Lambeth councils by Ken Livingstone, John Prescott and Boris Johnson himself. They threaten, without much debate, a cityscape nearly 1,000 years in the making.
Take a stroll across one of central London’s bridges and look west towards the newly completed, 50-storey residential tower at One St George Wharf, Vauxhall. Granted permission by the then deputy prime minister John Prescott after Livingstone bullied Lambeth council for trying to resist it, the tower is already muscling in on the Houses of Parliament, photo-bombing one of the defining images of London that enraptured Turner, Whistler and Monet.
However, the ungracious circular form of One St George Wharf is only the advanced guard for a swathe of colonising neighbours, at least one of which will reach even higher still. Vauxhall and Nine Elms are ideal locations for regeneration through increased densities but, by building super-tall, the area risks making its already inhospitable streets worse.
Residential skyscrapers are also designed in fundamentally different ways from office towers because of their economics. Don’t expect smoothly elegant and hugely expensive architectural marvels to emerge like Lord Foster’s Gherkin, which Londoners have taken to their hearts, acknowledging its superlative quality. Because high-rise residential is expensive to build and, therefore, targeted at investors with deep pockets, the money is spent on luxurious interiors and services — not the outside skin that the rest of London will live with.
One St George Wharf is a case in point — it is finished in clod-hopping grey glass and metal cladding and surrounded by a walled-off garden that is more suited to the suburbs of Zone 6 than Zone 1.
These super-tall gated communities are both unneighbourly at street level and not conducive to getting to know your landing neighbours. Indeed, they will add to London’s affordability crisis by pushing up local land prices to the point where only another tower can be economically justified.
A poll conducted to coincide with London Grows Up! suggests that most Londoners like tall buildings even if nearly 70 per cent of us wouldn’t want to live in them (low-rise Islington, let’s remember, is the capital’s most densely populated borough and one of its most desirable). Break the findings down in a different way, however, and we can see that only 10 per cent of Londoners “strongly agree” that tall buildings have made London look better, another third “tend to agree” while the majority are ambivalent or outright opposed (54 per cent). And this survey is a reflection of people’s experience of existing, high-quality office towers, not the rash of poorly thought-out residential blocks promised.
London can absorb more high quality towers built in the right place and for the right purpose — as planning policy nominally demands. The problem is, that’s precisely not what we are getting. Go and see the exhibition and judge for yourself.
London’s Growing Up! opens on Thursday at NLA, The Building Centre, 26 Store Street, WC1 (020 7636 4044;newlondonarchitecture.org) and runs until June 12. Open Mon-Fri, 9.30am-6pm; Sat 10am-5pm. Admission free.