THEME: Tall Buildings

The Impact of Tall Buildings on Cityscape

BY Barbara Weiss | October 2012

Earlier this year, Renzo Piano’s Shard was finally unveiled as the latest tall building to appear on London’s skyline. It has since attracted a mixed response; it’s certainly a striking statement, but one that towers alone, imposing itself upon one of London’s most historic boroughs. In this series of Think Pieces, we have asked a range of contributors to consider whether tall buildings are really the answer to our social, economic and environmental challenges of the future, in the context of continued population increase and global urbanisation.

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Without remotely wanting to diminish the importance of the many sociological, economic and environmental appraisals of Tall Buildings, I would like to ‘raise the flag’ for extending the debate regarding their impact on cities – before it is too late! – to include, as forcefully as possible, the specific perspective of urban design and architectural merit.

Absurdly, the definition of Tower, or even of Tall Building, is so inherently relative as to be somewhat strangely elusive.

S.Gimignano, Bologna, Istanbul – to name but the first examples that come to mind – have been famous for centuries for their distinctive stone towers, reaching for the skies above homogeneous seas of tiled roofs, unavoidable reminders of the historic powers of religion and commerce. With Bologna’s tallest tower measuring 97m, the chubby Galata Tower, perched high on a hill above the Bosphorus, stretching to 62m high, S. Gimignano’s highest spire is a mere 54m – a long way down from the Shard’s 309m, the Walkie Talkie’s 160m, the Pinnacle’s 288m or Vauxhall’s St George’s Tower 181m; and yet these poetic medieval ancestors are unforgettable to a degree to which their modern incarnations cannot ever aspire to match.

The essence of a tower is that it must dominate, that it must stand out. If actual height and number of floors matter to the developer and to the architect, in a competitive machismo sort of way, to the viewer they are almost irrelevant. It is all about relationship to context and play with scale.

A tall building amongst many other tall buildings becomes just another building, whereas even a very short tower, emerging from surrounding lower structures or a horizontal landscape, will always read as a strong statement. It is the relative proximity of different tall towers, the nature of the interstitial urban fabric that separates them and their shapes and materials that contribute to their success or failure in terms of ’group value’. The individual architectural expression of adjacent towers needs to be countered by a degree of local homogeneity, if you are to avoid an ‘all sorts’ feeling to your cluster…

It is indeed very sad to observe that this lesson is totally lost on the ever increasing number of supposedly ‘iconic’ towers emerging in the City of London, each with its own cool new narrative and identity embedded in its moniker, each jostling for attention while undermining – rather than reinforcing – the contribution made by the previous one.


Howzey©

From a distance; say looking back from the Millennium Bridge, or from any other of the too many vantage points along the river, this dense and shapeless grouping of distinctly over-excited tall buildings to the right of St Paul’s, has, as a group, nothing to add to a horizon that was once notable for its interplay between beautiful slender church spires and the occasional well-spaced-out modern tower.

With the planners blindly offering up to Mammon; large portions of the Capital, to create a number of ‘clusters’ of Tall Buildings, optimistically – and undoubtedly erroneously – hoping that this strategy might reduce their negative impact, the recent appearance of several new isolated towers dotted around London confirms the no-lesser (if different) harm inflicted on the city as a whole by over-scaled, monolithic, solitary blocks, visible from everywhere.

Amongst these it is worth mentioning the Strata building (148m), with its cartoonish grin appearing over the roof of Tate Modern or the Oxo Tower, smiling at you idiotically all the way down Farringdon Road. Then there is St George’s Tower in Vauxall, absurdly dancing around Big Ben as you drive down the Embankment, and then tragically filling the entire vista at the bottom of many white stuccoed Pimlico streets, to a point that it is hard to tell whether this monster is built North or South of the river. Not to mention of course, the Shard, whose aggressive and intrusive presence it is now impossible to avoid from almost anywhere in London. Forget the LBMF! – forget protecting the cherished monuments and famous beauty spots loved by the world over – but do spare a thought for those who used to enjoy the tree-lined residential streets of their historic neighbourhoods, now permanently forced, at all times of the day, to rub noses with an incongruous commercial building that dwarfs everything else, and has altered for ever the subtle poetry of the domestic scale.

As a passionate lover of New York; and of much of what its tower environment has to offer, my revulsion for the new generation of London towers (and for similar towers in many other cities) stems from many different observations.

First and foremost, these towers are very simply too big for their context; by comparison to them, the rest of London looks like a LEGO-land that has lost its dignity and stature. Eyeing up, a few weekends ago; Tower Bridge and the Shard, side by side down the Thames, I felt deeply that the Tower Bridge I had known had vanished.Gone was the self-importance, the presence of this extraordinary monument, trampled by a pharaonic obelisk to the greater glory of commercialism.


George Rex©

Secondly, to be blunt, there is not a single one of these recent very tall buildings that is anything more than architecturally mediocre. Some are even atrociously, painfully, badly designed. They all set out to ‘epater les bourgeois’, and in some cases they succeed. Architecturally, however, they are all mistakes of one type or the other, and in the years that come, with the bling of novelty fading, it will become more and more evident that this is the case.

The above is obviously a personal value judgement, but one that I suspect many members of the architectural profession would subscribe to. Where are London’s Chrysler Buildings, Seagram Buildings, Woolworth Buildings, the Flatirons, the Pirelli skyscrapers, the Torre Velascas? Some of these are very tall, some not so, but they are all of exceptional architectural quality. They stand out not because of their height, but because of their elegance, interest and beauty.

If tall buildings are allowed to be built so that they can be seen from a great distance, it is simply irresponsible to permit anything but the best to be designed; far more stringent safety measures should be introduced in choosing who should be designing what, whether through competitions, judging committees, peer reviews or other. The thought that John Prescott could single-handedly blight acres and acres of London is infuriating, depressing and hard to believe. It simply must not happen again.

At a time of great financial and political turmoil such as now, the new Tall Buildings serve as a bitter reminder of the recent excesses of the banking systems and of a form of Capitalism that is sick to the core. To continue to build at such a scale is to perpetuate the ills of society and to allow greed to get the better of one of the most important and sacrosanct communal assets; our unique historic urban heritage. Density, the feeble excuse used to justify towers, can be massively increased in a huge number of London locations by consistently building dense, mixed-use, medium-height urban blocks, with the joint advantage of improving street life and of delivering accommodation to the many.

It is a very sad indictment of a sector of our profession, that it is so prone to rush into accepting so many off-the-scale commissions; quite likely in the full knowledge that the negative consequences of these pacts with egotistical and megalomaniac developers will last for years, and that the urban price to be paid is very high. It is time that a more socially and morally responsible approach is taken in relation to our cities, ensuring that they are not treated as dumping grounds for throw-away experimentation. London will never be S.Gimignano, but we can do better.

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Barbara Weiss was born in Milan in 1954 and studied at the Architectural Association in London, obtaining the AA Diploma in 1979 and becoming a member of the RIBA in 1985.

Early work experiences include periods spent at design offices such as Philip Johnson-John Burgee, and Richard Meier in New York; Valle Broggi Burckhardt in Milan; and two most formative phases at Stirling Wilford and Associates in London, first as a student and later as project architect working on large scale buildings and a New Town in Italy.

Prior to founding Barbara Weiss Architects in 1987, Barbara taught part-time at the Architectural Association. She is also the co-author of two books, including “Do it with an architect” – written with Louis Hellman and aimed at bridging the gap between the domestic client and the profession.

Barbara has acted as an assessor for the Civic Trust for the past 10 years, and was appointed in 2007 to the CABE Design Review Panel for Schools.