The only way is up?

The rise and rise of London’s tall buildings casts into sharp focus the debate around London’s housing crisis and the preservation of its historic character.

“What we can’t do is impose some kind of freeze on the skyline and suspend the capital in stasis”.

So said Sir Edward Lister, Deputy Mayor for Policy and Planning, in a quote emblazoned on the wall of a recent exhibition dedicated to the rise and rise of London’s tall buildings. And it typifies a certain point of view that equates the construction of a skyscraper with progress.

The London’s Growing Up exhibition, organised by New Architecture London (NLA) at the Building Centre in May 2014 to promote their report of the same name was packed with beautiful architectural models.

Architectural models at the London's Growing Up exhibition

Architectural models at the London’s Growing Up exhibition

Both exhibition and report come at a critical time for the capital, which as the report reveals, will get a whole tranche of tall buildings over 20 stories high in the next few years. 236 towers, mostly residential, are in the pipeline, 113 of which are already approved. To quote the report, this “veritable tsunami” will have a profound effect on the capital’s skyline, whichever side of the fence you sit on.

Just some of the tall buildings planned for London.

Just some of the tall buildings planned for London.

Step forward Alan Bennett, Griff Rhys Jones and Dame Tessa Jowell who in March, along with 67 other influential people, urged for a new ‘skyline commission’. They join the heritage brigade who’s chief naysayer National Trust Chairman Simon Jenkins has for months been calling for a halt to the relentless rise of tall buildings.

The call for a new commission follows the unsuccessful appeal against a £600m development on the South Bank that Unesco says could threaten the world heritage status of the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey.

Over the past eight years UNESCO has repeatedly warned that the views towards the Houses of Parliament were being threatened by the construction of tall buildings on both sides of the Thames. This year the advisory board to its world heritage committee, advised that Westminster should be put on the danger list of threatened world heritage sites.

Boris Johnson, who before becoming Mayor of London vowed to reverse Ken Livingston’s tall building strategy, now shares his predecessor’s passion for these priapic glass and steel edifices. Perhaps it’s a mayor thing to see such structures as emblematic of the ‘world class’ city. In  an interview with ex-Newsnight host Jeremy Paxman on 18 June, Boris called The Shard, “A monument to confidence in London’s economy”.

Cartoonist Martin Rowson on Boris' fixation with skyscrapers like The Shard, still all but empty.

Cartoonist Martin Rowson on Boris’ fixation with skyscrapers like The Shard, still all but empty.

It’s not that such buildings aren’t impressive or indeed beautiful. The Gherkin, for example, is already an iconic building within the Square Mile and you would have to have a stony heart not to be impressed by the glassy enormity of The Shard. Other tall buildings have in time become part of the fabric of a locality; take the Grade II Listed Trellick Tower, which was no doubt seen as a carbuncle when it was built in 1972, but is now an integral landmark of North Kensington.

The problem is the sheer number of developments being rolled out without proper consultation. As Simon Jenkins writes in The Evening Standard:

” The issue is whether any policy should determine their siting, size and visual references on the skyline. Every city has such a policy: Paris, Berlin, even Manhattan. London has none. Rules control historic buildings, parks and gardens, façades and sight-lines, often to a ridiculous degree of detail. Yet some blind spot governs the wider urban landscape.”


While the potential destruction of well-loved and historic skylines is clearly of importance for London’s future character, it probably means very little to the average Londoner unable to afford a mortgage and now increasingly struggling to pay their rent. One of the arguments for increasing the number of tall buildings is their ability to help increase housing capacity in an overcrowded, space-poor city.

It forms one part of a longstanding debate on how best to create denser yet liveable cities. Almost 20 years ago Richard Rogers published his “Urban Renaissance” report, which argued that higher density was key to more vibrant, prosperous cities. Elements of this were incorporated into The London Plan, the Greater London Authority’s overall spatial plan, which includes the London Housing Strategy for the capital to 2031.

However, Rogers’ original definition of high density developments that encompassed terraces and mid-rise, has been narrowed to focus primarily on the high rise tower.

Richard Rogers saw the terrace and mid-rise as a solution for creating denser cities.

Richard Rogers saw the terrace and mid-rise as a solution for creating denser cities.

But this month as reported by the Planning Resource, architects, planners and housing experts went before the London’s planning committee to roundly reject the notion of tower blocks as the answer to London’s housing crisis.

Peter Rees, professor of places and planning at University College London and the former city planning officer at the City of London Corporation, said towers were not necessary to meet housing need. “The highest-density residential area in London is Chelsea. It doesn’t have towers,” he said.

So is this is simply an argument between architecture and planning wonks? Well, no. In parallel to the London Grown Up report, the NLA commissioned an an Ipsos Mori poll, which found that while many Londoners like looking at tall buildings, only 27% wanted to live in them.

Comments left at the Britain's Growing Up exhibition were largely critical of tall buildings.

Comments left at the Britain’s Growing Up exhibition were largely critical of tall buildings.


Taking forward Rogers’ wider definition of a high density approach, is the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community. Its report “London – a Mid-rise Solution”, published in March, calls for housing strategy based on London’s traditional “human-scale” forms such the terrace. In particular, it argues, the mid-rise building exemplified by the Victorian mansion block, has the capacity to help meet the capital’s chronic housing needs.

“Mid-rise is a tried and tested form which promises to deliver innumerable benefits to the city and its residents if used strategically and designed thoughtfully. The form deserves space in the on-going debate about London’s housing provision – its capacity to deliver beauty, density and affordability have never been more wanting in the capital.”

Boris roundly rejected this approach, saying “It would be really mad to build homes just three or four storeys high.” But that is to forget the success of the Peabody Trust estates, London’s original public housing first built in Spitalfields in 1864 as a remedy to the dirty and overcrowded slums suffered by the Victorian poor.

Dotted around the capital, the well-proportioned flats within these handsome red brick mid-rise buildings, remain sought after today. Surely the mid-rise approach advocated by the Prince’s Foundation has a central role to play in helping solve the housing crisis just as it did in the mid-19th century. Overcrowding was such a problem then that in 1862, it could be reported that 34 people from several families, lived in one house near the Caledonian Road.

Of course solving such a major housing challenge probably does demand a multi-pronged approach that mixes tall and mid-rise buildings and it remains to be seen what types of homes will be built in London’s 20 new housing zones, announced by the GLA on 13 June. But within that mix should certainly be concerted action in bringing back into use the 59,313 houses currently standing empty across London. As should the creative re-use of old buildings.

In its “Heritage Works” report, English Heritage has set out the economic and social value that heritage buildings have in the regeneration of urban areas, as exemplified by the highly successful Kings Cross development. But sometimes it seems that developers and planners see working with heritage buildings as too inconvenient and expensive, certainly if the proposed destruction of the historic Smithfield Market is anything to go by.

So really the tall building argument is part of a much wider one about what kind of city London will be for its current and future citizens. As the auctioneer’s hammer went down on the record £27 million sale of one of London’s oldest pubs to become – predictably – luxury flats, and as The Shard edges towards its second anniversary still half empty, are we in danger of simply creating a London for the developers, while losing the essence of the city to boot?

Ultimately for me, a successful city isn’t one with a fixation on skyscrapers, but one that has a human scale, that values its heritage and – well – values its spirit too.


View across the Thames to one of the most easily recognisable skylines in the world

View across the Thames to one of the most easily recognisable skylines in the world

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