London must prepare for tall buildings ’avalanche’

Friday 29 March 2019

© Agnese Sanvito

Tall buildings are the ‘Formula One’ of construction, leading innovation and paving the way. But London needs to think about strategies of how to deal with the ‘avalanche’ of 541 towers to come to the capital – or risk it getting ‘out of control’.

That was according to Javier Quintana, Chairman, CTBUH UK, Director, IDOM UK as he opened a special conference on London’s changing skyline at NLA.

‘They are like the Formula One of industry’, he said of tall buildings. ‘They help and are a test-bed for innovation’, generating new spaces, as with schemes like the Interlace in Singapore, or other projects that create public space in the sky.

The event on the future of tall buildings in the capital built on the findings of the latest NLA Tall Buildings Survey 2019 – with 541 schemes in the pipeline – and opened with NLA chairman repeating his call for the mayor to adopt 3D visualisations of the city to show tall buildings’ impact. 

Quintana said that the way tall buildings serve cities is a complex issue, but that, despite being a global phenomenon, tall buildings are site-specific, with differing understanding of them in different parts of the world. New York’s recent spate of slim towers contrast with Tokyo, while for Spain tall buildings ‘means Benidorm’. But they can also be, as they have been throughout history, ‘machines that make the land pay’, that ‘fuel the economy’, or provide ‘a new monumentality’ or order to cities. Technology and art are giving possibilities to make tall buildings as ‘ beautiful objects’. But in London, said Quintana, the 541 buildings pipeline is more like ‘an avalanche.’ ‘Are we really aware of this, and what is happening?’, he asked. ‘ Are we ready for something like this?’

GL Hearn’s head of planning Stuart Baillie provided the detail on the research, where planning permissions are up significantly, by 14 per cent, even if starts and applications are down on last year. Local authorities need expertise to consider high quality design, said Baillie, perhaps especially on tall buildings, and particularly in some of the larger outer London boroughs. 

WSP technical director John Parker said in discussion that building over railways could make a big impact on housing figures, with an opportunity to connect corridors across what is effectively ‘spare land’ and improving public transport in the process.

HTA design’s Riette Oosthuizen, moreover, said that tall buildings can be ‘very exciting and beautiful’ but from a planning point of view have to be well planned spaces too, with a strategy around them. ‘It’s important to think about the human dimension in this’, she said.

For Emily Gee, regional director, London & South East at Historic England, London’s cherished historic views were important and often ‘uplifting’, belonging to everyone and this are worthy of continued protection. The London View Management Framework, though, could be refined to better manage views policy, aid placemaking and the viewing points themselves could be better signposted and managed. However, the ‘Walkie Talkie’ was ‘highly regrettable’, Gee added, and Historic England are ‘concerned’ about the Tulip proposal from Foster and Partners and its potential to reduce the Tower of London’s ‘sense of dominance’. 

Colin Wilson, head of regeneration of Old Kent Road said he was working on ‘plan-led planning’, positing where tall buildings might go, but perhaps it would be useful to have a wider ‘spatial vision’, he said, about how various local plans in the city might relate to each other. 

Other speakers at the event included Fletcher Priest’s Keith Priest, who said that studies had revealed that whatever you do, 55% of people don’t like it, and around 45% do, on average, which is why architecture is ‘not a politically popular subject’. Modelling can help on rebuilding trust with communities on what’s happening, and on factors like the quality of daylight, said Gordon Ingram, senior partner of GIA, whose firm has produced the VUCity model powered by game-engine technology. Tall buildings are one discussion amid creating the smart city, said Ingram, but such tech could also allow for new discussions over potential ‘trade-offs’.

The final session of the conference included a look at tall building design, Argent’s Mark Swinburne on its five sites in Tottenham Hale, LSE London’s Kath Scanlon on a high density living residents’ survey, and KPF’s John Bushell on integrating a mix of uses in tall buildings across the world. Henley Halebrown’s Simon Henley showed the 100% affordable, 21 storey ‘civic and domestic’ housing scheme, Edith Summerskill House in Fulham, AKTII’s Gerry O’Brien the One Park Drive tower in the tall building-heavy Wood Wharf (which it had to conduct ship impact studies for), and CTBUH chairman Steve Watts of Alinea spoke on the sustainability of tall buildings, energy, and how such schemes are actually used. Only four buildings over 20 storeys tall have been demolished in London, Watts said. The message for the future was clear. ‘Think carefully, and also have a strategic plan not just about the tall building but about the wider urban environment that they are all going to sit in’, he said.

David Taylor
Editor, New London Quarterly

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