THEME: Tall Buildings

The Answer to Population Increase?

BY Robin Partington | 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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To be successful, cities must maintain their currency as attractive places to do business whilst having flexibility to accommodate change and encouraging synergies between uses and users, all supported by an efficient infrastructure network. They must be attractive places to live, easy and safe to use – offering a way of life that celebrates their climate, diverse culture, customs and heritage – whilst reinforcing their sense of identity and place. They should be comfortable within their own skin and at ease with themselves.

The success or failure of individual buildings is secondary to this, but a rich and varied mix does add to the chemistry, and tall buildings, already an established part of the fabric of our cities, make a significant contribution to the dynamic and success of their economy. The greater the density, the more synergy there is.

They also provide punctuation, celebrating centres of commerce and reinforcing quirks of geography, such as rivers, transport hubs, crossroads and gathering places, adding to the character and legibility, engaging at a range of scales and distance, providing familiar points of reference for those lost in the delights of exploration.

However, without an appropriate context, tall buildings can fail to relate to the people who use them or share in their setting, often feeling awkward, alien and unwelcome. Clusters feel less self-conscious as they begin to build their own critical mass and sense of place, but that does not necessarily mean that they work for the community that surrounds them.
To successfully integrate into the urban fabric, tall buildings need to make sense. As focal points, they should add drama to the skyline and make a contribution to their setting rather than simply feeding off it, exploiting the activity that they generate; activity that is often more important than the fabric of the buildings themselves.

Whilst we enjoy relatively unfettered access to our public realm, for practical reasons this freedom rarely extends inside tall buildings, where controls on access curtail their ability to become a more active part of the wider community. But this does not stop them making a significant contribution to the public realm at their base, reinforcing the glue that sticks communities together.

Tall buildings can help to drive a sustainability agenda, which is not just about economics, energy and the environment, but also quality of life. Accommodating demand from an increasing population close to infrastructure hubs gets better value out of infrastructure networks, by keeping links short and transmission losses low. Courtesy of the muscle that comes with scale, tall buildings can also act as catalysts for investment in assets like energy centres that share benefits with the local community. To drive this, regulations need to evolve, encouraging and rewarding those who are prepared to innovate.

However, some of the quickest wins involve changing our attitudes and bad habits. Hot desking, flexible working hours and working from home will make us less dependent on a fixed place of work, reducing the need for space. By taking our comfort blanket of paper and photos of the family with us in electronic form, when coupled with engaging retail, cafes, restaurants and bars that increase dwell time in a vibrant public realm, we can reduce cyclical peaks and troughs of demand on our creaking infrastructure, enabling it to run more efficiently throughout the day.

At home we wear ‘T’ shirts when it’s hot and a sweater when cold. Doing the same at work and accepting a wider range of temperatures would dramatically reduce capital costs and energy consumption, changing the way that we specify and design our buildings.

Although controversial at the time, 30 St Mary Axe at the heart of the City of London (the Gherkin) demonstrated that tall buildings and unconventional forms can win popular acceptance in appropriate locations. The client set out a sustainability agenda that, for the UK, was years ahead of its time in taking advantage of height and aerodynamics to drive benefits like natural ventilation and daylight. This agenda informed the shape and detail of the building, with its contented and confident curves fast becoming symbolic of the City despite being a very modest part of the whole.

The Strata tower in Elephant and Castle, London, now home to more than a thousand residents, also provoked much debate from afar. But the community that is emerging from the regeneration of the Heygate Estate, together with Strata’s occupants, have taken matters into their own hands and the building to heart; they are becoming active members of the wider community and producing their own award winning extranet website in the process.

When completed, 1 Merchant Square in Paddington, London will advance the role of tall residential buildings still further. A gateway to the capital and focal point at the heart of the local community, its vibrant mix of uses making an active contribution to the animation of the wider public realm.

I want tall buildings to be exciting places where you want to live and work, I want residential buildings to look like residential buildings and offices to look like offices, and I want the odd one or two to let me take my mum to the top for a nice cup of tea.

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Robin Partington is an architect who studied in Liverpool before spending 17 years at Foster Associates, joining in 1984 and becoming a director in 1992. He then moved to Hamiltons Architects in 2001, as director tasked with driving its transformation to become design-led. He has been responsible for a range of projects including Park House (Oxford Street, London), The Strata Residential tower (Elephant and Castle, London), The Aviator Hotel (Farnborough Airport) and Holmewood, a rather unusual private house integrated into the rolling Chiltern Hills near Marlow. In 2009 he founded his own practice; Robin Partington Architects with a philosophy to combine a design-led approach with sound commercial sensibilities.