London’s new Tulip skyscraper is great, but why aren’t more people embedding sharks in their roof?

This world needs more eyesores, more carbuncles: if we’re not a little bit terrified by a new building, we should consider it a failure

Joel Dimmock
Saturday 06 April 2019 21:20 BST
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Tulip tower: plans for City of London's tallest skyscraper unveiled

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Utterly unnecessary, but probably beautiful. There are still some planning hurdles to clear, but the London skyline is a step closer to its latest landmark building.

Norman Foster’s firm has got the statuesque Tulip past London’s Planning and Transportation Committee on behalf of billionaire client Joseph Safra. It is planned to nestle alongside the Gherkin, which the Syrian-born Brazilian banker bought in 2014.

The Tulip has, of course, had its critics. Historic Royal Palaces was worried it might diminish views of the Tower of London. Had they not noticed the entire global metropolis that has sprung up beyond their moat over the last 1000 years?

The building would be the second tallest in London, after the Shard, which is painfully dull by comparison. Hopefully the Tulip will usher in an even more adventurous era.

Buildings can be torn down, you see, but their absence can’t be expunged. Reckless (but safe) architecture needs encouragement. This world needs more eyesores, more carbuncles: if we’re not a little bit terrified by a new building, we should consider it a failure.

In my hometown of Brighton, the regeneration of the western end of the seafront has as its centrepiece the British Airways i360. It’s essentially a 160 metre rod with a glass bagel that slides up and down, offering tourists views of a murky English Channel and the suburbs of Sussex. On a clear day, it’s said you can see the outlet stores of Crawley.

It is cheerless, and corporate, yes. But it is also massive, stupid and very slightly awe-inspiring, with the added bonus that it ruins the sea views of those who have played the Brighton housing bubble more successfully than me.

I was even, shamefully, a fan of London’s garden bridge. It was a ludicrous folly, from a ludicrous folly of a man, but that’s kind of the point. We should be more open to projects which accurately reflect the human condition: bizarre before beautiful; more startling than sublime.

The capital of Kazakhstan is just such a spectacular triumph. It contains a parade of strangeness that looks like a 10 year-old won a Blue Peter competition that was accidentally enacted into law. I’m not sure which is the most wonderful part of it. The shining golden kitchen roll holders? The inverted gauze funnel? The curiously squat pyramid?

The only real trouble with all of these buildings is that they tend to be the playthings of the rich. Even public buildings like the insane Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia or the Guggenheim in Bilbao tend to cater for the well-to-do. In the private sector, it is mostly corporations, and mostly men, whose wealth gives them the freedom to act out the Lego fantasies of their youth.

We need to celebrate and encourage more of this architectural exuberance in the mundane streets of provincial towns.

That’s why it was so sad to hear that Bill Heine has died this week.

Heine was a BBC presenter in Oxford and ran a couple of cinemas, but he was perhaps best known as the man who installed a giant fibre-glass shark in the roof of his suburban house in Headington and fought the planning authorities for his right to keep it there. That’s a proper legacy.

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Thanks to journalist Jim Waterson, we were reminded of the final ruling when Heine took his case to Michael Heseltine, the then environment secretary. Heseltine’s inspector, Peter Macdonald, set out a wonderfully deadpan decision, rejecting concerns that “sharks (and Heaven knows what else)” would end up crashing through roofs all over the Oxford.

“In the five years since the shark was erected,” he continued, “no other examples have occurred. Only very recently has there been a proposal for twin baby sharks in the Iffley Road. But any system of control must make some small place for the dynamic, the unexpected, the downright quirky. I therefore recommend that the Headington shark be allowed to remain.”

We should take this more-than-25-year-old precedent to heart. I’ve not been to Iffley Road, but I really hope they went ahead with the twin baby sharks. Either way, it’s reassuring that even if you can’t put a giant tulip slap bang in the middle of one of the world’s great cities, you could at least be like Bill and stick a life-size blue whale down your chimney.

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