In London, high-rise is under attack. Once again.
Traumatised by the modernist enthusiasms of the the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s which gave London some arresting examples of what-not-to-do, architects, critics, politics, artists, campaigners, civil servants are once again issuing a call to pause and reflect on the future of London’s skyline. In a statement published in The Observer on Saturday 29 March, prestigious signatories warn about the “200 towers that threaten to destroy the city’s character.”
What is noteworthy about that umpteenth call to preserve London’s architecturally distinguished character is precisely the cohort of its authors. While an observer of London’s architectural scene is used to Prince Charles’ frequent reactionary outburst against anything modern when it comes to the built environment, it is much more striking to read the names of Anish Kapoor, David Chipperfield, Charles Correa, Deyan Sudjic or David Adjaye. None of them can be accused of being conservative, or backward, or even anti-high-rise — some of these architects even have high-rise buildings in their portfolio.
The wake-up call
So what makes this call against high-rises different? Rowan Moore, architecture critic for The Guardian and The Observer, writes in the same issue where the statement was published thatthere are plans for more than 230 high-rise buildings to be built in London in the coming years. This figure even surprised London’s deputy Mayor, who “was not only ignorant of it, but denied it could be possible.”
One of the striking aspects of the statement is that no one saw it coming. Even the strategic planning agency for London — the Greater London Authority (GLA), with the Mayor at its head — did not seem to fully grasp the sheer scale of what is happening to London. As Rowan Moore points out, it was a privately funded organisation, the New London Architecture (NLA), who performed the count. This indicates that no one had a clear vista, a broad vision, of what is happening to London and its most symbolic and striking feature: its skyline.
Design, democracy and vista
The wave of reactions to the New London Architecture study, and now the ‘Skyline Statement’ shed lights on three principal elements: poor design, democratic deficit and a lack of foresight.
Being signed by so many architects and designers, it is gripping to read that the ‘Skyline Statement’ is first and foremost a critic of unambitious, botched and poorly realised architectural designs. By the (absence of) care and effort put into their design, the lack of relation to what is on the ground and the existing urban design, as well as the poor quality of the materials used to build them, the high-rises of the 2010s fail to impress. The new construction seem to repeat the mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s: bad design, bad quality, and no consideration for the urban tissue. The recipe for failure.
Absence of democratic participation
A rising concern for democratic participation — or at the very least some kind of public feedback — stands out from the ‘Skyline Statement’.
This fundamental transformation is taking place with a shocking lack of public awareness, consultation or debate. Planning and political systems are proving inadequate to protect the valued qualities of London, or to provide a coherent and positive vision for the future skyline.
Indeed, it seems that neither Londoners nor the institutions representing them are aware of what is happening. Therefore, they are not able to give any sort of response — may this response be positive or negative — to the major developments that are about to change the city’s skyline and its housing stock. Here, it is the absence of controversy that is worrying, as there has been no debate breaking out — that is, until New London Architecture, intellectuals, and newspapers did their job in presenting their concerns to the public.
Lack of vista
Finally, signatories and commentators of the ‘Skyline Statement’ are keen to highlight the Mayor of London’s lack of vision. The Greater London Authority and its Mayor are responsible for London’s planning at a strategic level. The Deputy Mayor of London’s surprise upon hearing that London would witness 230 new towers in the coming years is revelatory. The fact that the Mayor of London, one of the most democratic institutions in charge of representing the Londoners, has difficultly to grasp what is happening to London’s skyline is worrying not only for the sake of democracy, but also because it sheds light on the Greater London Authority’s lack of foresight and its inability to propose a coherent and all-encompassing plan for London.
Foresight thinking for London
This debate highlights once again that in London, when it comes to planning and place-making, the public sector’s impact is marginal while the influence of the private sector overwhelming. The result is an incoherent vision for the future with high-rise developments of questionable architectural quality mushrooming all across London’s 33 boroughs.
There is more: according to the NLA, 75% of these high-rise developments are going to be luxury flats, which “do not meet London’s housing needs because of their price and dimensions.” This means that new construction will only marginally address the city’s housing crisis, as what Londoners need most are flats that they can afford. Instead, the boroughs have granted planning permissions for these luxury flats in hopes that the money they receive from these developments will enable them to build affordable homes. This is not a sustainable model of planning.
The ‘Skyline Statement’ calls for a Skyline Commission to be set up. While some already fear such an institution would be inefficient, the genuine issue at stake lies elsewhere: London needs to address its planning strategy more thoroughly, specifically in regards to housing and sustainable design for its built environment. Indeed, if London’s skyline can be on the brink of being massively modified while anyone notice, it is surely because of London’s inability to think ahead and propose a coherent plan for the future.
In this debate, the question of architectural design is anecdotal, or at least secondary to the question of what kind of future London wants. When London, as a society and as a whole, addresses the issues that truly matter, then it will get the buildings to match this vision.
To go further:
How is London’s skyline going to change? An interactive guide – Discover renders of the new London’s skyline. By the Guardian Cities
London’s Growing Up! – An exhibition at the New London Architecture from the 3rd of April until the 12th of June 2014
Create your own London’s skyline – This interactive app by Hayes Davidson allows you to play with London’s skyline and add the tower you want, where you want.
This post originally appeared on Urban Controversies.