Monthly Archives: September 2013

The visual impact of Renzo Piano's Shard on the landscape and skyline of the River Thames

Is the visual impact of Europe's tallest building on London's skyline good or bad?

Does The Shard have a positive or negative visual impact on this view of London’s river skyline ? The above photos are 180° panoramic views from Southwark Bridge and little spiky building in front of The Shard is Southwark Cathedral (unlike St Paul’s, it is not connected). Camillo Sitte said the ratio of  height:width of a city square should range between 1:1 and 1:2. Is this relevant to buildings near London’s river? The Shard is 306m high and the Thames at London Bridge 265 metres wide. This gives us a ratio of  1:1.5. The Shard is  150m from the river. Sitte wrote that “We find…that the height of its principal building, taken once, can be declared to be roughly the minimum dimension for a plaza, the absolute maximum that still gives a good effect being the double of that height – provided that the general shape of the building, its purpose, and its detailing do not permit exceptional dimensions.”

London's skyline: landscape and high buildings policy – and my apology for postmodern urban design

Junk Urban Landscape: the Walkie Talkie, the Cheesgrater and the Gherkin await The Kettle

Junk Urban Landscape: the Walkie Talkie, the Cheesgrater and the Gherkin are waiting for The Kettle

Postmodern urban landscape design

The words and image (from City as landscape p. 6) were published in 1996. Sadly, I forgot that most designers look at books only for their pictures. Nor did I imagine that London’s designers would see my cartoon as the latest hot trend in urban design. Tragically, as you can see from the 2013 photograph the City of London (above, top), they are hell bent on building the cartoon. But I WAS JOKING. It was not a design proposal. I did not want it to be built. I regret that it is being built. I APOLOGISE TO LONDONERS AND TO LONDON’S URBAN LANDSCAPE. I should have listened to my grandfather: “Take care with whom you joke”.
Regarding the design of the Big Three newbies in the above photo, I think people are right to use simple domestic analogies when GIVING them NAMES. I have no particular dislike, or love, for the buildings. But why on earth didn’t their designers cooperate to compose a harmonious skyline? And why didn’t the town planners make any useful suggestions? And what did the Landscape Institute say about skyline policy? And what happened to form following function? And why are the cladding materials non-functional? They do not generate energy; they make no contribution to surface water management; they are unvegetated; there have no roof gardens; they do nothing for biodiversity. They probably won’t have any bike parking.
Environmentally, the Walkie Talkie may be the best of the three sisters. I can imagine a new urban quarter looking more like mushrooms than matchboxes. The Walkie Talkie’s power supply will come from a natural gas fuel cell. The ‘cap’ of the fungus has both an indoor garden and an outdoor viewing terrace. Best of all, the south-facing curved facade concentrates the sunlight so that pedestrians can fry eggs on the pavement.
Richard Rogers’ Cheese Grater was so-named by the City of London’s chief planner. He recounts that ‘When I first saw a model of the building, I told Richard Rogers I could imagine his wife, Ruthie, using it to grate parmesan. I don’t think he was too happy, but it stuck.’ The developers did not want their building  to be wedge-shaped. It cost them a lot in floorspace and was done to lessen obstruction to views of St Paul’s Cathedral. To me, the views of St Paul’s which matter are those from the Thames – so I think this was an insufficient reason for a cheesy design. Pun intended: cheesy also means ‘Trying too hard, unsubtle, and inauthentic’. And why worry so much the relatively modern cathedral when the Walkie Talkie has such an unfortunate impact on a building of much more historical, architectural and landscape significance: the Tower of London? (see below)

The Walkie Talkie towers over the Tower of London

The Walkie Talkie towers over the Tower of London

British people care about skylines but the official debate is mostly about the more limited topic of ‘high buildings’. Height is important but it is only one aspect of scenic composition. Wiki has this  article on Composition and has a list of The 8 Elements of Composition in Art:
Unity: Do all the parts of the composition feel as if they belong together, or does something feel stuck on, awkwardly out of place?
Balance: Having a symmetrical arrangement adds a sense of calm, whereas an asymmetrical arrangement creates a sense of unease, imbalance. (See example)
Movement: There many ways to give a sense of movement in a painting, such as the arrangement of objects, the position of figures, the flow of a river. (See example
Rhythm: In much the same way music does, a piece of art can have a rhythm or underlying beat that leads and paces the eye as you look at it. Look for the large underlying shapes (squares, triangles, etc.) and repeated color. (See example)
Focus (or Emphasis): The viewer’s eye ultimately wants to rest of the “most important” thing or focal point in the painting, otherwise the eye feels lost, wandering around in space. (See example)
Contrast: Strong differences between light and dark, or minimal, such as Whistler did in his Nocturne series. (See example)
Pattern: An underlying structure, the basic lines and shapes in the composition.
Proportion: How things fit together, big and small, nearby and distant.

I would like to see these principles applied in the composition of skylines but they relate only to aesthetic matters. In accordance with Vitruvius, we should be think about Commodity and Firmness, as well as Delight.
Here is a selection of links to pdf documents dealing with High Buildings and Skyline Policy in the UK. Most of them concentrate on the narrow issue of high buildings:

  • Greater London Authority GLA 2001 Interim strategic planning guidance on tall buildings, strategic views and the skyline in London [This report was issued by Ken Livingston. It was based on the 1998 London Planning Advisory Committee LPAC High Buildings and Strategic Views in London but watered down. Ken was soft on high buildings]
  • House of Commons report on Tall Buildings (2001-2) has a very good history of high buildings policy in the UK and much expert opinion on the subject
  • Chapter 4 of Boris Johnson’s London Plan 2008 dealt with Tall and Large Scale Buildings.  I am unsure whether this also forms part of the 2011 London Plan.  Boris is said to be much softer than Ken on high buildings.
  • The  City of Edinburgh Skyline Study ( Colvin & Moggridge, Landscape Consultants, 2010) exemplifies  the type of skyline study London should have. But conservation is not enough. We need imaginative contingency plans for the changes which MAY affect to London’s urban scenery and skylines.

Draft policy statement on skyline landscapes and tall buildings (also called high buildings or skyscrpers)

Landscape and green open space planning strategy in London

Richmond exemplifies the best in London Open Space Planning for London parks and green space strategy
Richmond exemplifies the best in London Open Space Planning – and can inspire a new green space infrastructure strategy

The website has a history of, and commentary upon, the planning of parks, park systems, public open space and green infrastructure in London. It was written and published about ten years ago and is due for an update. While this is in hand, we offer links to several pdf documents:

The diagrams, below, show the open space/green infrastructure diagrams from the Country of London Plan and the 1991 Green Strategy.  From 1951 to 1991 London open space planning was dominated by the modernist idea of an open space deficiency – which should be corrected by a hierarchy of small, medium and large parks. The odd, and unstated, implication of the ‘deficiency’ concept is that there should be large-scale demolitions in the London Borough of Islington (which has 0.011ha per 1000 population) and large-scale building on open space in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames (which has 13 ha per 1000 population). I’d like to see the results of public consultation on these ideas – they are wealthy boroughs with highly articulate residents. In 2013 the average house price was £545,301 in Islington and in £614,633 in Richmond. Could the profit on selling park land in Richmond could go to buying park land in Islington? Or was the concept of open space deficiency stupid in 1951 and absurd in 2013? One-word comments welcome!

Abercrombie’s idea that open spaces should be connected slept from 1943-1991 but has been revived and is now embodied in the idea of making a ‘Green Grid’. This term appeared in the Thames Gateway South Essex Green Grid Strategy and is now formalised in the All London Green Grid. Personally, I would rather it was described as a Green Web. Its primary geometries should be more circular and centripetal than rectangular. As a Germanic word, used to describe the product of weaving, a ‘web’ entails the use of overlapping strands (as in the green gtrategy diagram, below). The concept also gains from association with the spiders and caterpillars, which make organic and non-rectangular webs of great strength and flexibility, and from other biological use to describe ‘a tissue or membrane in an animal body or in a plant’. Also in 1991, 1991   Tim Berners-Lee gave ‘web’ another useful connotation. He wrote that ‘The web contains documents in many formats. Those documents which are 
hypertext,  (real or virtual) contain links to other documents, or places  within documents’. Comparably, I think of a Green Web as having overlapping strands which inter-link different kinds of space which are green in the sense of ‘good from an environmental point of view’. Some of the links and spaces should be green in the sense of ‘vegetated’. Others should be water bodies, urban squares, streets and cycleways – which may, or may not, contain green plants.

London Open Space Plan, Park System and Green Infrastructure Stragety

London Open Space Plan, Park System and Green Infrastructure Stragety


Cycle Infrastructure Guide UK and the landscape architecture of the Waterlink Greenway

Here is a video of the Waterlink Way from Maritime Greenwich to Lewisham. It was ‘completed’ c 2009 and is categorised as a greenwway on the TfL Website. Its quality gets better south of Catford and I do not object to the signposting. But before calling it a greenway they should have either (1) marked it as a temporary, until it can be re-routed along Deptford Creek, or, (2) employed a landscape architect to create a temporary design (3) asked a local landscape architect (me!) to recommend an alternative route as pro bono work. I would have recommended the route shown by a green dotted line on excerpt from the Sustrans plan below. Greenwich Park is also shown on the title image at the start of the video.

Waterlink Green Way

Waterlink Greenway recommended alternative route map

The route through Greenwich Park and across Blackheath is beautiful and historic. It connects to what could and should be a cycle route on the east side of Lewisham Hill. A great advantage of making this a designated cycle track (shared with pedestrians) is that it would be used by commuters wishing to reach Lewisham Station and Lewisham High Street. It could also connect to local schools, giving mums, dads and kids safe routes to school – so that they do not have to take them by car. The ‘greenway’ shown on my video could not have these roles.

Capital Ring – walking and cycling past London's suburban landscape, gardens and architecture

London Capital Ring Walk

London Capital Ring Walk Completion Certificate

I did it and I enjoyed it!
Critical observations and suggestions to follow but let’s start with some good points:
– the best sections of the route are really excellent
– the weather was wonderful – it is hard to imagine better climatic conditions for such a journey
– despite having lived in London for 50 years I had hitherto traversed well under half of the route
– arriving back at the starting point gave me a surprising ‘sense of achievement’ that I do not get from most walks
– receiving the certificate was also nice, though I would like it to have the Mayor of London’s signature (a rubber stamp would do)
– following the route from a map requires advanced orienteering skills and luck. The sign posts are very useful but one could not follow the route without support from a map and compass. The maps in Colin Saunders’ book on the Capital Ring are just right
– you find a London which is very different to the famous sights in the central area: it is the ‘real London’: the suburbs in which most of its 8.174 million people live (Google figure, for 2011)
– despite being a South Londoner, and having an unreliably small sample, I am willing to say that the North Londoners are friendlier than South Londoners (though the coffee and rolls were more expensive north of the River Thames).
I’ll finish with two confessions which, I hope, does not lead to a recall of my Certificate: (1) I used a bike for much of the route and it still took me just over 5 days (2) Declaration of Interest: I was a member of the London Walking Forum when the Capital Ring route began its life (1989-91). See Towards a green strategy for London.

Defending public parks: the case of Banstead Downs Common

To make themselves richer, a few bloated putocrats seek to deprive the public of ‘public goods’. Sir John Craddock is a prime example:
A leaflet issued by Banstead Commons Conservators relates that in 1873 Sir John Cradock Hartopp Bt from Yorkshire bought 1700 acres of Banstead Commons. He planned to purchase the commoners’ rights and enclose and develop the most suitable parts. Turf, top soil, gravel, etc were to be removed and sold from Banstead Heath, and houses built. To stop this, local residents formed Banstead Commons Protection Committee in 1887. Legal action followed, culminating in Sir John’s bankruptcy. In 1893, Parliament passed the Metropolitan Commons (Banstead) Supplemental Act, protecting the downs from further development.’
I invite the landscape architects defending Taksim Gezi Meydani to celebrate Sir John’s downfall and bankruptcy. As Gloria Steinem said ‘Power can be taken, but not given. The process of the taking is empowerment in itself.
Image courtesy garda