London's postmodern skyline needs a landscape policy

Take care with whom you joke

“Take care with whom you joke” was my grandfather’s advice AND I SHOULD HAVE LISTENED TO HIM. I published the above b&w drawing, in a 1998 book City as landscape: a post-Postmodern view of design and planning. The more exciting designs on my diagram were inspired by a TV set and a kettle (and the trees should have been smaller). In 1998, Postmodern architecture was going out of fashion. Every architect wanted to know what the Next Big Thing was going to be. Obviously, this was it. POST-Postmodern was what the architectural world needed. New skylines take a while to plan, design and build. My diagram is now taking shape, beyond the Tower of London, with help from Rogers and Foster. We’ll have to wait a bit for the kettle but the kitchen metaphor has proved highly influential. Rogers’ wife is, of course, a cook. And when I used to walk to work beside one of his first houses (in Wimbledon) I used to watch his parents cleaning their teeth in the office-style uncurtained bathroom window. My photo of the City of London’s emerging skyline shows: the Walkie-Talkie (Rafael Viñoly), the Cheesegrater (Richard Rogers) and the Gherkin (Norman Foster).
The Gherkin was OK when it stood alone. But I do not look foward to The Pepperpot, The Toaster and the Wooden Spoon jostling for attention on London’s waterfront. Are the designs inspired by envy at the way bankers cook their books so brilliantly? Simon Jenkins asks Who let this Gulf on Thames scar London’s Southbank? Mayor Boris and recalled the raw greed evinced at the RIBA: Talking towers with London architects is like talking disarmament with the National Rifle Association. A skyscraper seems every builder’s dream. At a Royal Institute of British Architects seminar on the subject last April, I faced an audience almost entirely of architects who treated any criticism of tall buildings as nothing to do with aesthetics or urban culture but to do with denying them money. They played the man, not the ball, accusing critics of being elitist, reactionary, heritage-obsessed and enemies of architecture.
To the people of the London I can only say that I am ‘Sorry, very, very Sorry’. I should have kept my diagram in a sealed cabinet.

Note: architects have made London’s skyline what it is, for good and ill. My criticism is that they are reluctant to work together for the public good. In design, it is every man and woman for himself or herself. It is not, primarily, a matter of ‘preserving’ the old skyline, except in certain places, and Rem Koolhaas speaks with wisdom on this point: London has always changed dramatically and it is still not a dramatic city… Drama is not what architecture is about but on the other hand I do not see it has dangers for London.

3 thoughts on “London's postmodern skyline needs a landscape policy

  1. Christine

    You might be interested to know what the Toaster looks like?
    [ ] We have one in Sydney so I am not sure you want one also in London. (Hopefully they won’t proliferate like the London Eye!)

    And this wish is not because the London Eye isn’t brilliant and a worthy contribution to the skyline, but rather that like the Sydney Opera House, some things are better as originals.

    Yes, there does need to be a Skyscape policy of the London skyline. What is a Skyscape Policy? It is indeed probably a Landscape Policy (please define Tom) but it is probably a little broader than that too?

    Individual buildings are important – but so are the collective of buildings which make up the skyline. That is there is a relationship between the individual building and the skyline into which it is inserted and to which it makes a contribution.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Yes, ‘no to toasters’ in London. I have added a note about Rem Koolhaas to the above post – he has a dispassionate wisdom re London’s skyline. I have lived in Greenwich since the construction of Canary Wharf began – and regard it as a dramatic improvement to London’s skyline – and one which only happened through central government intervention in the planning process (ie by permitting a cluster of high buildings).
      ‘Skyscape’ would be OK as a term, except that it is not the sky which is being designed. So I think ‘Landscape’ is a better term and that the aesthetic considerations involved can well be developed through landscape painting and sketching. When the word ‘landscape’ first became linked with ‘painting’ is was NOT to describe the subsequent art of representing real places with near-photographic accuracy: it was to describe the art of representing ideal places. But if these ‘ideal places’ are to be built then the landscape artist needs to think about society and ecology – and also about past, present and future. I completely agree about the need to consider the ‘collective of buildings’.

  2. Christine

    It was a little difficult to hear all Rem had to say, but it is good to hear him distinctish between dramatic change (ie the magnitude and speed of change and the emotional response it elicits) and the quality of drama (ie striking, effective or flamboyant) which might be used to characterise a skyline.

    In the paper ‘Developing a city skyline for Hong Kong Using GIS and Urban Design Guidelines’ [ ] the authors use the term “city skyline” refers to a profile of buildings that forms the cityscape in daytime and the silhouette at night (Lim and Heath 1993).

    Bill Lim and Tom Heath, and their work at the Queensland University of Technology, are both well known to me. They have usually taken a science based approach to the topic of the skyline and to design in general.

    The authors continue the “City skyline registers unique characteristics of a city’s landscape shaped by planning controls, topographical conditions,commercial considerations, building design parameters, and environmental concerns.” They thus make a link with the landscape and the skyline – saying the skyline is reflective of the city’s landscape considerations.

    This seems to me to be a fair point. However, there is also a methodology that is sometimes used in considering the contribution of an individual project to the skyline called a ‘Visual Landscape Assessment’.

    The West Australian Government’s introduction to their manual says this:
    “The protection of landscape values is now expected by communities. Proposals which pass
    other tests, such as economic development and environmental management, are no longer
    accepted if they mar the view or impair highly valued landscapes. Yet there is no formal
    planning policy at a state or local level on visual impact and little in the way of guidance in setting objectives and undertaking assessments of impacts on the visual landscape.”

    The intention of this methodology is not so much assessing the value of what is contributed as to assessing or limiting its negative impact on the existing qualities.

    So I am thinking that the sky and land connection and importance needs to be more effectively emphasised. I am not sure that the skyline has the same phenomenological place making aspect as the ground plane at human scale. But it does have an incredibly important visual impact particularly in arrival, departure and pathfinding and landmarking.


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