There are, an architecture think-tank reports, more than 200 high-rise buildings currently planned or under construction in London, in a trend that has prompted headlines such as “Dubai on Thames” and warnings (or promises) that the capital’s skyline is changing for ever. I hardly needed to be told. A prime feature of the view from our kitchen window is the 40-storey tower at Vauxhall – the one a helicopter crashed into a couple of years ago – which has just been completed. Between that and the venerable Battersea Power station, the horizon is crowded with cranes. The distant hint of green once visible on a clear day is gone, walled off by growing blocks of riverside flats and a fortress-style embassy for the United States.
Like most people, probably, I’m ambivalent about the upward trend. The south-east desperately needs housing, and many of the new towers will provide it – but I doubt it is the sort of housing most would-be Londoners would want or can afford. There is a risk, some forecast, that this particular market could be saturated. The more immediate problem, it seems to me, is the non-relationship between the towers and the uncoordinated, even ugly, way in which they are grouped.
Enthusiasts tend to regard those who express misgivings as philistines or nimbys, but there is more to it than that. The architect Sir David Chipperfield was quoted this week as saying that “in London we seem to have abandoned the idea… of what the city should look like”. It was a point indirectly endorsed by Sir Terry Farrell, who recommends the appointment of a chief architect for London in his just-published report, Architecture and the Built Environment. He also calls for a new understanding of “place”.
To which ordinary Britons can only respond despairingly that it wasn’t we who lost that recognition. We brought it to inquiry after planning inquiry. We talked about scale, proportion and identity – and all we got for our efforts were retorts about commercial reality. Look east from London Bridge towards the City and ask whether any other major city in Europe would have been so cavalier with its aesthetic heritage.