Pam Alexander: Sorry, Ken, skyscrapers are not the solution for our cities

'The Manhattan factor has seduced cities into believing that commercial success requires high-rise'

Share

There is a remarkable sense of déjà vu in the debate about high buildings. We have been here before, but on previous occasions the more extravagant proposals evaporated as our economic fortunes dipped.

Tall buildings clearly make money, at least for a few people. Property owners, developers and a few architects are, not surprisingly, great enthusiasts. But for the rest of us the justification has still to be made. Higher densities are needed to minimise development on greenfield sites. But as Richard Rogers pointed out in Towards an Urban Renaissance, the report of the Urban Task Force, higher density development does not necessarily mean high rise. Some of the highest densities can be found in low-rise areas of elegant terrace housing, like Islington and Kensington, which have become celebrated centres of high-density living without sacrificing environmental quality.

Nor is there any reliable evidence that London's commercial future is dependent on tall buildings. Detailed research by the former London Planning Advisory Committee, and endorsed by the Government only 18 months ago, failed to find a need for high buildings to enhance London's importance as a world city. Indeed, over the past 20 years London's prosperity has been sustained by highly efficient, low rise "ground scrapers" of eight to 10 storeys, like the new Merrill Lynch HQ in the City of London.

The Manhattan factor has seduced cities all over the world into believing that for commercial success they need very high buildings. In Manhattan or Hong Kong, geography determined the need. But in London, Paris, Rome and even Berlin, there is a different European urban model, one based on organic growth over a long period of time, bequeathing complex layers of urban life deeply rooted in history. This has provided an economic dynamic more powerful than tall office buildings can generate. Much of the evidence suggests that tall buildings can severely prejudice this.

How many of the very tall buildings that we have today can really be regarded as breathtaking adornments to London's skyline? One of their principal failings has been that far too many were designed with a lack of appreciation or understanding of the context in which they sit.

London's Royal Parks and low-rise neighbourhoods largely rely for their amenity on an illusion of space which can easily be devastated by tall buildings looming over them. Is Hyde Park really a better place for being overlooked by the Hilton Hotel or Knightsbridge Barracks?

Should we care? If people want high buildings, why shouldn't they have them? Individual boroughs are competing for a slice of the action, but to scatter tall buildings across the skyline in the interests of competition between one part of London and another would destroy forever many of the qualities that Londoners and the world enjoy. We cannot afford to kill the golden goose for the sake of short-term expediency. If we do need tall buildings, it is essential to work out on a London-wide basis where they might go.

Paris, one of the most glorious low-rise cities in the world, has successfully grouped its very tall buildings at La Defense and Montparnasse. London has the opportunity to do the same at Canary Wharf and, perhaps, one or two other centres. But one of the opponents of the growth of Canary Wharf is the City Corporation, the guardian of London's oldest financial quarter, which fears that the centre of economic activity will move east to Docklands. But so what if it does?

English Heritage is not opposed to high buildings ­ as long as the case has been made, the buildings are world class and, above all, in the right place. That is why we supported Norman Foster's "erotic gherkin" for the Baltic Exchange site, an outstanding piece of new architecture which provides a coherent focus to a random cluster of existing tall buildings. Conversely, we have opposed the Heron Bishopsgate Tower because it is an unexceptional building in the wrong place which damages the world-famous prospects of St Paul's from Waterloo Bridge and the newly-opened terrace of Somerset House.

What is needed is a strategy. That is why earlier this week we launched joint national guidance on high buildings with the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, and why we are urging Mayor Ken Livingstone to ensure that a sophisticated Spatial Development Strategy for the capital reinforces the qualities which make London special as a world city.

Prior to his election, Ken Livingstone described English Heritage as "the conscience of the mayor". English Heritage firmly believes that London has unique qualities of cityscape that provide the true measure of its past success and its future prosperity. The Canaletto effect is at least as powerful as the Manhattan syndrome, and far more relevant to London's long-term needs.

The writer is the Chief Executive of English Heritage

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Developer (TSQL, SSRS, SSAS) Fund Manager - London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer (TSQL, S...

Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, Angular.JS)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, An...

Front-End UI/UX Developer (HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, Ang

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End UI/U...

C#.NET Server Side Developer (C#, XML, WCF, Unit Testing,SQL)

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C#.NET ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letters: The West flounders in the Middle East morass

Independent Voices
David Tennant as Hamlet  

To vote no or not to vote no, that is the question... Although do celebrities really have the answer?

David Lister
All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition