Why skyscrapers are on the up

Skyscrapers are shooting up across Britain. Helen Brown reports on how the 54th-floor penthouse became the pinnacle of modern living
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The Independent Online

"By day, the skyscraper looms in the smoke and the sun and has a soul," wrote the American poet Carl Sandburg in 1916. He saw prairies and valleys in the vertiginous cross-hatching of lives and girders. "It is the men and women, boys and girls so poured in and out all day that give the building a soul of dreams and thoughts and memories." The Americans love their tall buildings; we British are more suspicious. In his dystopian 1975 novel, High Rise, J G Ballard saw in these boasts of glass and steel an " architecture built for war", a "Pandora's box whose thousand lids were one by one opening inward". For decades, we have preferred to keep our tall buildings commercial. But a new generation of high-rise residential projects are punching up through the nation's skyline, and studios and penthouses are being snapped up as fast as the floor plans can be printed.

Things started getting very tall up North with the 90m Beetham Tower in Liverpool, completed in 2004 and quickly dubbed "Manhattan on the Mersey". Then came Manchester's Beetham Tower (171m, if you include the spire). Next year, construction begins in Leeds on the Lumiere Tower, whose roof will reach 171m, making it the tallest residential building in Western Europe.

The architect of the latter two projects, Ian Simpson, acknowledges that there has been a "natural resistance" to skyscraper living. "The legacy from the social-housing towers of the 1950s and 1960s gives us every right to be reserved about high-rises," he says. "The post-war towers were poorly built and poorly maintained. With a couple of exceptions, such as the Barbican, they had no security. Vandalism was unchecked. The lifts broke. Damp came through the walls. And the people in those buildings didn't want to be there. The aspiration was the country cottage. City centres became ghettos for those who couldn't get out. But that's a world away from what's going on today, especially in the regeneration of the Northern cities, where we're trying to attract people back into the centre, to create high-value accommodation."

Simpson won the competition to rebuild Manchester's city centre after the IRA bomb in 1996, and he has been closely involved with the city's regeneration. "Manchester doesn't have a skyline, apart from one or two 1960s buildings. So this is about trying to 'create' a skyline as a mark of change and regeneration. In Manchester, that supports the political aspirations of a city that's not relying on a Victorian past. It changes perceptions of the place."

Simpson has even bought the penthouse at the Beetham Tower. "What's really nice about living at height is the quality of light you get inside, and the serenity of the view," he says. "I'm looking forward to inhabiting my own sanctuary above the streets, whose excitements and convenience are still only 40 seconds away." He is reported to have paid £2.5m for the 8,000 sq ft apartment, which is the highest home in Britain.

Beneath the tower's 16m ornamental-glass blade, Simpson's pad will have its own garden (with 30ft olive trees), a pool and a separate apartment for staff or guests. The Everton footballer Phil Neville has taken another penthouse. Beneath them, the Beetham packs in a 23- storey, 285-bed Hilton hotel, and 219 luxury apartments (at prices from £100,000 to £2.5m), which all sold within a year. Studios are now on the resale market for £179,450.

But are these lifestyles beyond the reach of the average home hunter? And are the clinical designs family-friendly? Philippe Starck will be fitting out the Lumiere Tower in Leeds, and Khuan Chew, who designed the entrance of the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai, has been contracted to swish up the interior of the ultra-slim Pan Peninsula towers on Marsh Wall in London's Canary Wharf. The music on the development's website sets the tone. Click on the studio apartment section and a bachelor-oriented saxophone solo kicks in. Sales pitches for bigger apartments are accompanied by classical piano solos and chill-out music.

Sarah Gaventa, the author of Concrete Design, lives at the Barbican. She believes that well-maintained towers can be the ideal place to raise a family. "There are five babies on my corridor," she says. "When you look at the brochures for these towers, they imply the residents will all be single men, reclining in their Arne Jacobsen chairs, or single women sipping expensive cocktails. Storage can be a problem, but these blocks often provide excellent facilities for children. The Barbican has a children's library, enclosed green spaces and communal activities. We have had the odd complaints about the buggy in the hall, but our son can trick or treat along the corridors in safety. Blocks are also attracting more and more elderly and retired people who don't want to be stuck out in the middle of nowhere."

John Hitchcox of YOO, one of the developers of the Lumiere Tower in Leeds, stresses the role of towers as "vertical villages".

"The majority of people will be young professionals and couples, but we are designing these buildings for communities. The Lumiere's vision incorporates 81 apartments for the 55+ age group with a primary healthcare facility, and substantial leisure and retail space situated around a central piazza. A covered winter garden links both towers. As with all tall buildings, the prices rise with the floor level and corner pads are pricier than others. But at an average of £350 per sq ft, the Lumiere Tower isn't unaffordable (check on service charges though).

Tower-living in London is pricier. Studios in Pan Peninsula start at £299,000. Rob and Monica Wirz-Ferris have bought a two-bedroom apartment on the 36th floor, and see it as a thrilling investment in the capital's evolution.

"We see the area around Canary Wharf as the London of the future," says Rob. "The architecture of the area and of the building was really appealing. It will give us a fresh start to look down at London from such a great height in 2008. The proximity of the Olympics is exciting. And we're looking forward to the interesting mix of people. The private cinema was crucial in my wife's decision, but I'm not quite sure how it's going to work. There may be some huge fight each night over which film is going to be shown!"

James Newman, of skyscrapernews.com, confirms that by the time the Wirz-Ferrises are figuring out how to get their sofa up 36 floors, more Brits than ever before will be living at height.

"The trend is national," he says. "People don't want to commute. It's time-wasting and unenvironmental. Every Tom, Dick and Harry is building a tower. When the Beetham went up in Liverpool, investors bought off-plan. But because the prices have gone up so much now, the only way you can make money as an investor is by building the things yourself. We have all sorts of companies doing it on all sorts of scales. They're 10 a penny across London at 80-100m tall.

"And councils have changed planning policy to encourage more city-centre living and to reduce traffic. All you have to do is prove that the local infrastructure can support a tower. And that also saves the countryside by reducing urban sprawl."

Newman is all for this diversity, but he worries about the dominance of Simpson buildings across the nation. " I'm not a huge fan of his work," he says. "I like the Lumiere, but there's a danger that he'll make cities look the same. He could become the Ikea of skyscraper architecture.

"Funnily enough, there were reports of a strange, sci-fi ringing coming from the top of the Manchester Beetham. The sound was so loud they had to stop filming Coronation Street. There would be a poetic justice to Simpson himself living in a tower that constantly hummed - the victim of his own bad design!"

But Simpson assures me that the ringing is fixed. And that the future of high rise is far from soulless.

Britain's high and mighty homes


Location: Leeds

Architect: Ian Simpson

Height: Tower I 171m, Tower II 112m

Floors: 54/32

Completion Expected: 2009


Location: Manchester

Architect: Ian Simpson

Height: 171 m

Floors: 48

Completion Expected: 2006


Location: London

Architect: Skidmore Owings & Merrill

Height: Tower 1 ,155.14m, Tower 2 ,121.92m

Floors: 50 and 39

Completion expected: 2009


Location: Birmingham

Architect: Ian Simpson

Height: 130m

Floors: 40

Completion: 2005


Shakespeare Tower, Cromwell Tower and Lauderdale Tower

Location: London

Architect : Chamberlain Powell and Bonn

Height: 125.60m

Floors: 42/43

Completed: 1976


Location: London

Architect: HOK International

Height: 111m

Floors: 34

Completed: 2004