High hopes: The new towers of London
There was a time, around the start of 2009, when it felt like every grand building project in London had stalled. Plans for a multitude of soaring shiny towers, conceived at the very height of the boom years, were filed away, the money to build them having, apparently, disintegrated in an instant. Workmen walked off sites. The skeletons of grand office blocks, only half-constructed and already bankrupt, stood silent; follies, a testament to a bygone era.
How quickly history rights itself. 'As of this moment I'm not aware of any project that's still on hold,' says Peter Rees, the chief planning officer of the City of London. 'People are either on site, in the process of tendering or are concluding deals.'
What's this? A recently beleaguered property industry in bullish mood? Are we, against the odds, at the beginning of a new property boom in London? The straight answer is no. While there are cranes over the City, and a rash of proposals for tall buildings from Vauxhall to Canary Wharf, from Blackfriars to Croydon, these are still difficult times.
It might seem curious that, with a traumatised economy, the property industry would not take time to re-evaluate the schemes it had proposed in the fat times. Perhaps the temples to commerce that skyscrapers represent might feel a little hubristic at this point in the economic cycle. But not a bit of it. That kind of thinking takes too long and renegotiating planning permission is too arduous. It's quicker to dust off old plans than to make new ones. London will get a clutch of tall buildings that were designed for a boom, and delivered after a chastening recession. There are some on site already: the 230m Heron Tower by the London office of American architect Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) will finish early next year, and the 310m Shard by star architect Renzo Piano, above London Bridge station, will also be finished in time for the 2012 Olympics.
Rees is measured in his prognosis. 'I don't see this as the start of a new property boom. Developers are simply meeting demand that currently exists, because there is a shortage of grade-A office space in the City. In the longer term, people have significant question marks about the state of the world economy and so on. They're just getting the product there while there's demand.'
So it could be that the resurrection of the Walkie Talkie, Darth Vader's Helmet, the Helter-Skelter and all the rest that make up the cast of characters that will compete for attention on the London skyline will be the last of a generation of tall buildings in the City. The two most significant buildings that are currently under construction in the Square Mile are both by the same architect, KPF. The Heron Tower on Bishopsgate is nearly there and has emerged as a pretty regular-looking office building. It has none of the fancy shapemaking of the Gherkin, rather it has straight edges and right angles. Paul Simovic of KPF, the architect in charge of the Heron Tower, says, 'I think it has a very different attitude from the so-called iconic buildings. We focused on having a sensitive approach to orientation and site. The building allows other people to build near it and forms part of the urban fabric rather than elbowing others out of the way. The materials are high quality but nothing that screams, and there's a focus on the ground floor, with a recessed arcade at the front entrance and a pedestrianised area next to it.'
While Heron Tower is one of the buildings in the City that hasn't yet spawned a nickname, that is perhaps because it is trying to be more modest. KPF's other proposal is less so. The Pinnacle tower, which at 288m will be the second highest building in the country after the Shard, will cost £1 billion and will be completed in 2013. Work has just begun on the spiralling form, which has been dubbed the Helter-Skelter.
Paul Katz, president of KPF, says that these towers are a vital part of the identity of London. 'I find it gratifying to see all these towers in London because many years ago, in the
mid-1990s, we were advocating clusters of towers but there was strong opposition. I think the tall building is the building type of the 21st century. I can see why in London there would be concern about tall buildings eviscerating the unique scale of the city. But I think that contrast between high and low and old and new is exciting.'
The other proposals, all of which, I was told by sources in the City, are moving forward, are Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners' Leadenhall Building (nicknamed the Cheesegrater), Rafael Viñoly Architects' 20 Fenchurch Street (the Walkie Talkie), and the so-called groundscraper of the 22-storey Walbrook Square by Foster + Partners and French architect Jean Nouvel (Darth Vader's Helmet, according to some).
The City has been having these debates for years, and every building there is subjected to close scrutiny by English Heritage and other bodies. But perhaps the most noticeable of the forthcoming proposals for towers are those beyond the Square Mile. Building on the various 'clusters' of towers in Vauxhall, Blackfriars and Croydon seems to be progressing, and the skylines of these areas will be transformed.
Vauxhall could have at least five new residential towers of between 20 and more than 40 storeys, if plans are approved on a variety of developments. The Nine Elms area has become prime development land thanks to the recent announcement that the American Embassy will move there and also because of the masterplan to regenerate Battersea Power Station and its surroundings with residential units, shops, office space and even a new Tube link. The pressure is on to develop.
Proposals include Hampton House by Foster + Partners, Carey Jones's Vauxhall Cross eco tower (the Vauxhall Sky Gardens), and Keith Williams Architects' 24-storey residential tower just a block inland from the river at 81 Black Prince Road. Towers in the Vauxhall area have met with opposition from local residents, particularly the Octave Tower, designed by Make Architects, the practice run by Ken Shuttleworth. The project was refused planning permission last year, but the developer has appealed and results of that appeal are due in June. Another controversial scheme is Squire and Partners' proposal for two towers of 42 and 31 storeys at Vauxhall Cross, which is due to go in for planning this summer. Steve Bee, director of planning and development for English Heritage, says that although EH is now comfortable with the plans for Battersea Power Station, the Vauxhall Cross towers are worry-ing. He says: 'These buildings at Vauxhall Cross do give us cause for concern because they affect the backdrop to the Westminster World Heritage Site.'
The south end of Blackfriars Bridge has been touted as a potential location for a cluster of towers for some time, and developer Beetham and Mirax is now seemingly beginning work again on the largest of these (the 52-storey, boomerang-shaped Beetham Tower by Ian Simpson Architects). 'Refinancing has been completed on the project and the developers are now in discussion with funds and other partners with a view to going on site next year,' says Ian Simpson. Although the Number One Blackfriars project (also known as Beetham Tower) was opposed by Boris Johnson, it already has planning permission thanks to a decision by the then Secretary of State Hazel Blears. But Simpson sees his design as timeless enough to endure. 'It is a building that will last for 100 years. Opposing tall buildings is a very easy political win. When most people think of them, they would think of something built in the 1960s and say they don't like them. But if you can allow people to experience them, they see that they can have significant value.' Number One Blackfriars is a hotel and residential scheme, with a public viewing gallery at high level, a mix that Simpson sees as fitting in with other visitor attractions along the South Bank.
Behind the £1 billion Beetham Tower is 20 Blackfriars Road, a site with planning permission for two glassy towers designed by Stirling Prize-winning architect Wilkinson Eyre. Circleplane, the developer of the project, has since dropped Wilkinson Eyre from the project, and its future in its current form looks uncertain, according to sources close to the project.
Vauxhall and Blackfriars Bridge are locations that currently do not have high buildings, but they are hoping. The idea of 'clustering' tall buildings is seen, by English Heritage and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, as the best way to reduce their impact on the skyline.
The City of London's high-rise drive will continue north, with towers creeping up Shoreditch High Street, allowing Hackney and Tower Hamlets to get in on the action and making a cluster of tall buildings, if a cluster it can really be called, more than a mile long from Fenchurch Street to Bishopsgate Goods Yard. Foster + Partners has designed a tower for the site just north of the Broadgate Tower (which attracted objections because of its plan to demolish a listed building on the site). The currently vacant Bishopsgate Goods Yard has a masterplan by Terry Farrell and Partners, now formally adopted by Tower Hamlets, proposing a number of tall buildings, the case for which is aided by the recently opened Shoreditch station.
Canary Wharf continues to spread, with several new towers planned in and around the West India and Millwall Docks, including the soon-to-be-completed 22 Marsh Wall (two residential towers of 140m and 98m) and the massive Riverside South proposal. Canary Wharf does not begin building before it has tenants signed up to occupy the space, and this lack of a speculative approach means it is not certain when many of these projects will happen. There are two sites where work is ready to begin. JP Morgan's new headquarters at Riverside South, consisting of two towers of 37 and 45 storeys designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, has begun preliminary works on site. Another site, at 25 Churchill Place, is to be subject to another planning application shortly from KPF, although the start-on-site date is not confirmed.
And what kind of city will these towers make London? That's a question few could answer, even among those designing and building them – they're all just grateful for having some work in what promise to be hard times over the next couple of years. When you look at the skyline in five years' time, remind yourself that you are not looking at the architecture of prosperity but of what came after. We'll have to wait to find out what these strange shapes on the London skyline will come to symbolise.
Reader views (2)
I agree with fuzzylogic. And it's nice to see a positive comment. Most people only write when they have something negative to say!
- Cary, New York, NY, 18/06/2010 19:51
Is it just me - I find these proposals - and the pictures of them - exciting and inspiring.
All too often we seem to think that UKplc has had its day. I think that this shows that the sceptics are wrong.
- fuzzylogic, Billericay, 18/06/2010 17:44