Failure to implement stringent planning regulations on the latest batch of skyscrapers could ruin the capital’s design heritage, according to The Observer architecture critic Rowan Moore.
Consistent oversights by both Mayors Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have allowed poor designs, with little to no public space, to come to fruition.
London is currently undergoing an architectural transformation, with many observers lauding optimism and sense of success that can be derived from the 30 towers in the city, the majority of which are currently in the planning or construction stages.
Most of the towers are between the height of 150-200 metres, comparable to the BT Tower but with vastly increased floorplates.
Moore believes that proposals, “are being waved through the planning system”, despite successive mayors and current communities secretary Eric Pickles, taking an outwardly strict view on city planning.
The next wave of towers was approved in October, and Moore states: “Almost all forms of resistance, such as the statutory bodies that are supposed to guide the planning system, have been neutralised, leaving only little-heard neighbourhood groups to voice their protests.”
Despite his reputation as socialist ‘red-Ken’, Ken Livingstone was an avid supporter of high-rise projects during his tenure as London Mayor, as it was agreed that planning could only be approved if the projects would contribute towards the regeneration of the locality, and rich sponsors would be required to donate money to social housing projects.
His ‘London Plan’ encouraged such projects to centre on major existing transport hubs, and his stance led to the widely supported ‘Gherkin’ and ‘Shard’ developments.
But, Moore argues that his gaze was fixed on the continued expansion of the financial industries, which, as reported by SOS last week, have now taken a back seat in terms of office space to the likes of and telecoms and technology industries.
The development of the ‘Shard’ and the ‘Gherkin’ were widely debated among regulatory bodies, who decided that, despite the former’s looming presence over St. Paul’s Cathedral from Hampstead Heath, a world-class design and placement as part of a cluster of towers made the project viable.
Moore states that: “Now, developers and architects hold modest public exhibitions in the immediate neighbourhood of their proposals and are not overanxious that they should be more widely known about.”
He cites the example of the 180m Vauxhall Tower (or St. George Wharf) in Southwark, which despite resistance from the inquiry’s inspector over its impact on the view from Westminster Bridge, was waved through by John Prescott and is currently about to receive the final touches to its exterior.
City of London planning officer Peter Rees saw the future of the capital’s skyline as a conical cluster of towers surrounding the bank of England, an idea that he himself dispelled through the approval of the ‘Walkie Talkie’ development at 20 Fenchurch Street.
Moore sees the 140m Doon Street tower and 148m Strata SE1 in Elephant and Castle as similar examples of money taking precedence over design, with the latter awarded the 2010 Carbuncle Cup – an award for the worst building of the year – by Building Design magazine.
Boris Johnson – who once described the ‘London Plan’ as “the highest architectural quality” – has, so far, chosen to approve the 237m Columbus Tower in Canary Wharf despite Tower Hamlets council’s decision to reject it, as well as several further towers around Vauxhall, with two more planned for Elephant and Castle.
At least half of current projects have been approved with Johnson as Mayor; with many observers concerned that the developments will become another exclusively wealthy area with soulless landscaping and little independent enterprise.
Application clauses beneficial to the public, including those for the ‘Walkie Talkie’ and One Blackfriars, have been scaled back at the owner’s request, to remove public spaces such as viewing galleries and surrounding gardens.
Following successive planning defeats, English Heritage have scaled back their efforts to maintain the quality of the capital’s skyline, whilst watchdog Cabe has been shrunk to the extent that its voice of opposition to ‘The Quill’ was largely muted.
Moore believes that 100 Bishopsgate and Elizabeth House outside Waterloo Station are “honourable exceptions”, with “purveyors of rectilinear dignity doing better than those attempting artistic flourishes”.
He points to these as indicators of how thorough and respected planning processes can enable London to grow in a stylish and inclusive way. Without it he believes: “There is no vision, concept or thought as to what their total effect might be on London, except that it will be great.”
Photo courtesy of Creative Pool