Towering ambition

Powerful forces are at work. Scarcity of land, sustainability and ego are combining to drive buildings higher. All major cities and far too many smaller ones either already have tall buildings or are considering proposals. Prince Charles has rekindled the debate about tall buildings. Having criticised the “monstrous carbuncles” of modern architecture 20 years ago, he has now expressed real concern about the march of tall buildings across the urban landscape, describing them as vertical cul-de-sacs.

What is being built and proposed? There are far more proposals than buildings and far fewer invigorating designs than ones that provoke reservations. The Gherkin has, undoubtedly, enhanced London’s skyline. It is now used as a symbol of London in advertising overseas. Although more historic, the main Canary Wharf Tower serves a symbolic purpose of signalling a new business district, albeit now in the company of two ugly sisters. With an inspired public roof garden, the Walkie Talkie proposed for Fenchurch Street, is a fantastic design. The Shard, also known as London Bridge Tower, is beautiful and justified for some by the removal of the brutal ugliness of the present building. It remains to be seen whether either gets built.

Outside London, the tall buildings market has been less feverish. Manchester has the Beetham Tower, pinpointing the city centre from the Pennines. Birmingham has had a spate of proposals, the most grandiose of which remain on the drawing board but with some good additions to the skyline. Proposals at Lime Street in Liverpool have been refused and others have faltered commercially. In Leeds the Civic Trust, while praising schemes such as Lumiere, has criticised the quality of some of the more recent tall buildings, mainly the residential schemes.

So why has there been such a rush towards tall buildings? Part of the answer is that the policy environment has become more receptive, with an emphasis on the need for proper planning and a clear framework for assessing proposals. Very few local planning authorities have, as yet, accepted the challenge of identifying areas where tall buildings are appropriate. Most tall building proposals have been opportunistic. How then have they been justified?An unhappy number of new buildings have been justified, in part at least, by existing tall and ugly buildings. This is cowardice on all of our parts. Past mistakes, no matter how commercially valuable, should not be used to justify new buildings. It would be far better to put up with another 10 to 20 years of a poor building than to use it as a basis to permit an often taller building that will last a further 50 to 100 years.

Some have argued that sustainability requires tall buildings. The argument goes that a tall building near to public transport is sustainable. It is also said to be a more efficient use of land. But this is a one-eyed view. Issues such as the embedded energy required to build and manage them flexibly over a 100-year life cycle must also be taken into account. Sustainability based on location alone is simplistic.

It is said that the market demands it. Evidence has supported many schemes to suggest that tall buildings are what the corporate tenant and urban resident require. It is then argued that a failure to provide new towers will harm the UK’s or the City’s ability to compete internationally and town centres’ ability to thrive. At best, this argument is unproven. There are many successful centres without tall buildings. There is doubtless a demand from architects and developers to build the next monument, but that is surely a question of ego rather than economic development.

There is no urgent need for new tall buildings. All local authorities should assess whether tall buildings are appropriate and, if so, identify the broad locations and proposed uses. The development plan should set out height limits and other constraints. Outside the specified areas and major cities tall buildings should rarely be permitted. Within areas identified for tall buildings, the primary issue should be whether the design quality is outstanding. Given the long-term effect of tall buildings, permission for proposals that are not absolutely first class is unsustainable in the broadest sense.

Probably the most critical question to ask is who should take responsibility for these decisions. Since we are now in a world where the Independent Planning Commission has responsibility for infrastructure, why not follow the example and have an expert panel deciding the application? Given that towers will be a very visible legacy, we should make sure they are not unloved tombstones. How about having a lawyer on the panel, alongside the great and good on design, whose role should be to make sure some of the promises made about the beauty and elegance of the building are actually delivered?

Stephen Ashworth is a partner at Denton Wilde Sapte