The Mayor who set his sights low

Karl Sharro | 27 February 2010

Boris Johnson has made a virtue of opposing the construction of towers in London. One of his first appointees was former Westminster Council leader Simon Milton, a fierce critic of towers, who was named chief advisor on planning days after Boris took office. The hype that surrounded this appointment and Boris’ anti-tower policy claimed that under Ken Livingstone London was on its way to becoming Dubai-on-Thames. Aside from the factual inaccuracy of this statement (see below), London already had a strict anti-tower policy in place maintained by a number of planning departments, quangos, and conservation groups. As London prepares to get out of the recession the question of towers will become important once again. It is worth challenging Boris’ policy and making a case for the construction of more skyscrapers in London.

The conservation lobby’s favourite phrase when it comes to towers in London is that they are ‘visually intrusive.’ In fact, what is really visually intrusive is the sight of so many organisations working to halt the development of London and freeze it in time. The unchallenged assumption that such bodies promote is that the existing condition of London cannot be bettered and that any modern development needs to be modest in comparison to historic buildings. This self-effacing ethos is truly baffling: if the architects of St Paul’s Cathedral or the Palace of Westminster had followed the same reasoning, neither would have been designed as ambitiously as they were. The conservationists’ attitude, and Boris Johnson has firmly established himself within that camp, betrays a lack of faith in our generation’s ability to produce buildings of equal quality.

The outstanding buildings that have been built in London over the past few years show that this pessimism is wholly unjustified. The Gherkin, the London Eye, and the Millennium Dome have not only displayed ambitious architecture and cutting-edge technology but have quickly become symbols of London. The Dome may have been a PR disaster, but it broke new grounds in architecture and engineering, illustrating what British firms are capable of if given the chance. Yet the critics curiously insist on seeing these as the exceptions rather than the norm. This partially explains why the most talented architects and engineers in the UK have to do their best work abroad.

Before and since taking office, Boris has thrown his rather hefty weight around in opposition to several high-rise schemes, such as Ian Simpson’s Beetham Tower on Blackfriars Road, Allies & Morrison’s ‘Three Sisters’ on York Road, and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands’ Doon Street. Armed with new mayoral powers that allow him to order local councils to refuse applications, Boris has become the uncertain element in the equation for developers planning high-rise buildings in London. However, Boris’ policy on, or against, towers has not yet become the subject of intense public debate, because his term has coincided with the recession, forcing most developers to shelve or postpone their planned schemes. In a sense, economic stagnation carried out Boris’ policy on his behalf. But as we prepare, or so the theory goes, to get out of the recession, several schemes are expected to be revived, and with them Boris’ anti-tower policy.

A closer look at the Dubai-on Thames claim reveals how ludicrous it is, and how misguided Boris is in making opposition to towers a central plank of his planning policy. Between 2000 and 2009, 34 high-rise schemes (taller than 100m) were proposed in London, compared to 111 in Dubai. (Source: The Dubai towers are nearly all concentrated along one road, the London towers spread around a much larger city. The tallest tower in Dubai is 828m, the tallest in London will be 300m (the yet-to-be-built The Shard by Tower Bridge, designed by Renzo Piano.) The average height of a London tower in this category is 150m; the average in Dubai is twice as high at 300m. Furthermore, most of the Dubai towers are either finished or under construction, few of the London towers have been completed.

Not that I am opposed to the idea of Dubai-on-Thames – in fact I think it’s a rather exciting prospect – but the idea that the few modest buildings planned for London threatened to transform it into a Dubai-like city is the product of a very fertile imagination with little grasp of the facts. In reality most of the opposition to high-rise buildings is based on a conservative outlook expressed in a highly moralistic language. The ‘visual intrusion’ that so many of the critics of skyscrapers deride is the intrusion of the 21st century into our contemporary fields of vision. However, this is not simply a clash of modern versus traditional, but a wholesale abandonment of ambitious development as a valid path of progress. Even the advocates of high-rise buildings have to coach their support in the language of sustainability, arguing that they make more environmental sense. Even more ludicrously, designers have to go out of their way to prove that towers have a minimal impact on the skyline of London in order to gain consent, begging the question of why would you bother to build a tower if you don’t want it to be visible!

While Boris has come to represent the rounded end of the anti-skyscraper spear, in London, in truth the opposition runs much deeper and wider. It ranges from curmudgeonly individuals who regard every proposal for a tower in London as a personal insult to themselves, to local councils who, with few exceptions such as the more enlightened City of London and Southwark, regard towers with the dread usually reserved for invading barbarians, to a variety of official and semi-official outfits whose chief function is to put the case against development. In a typical development in London, designers have to deal with the local council’s planning department, consult with the local community and ‘stakeholders’, a very flexible definition that allows any busybody to have a say on the development in question, English Heritage (who as a principle regard the 20th century as one lengthy mistake), CABE (the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment), who serve as a sort of taste police monitoring ‘design’ as if it’s a separate entity from the rest of the scheme, and the Minister of State for London.

Into this already crowded scene steps the Mayor and the GLA with the full force of the law behind them, with powers to cajole and bully designers and developers into modifying their schemes downwards and if all else fails reject them altogether. Boris has used these powers to galvanise the anti-high-rise sentiment into an object of policy. So far, he has gotten away with this unchallenged. But it is incumbent on us, those who welcome the prospect of transforming London’s skyline into an exciting scene that represents the city’s dynamism, to publicly challenge this short-sighted and un-ambitious policy. This requires challenging not only Boris Johnson’s anti-tower bias, but the entire planning context that regards any development proposal as ‘guilty until proven innocent’.

The cultural dimension of this opposition should also be challenged. We often hear words like ‘vanity’ and ‘greed’ brandished around when discussing high-rise towers, and they are often seen as the representation of the nasty side of capitalism. But this only reflects the esoteric context within which this debate is carried out, the assumption that any developer in the UK would sink hundreds of millions of pounds into ‘vanity’ projects is as ignorant of economic facts as it is the result of a general sense of pessimism. What makes towers attractive to developers is that they represent a solution to the shortage of space in dense contexts. Towers make particular sense in London where available land is always at a premium. In fact, high-rise projects often create a much better condition on the ground, freeing up valuable space for public use. The bias against towers is largely a manifestation of the prevalent culture of low expectations that looks at any ambitious development with suspicion. The ‘phallic symbols’ seen by tower critics are products of their own dirty minds.

Towers do indeed have a symbolic value, they represent the ambitions and power of a society on its way up. New York would not be the same without its famous skyscrapers, which once represented the optimism and ambition of America. The reason thousands of people move to London every year is not to enjoy the ‘uncorrupted’ view of the Treasury from St James’s Park as Boris Johnson and his deputy mayor for planning Simon Milton seem to think, but to be part of the dynamic metropolitan experience that London has to offer. It is only befitting that the city’s skyline should be allowed to reflect this dynamism, and a few more houses and nicer offices wouldn’t hurt either. Time to tell the Mayor who takes pride in setting his sights low to retrain his sights and aim higher. Boris, don’t stand in the way of progress

This article was first published on Culture Wars



Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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