Architecture: Upwardly immobile

The Millennium Tower gets the thumbs down in a bid to put a lid on London. The aim is to conserve the capital's `quintessential character'. Er, what quintessential character? By Jonathan Glancey
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The Independent Culture
In the Old Testament (Genesis, Chapter 11), God took a dim view of tall buildings, striking confusion into the minds and larynxes of those who sought to build a tower that would reach to Heaven. This act of divine nimbyism by the Great Architect has not stopped later generations from trying to do the same thing. Only this month an unholy row has broken out over the Millennium Tower, a skyscraper designed by Sir Norman Foster that would easily be the tallest building in Britain. Climbing 1,265ft above the site of the former Baltic Exchange (wrecked by the IRA) at St Mary Axe in the City of London, the proposed tower is considered an abomination not just by English Heritage (that is to be expected), but by the London Planning Advisory Committee (LPAC) and even by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

The CAA says that if built, the tower would interfere with air traffic operations and has lodged an objection with City of London planners. Meanwhile, the LPAC finds the vertiginous design "backwards looking and derivative", believes it would "unacceptably change a world-famous view for the worse", and concludes that "London does not need this tower to sustain its world city role".

English Heritage is more critical still. Its commissioners, chaired by Sir Jocelyn Stevens, say it "represents such a quantum leap in terms of scale, height and bulk that it would overwhelm the quintessential character of the capital". According to Sir Jocelyn, "London is a diverse and fascinating blend of the old and new, with a clear identity which must not be destroyed. We know that people and businesses are attracted to London not only as a world financial and cultural centre, but also because of its sense of history and built heritage. The quality of London life is of real economic, social and cultural value. London's face is, literally, its fortune."

While the CAA's findings must be taken very seriously (and Foster, as an experienced pilot, will be only too ready to heed them), what the LPAC and English Heritage have to say cannot pass without comment.

This is an issue that affects not just London, but all our cities. It is the question of how we should build to meet the needs and reflect the culture of the last years of the 20th century. It also poses the question: when should our city centres be frozen in time or set in aspic, if ever?

The face of London has been lifted very many times since the Romans founded it immediately after the imperial conquest of AD43 (reliable earlier settlements were probably further up-river where the Thames was more readily crossed). The first Roman settlement here was sacked by Boudicca in the AD60s. The first St Paul's Cathedral, of which we know little, was destroyed by the great fire of 1087. A second and more famous great fire, in 1666, destroyed 13,200 medieval and Tudor houses and many of the City's 121 medieval churches were never rebuilt. A century earlier Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries did for vast and opulent buildings that dominated the London skyscape as office towers and the Barbican do today.

The City adorned by Wren's steeples and immortalised in oil on canvas by Canaletto was very far from the city the Victorians handed down to our own century.

Victorian confidence and energy saw vast new roads driven through slums, the embanking of the Thames from Westminster to Blackfriars, the building of the sewers that still serve the city today and the arrival of the railway stations from 1836. Fenchurch Street, the first of these, was modest, but the construction of mighty Liverpool Street and St Pancras demanded the demolition of thousands of homes, and in the case of the latter the razing of an entire quarter (Agar Town, better known as "Ague" Town, a festering sore of cholera and crime). Many more homes and a filigree fabric of old courts and alleys were torn down to build the massive mock Gothic Law Courts designed by GE Street in the Strand.

In our own century, change has piled on top of change. New roads, tunnels, flyovers, titanic headquarters for corporations and banks, indifferent towers shooting into the capital cloudscape ... no, Sir Jocelyn, London has never stopped changing and while it is healthy it never will.

What can be argued is that London, above all other British cities, is expanding in a random and often ugly or banal fashion. Many of the most ugly buildings in the capital far from scraping the sky are a mere one or two storeys. While deregulated growth is fascinating to observe, it is rarely pleasant to experience.

It seems doubtful that we want London to go the way of Hong Kong, Seoul or Shanghai, but how far should it be allowed to grow? If not upwards, then outwards?

The answer may be that we have only just begun to rethink the centre of London and other major cities intelligently. There are hundreds of buildings waiting to be converted, rebuilt or demolished and replaced by others. There are empty patches, bomb sites left over from the Blitz (nearly 60 years on) and whole streets and squares that could form the heart of fresh new building and settlement.

If we were to make full use of our city centres, we would need very few new massive or very tall buildings. We could then pick and choose the ones we really wanted. We might even support a 1,250ft tower should it promise to adorn and enliven the skyline and life in the streets below.

Our problem is that there is no body competent or able to take strategic decisions on building and planning in central London. The abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986 has left a vacuum that still needs filling by some future London-wide authority.

Massive or tall buildings shooting out of ugly and lifeless streets, from among a tangle of mangy buildings and a jam of traffic, do nothing to improve a city. If, however, they are part and parcel of a delightful and rich web of much-liked streets and alleys, courts and gardens, squares and walkways, then they can bloom happily like hollyhocks in a much-loved English garden.

The face of London needs to be lifted many more times before we can even begin to say "yes, this is how we would like it to stay". And as for that "clear identity which must not be destroyed", we should challenge Sir Jocelyn and the commissioners of English Heritage to define it. I, for one, find the task almost impossible: how and why is Kingsland High Road readily identifiable with London Wall, or Spitalfields with King William Street. What is the clear connection between Broadgate and Abchurch Lane?

London is a complex and ever-changing organism. What matters is that we do our level best to steer that change into the realm of beauty and delight, so that we can all enjoy a city that contains flat-fronted Georgian terraces, Leadenhall Market and Lloyd's of London ... and the occasional sky-high tower. We might even begin to demolish the most boring of these.

And if Foster's tower ever does rise into the millennial sky, the CAA might take comfort from an extraordinary episode that happened one foggy night in New York during the Second World War when a B-26 bomber slammed into the Empire State Building. The tallest building in the world, as it was then, wobbled a bit, but remarkably little damage was done and Manhattan's famous skyline lived on. Not only does New York benefit from its 1,000ft-plus towers, many of which are much loved or respected, but it has a much clearer identity than London has today. The Millennium Tower may well not be the right monument for the City, but just which face of London are we trying to keep and which is its fortune?n