As you may have noticed, our low-rise capital is acquiring a growing collection of high-rise buildings.
As Paul Murrain explains in a thought-provoking essay for Create Streets, this is not a good thing:
“There is nothing that better illustrates the race to the bottom in London’s development than the two 50 storey residential glass towers at the southern end of Blackfriars Bridge.
“What’s the rationale for that? Why 50 storeys? Where did that come from? Did some planner toss a coin? Perhaps I’m being unfair. If it was a result of careful wind, light and sun calculations to benefit the public space, I’m sure I will be told in no uncertain terms.”
To take another example, a building like the Shard divides opinion. Some people see it as symbol of a dynamic global city, others compare it to Barad-dûr – a domineering edifice that belittles everything below it.
These towers might not look so arrogant if they had to jostle with neighbours of a similar height. That, however, presents another problem:
“Go along the south bank in Lambeth and Wandsworth to find a series of towers with no relation to each other, all vying for river views, all hitting the ground in various unrelated ways with arguably the most fragmented poor quality public realm of any recent city form. London no longer builds ‘places’; it merely builds ‘things.’ Density and urbanity are not the same.”
Back in the early 1990s, One Canada Square – the original tower at Canary Wharf – was the Shard of its day. It is now surrounded by a jumble of less characterful towers. There’s no doubting the economic success of the Docklands, but an architectural triumph it is not.
Are high-rise cityscapes doomed to failure? The Manhattan skyline would suggest otherwise. However, what works for New York is not easily translated to London:
“…many of these buildings are on streets far wider than the vast majority of London’s streets. And New York is a similar latitude to Madrid and Naples; a fact not to be overlooked. London is further north than Chicago, Vancouver and Toronto…
“London is a grey city a lot of the time. The sky and light and sun, when it decides to shine are crucial to the quality of life. And rarely is it too hot to enjoy the sun directly. These tall buildings increase the wind and decrease everything else.”
But surely we need to build high to supply London’s desperate need for new housing? Again, Murrain is sceptical:
“…if I’m wrong and height in and of itself guarantees housing supply of the right kind in the right place, then let’s build 500 Shards and put them at every cross road, roundabout and Tube station in London. That should do it and think how happy I’ve just made some members of the RIBA. But I’m not sure the consumers who genuinely need housing will thank me for being up in the clouds particularly if there are three more Shards on the other three corners.”
Murrain makes the point that “the nature of towers and their related security” attract the super-rich. Indeed, the Shard and similar buildings work like magnetic poles, sucking the world’s surplus cash into Britain’s globalised property market.
Far from satisfying the need for affordable housing, London’s vanity architecture is helping to push prices out of reach.