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)

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

  1. Christine

    Oh, Tom you are impacting greatly on my architect’s sensibilities being alert and alarmed.

    The aspects that you note: unity, balance, movement, rhythm, focus, contrast, pattern and proportion are fine as categories of critique to avoid bad architecture if the proposed building obviously contravenes these attributes, creating a distortion within the design scheme.

    However, they are not a good prescription for what an architect should do to achieve good or excellent architecture. Why is this?

    Because good architecture like good artwork has its own internal consistency. So for example you wouldn’t critique a Turner romantic landscape in the same way you would critique an Monet impressionist landscape.

    Beyond the building: this is even more difficult to apply to the skyline…

    I am planning to get back to you on this!

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I do not believe in ‘design standards’ or ‘design rules’.
      But I do believe that anyone who designs for a significant urban context HAS to explain how the proposed design relates to the existing context. Urban design is not the same as writing a poem or doing a painting for a gallery or for private consumption. Individual artists are expected to ‘do their own thing’. Making a dramatic change to a skyline is a public act. London’s skyline, I believe, would benefit from dramatic change, because so much of it is chaotic and of indifferent quality. But I think each change needs to carefully reasoned and explained with regard to its context. And if there are going to be several very big changes, as is happening in Central London and along the Thames, then I think the designers should take account of each other’s work, just as they should take account of the context. Imagine attempting an interior design with each user painting their own wall and bringing in their own furniture.
      I took some photographs of the Thames in Central London yesterday and found the Shard was the most successful (and the biggest) of the current crop of tall buildings. Significantly, Renzo Piano does a good job of explaining how the Shard relates to its context . He says that architects must listen to people but do not have to do what they say. He argues for coherence and says he learned this in his home city, Genoa – a city of buildings and water. He does not see the Shard as arrogant. Rather, it is light – as crystal is light. He is generous to his Prince Charles but says current buildings have to belong to the twenty-first century. Re tall buildings, Piano does not want them everywhere but points out that the energy they use is one tenth of villa-style development. The way the Shard meets the ground is not complete but, at present, shows few signs of being successful.
      It’s another discussion but we should remember that contextless abstract art was a modernist innovation. Most art at most points in history was produced for specific contexts and specific clients – and we are seeing a return to this with site specific sculpture. The fact that galleries and exhibitions are having such a significant influence on the art market is peculiar. It sometimes reminds me of a travelling circus usisng a freak show to attract visitors.

  2. Christine

    Yes all building and landcape is public art by nature and therefore accountable in a way art in a gallery is not.

    The design of the individual building is different from the consideration of the impact of a building on the skyline because of the different genesis of the problem and who is responsible for the constraints. But they are not entirely unrelated. An exceptional architect like Utzon designs with these considerations in mind, as did Walter Burley Griffin who had attended to the composition of the city of Canberra.

    Reading some of your documents part of the problem is that the issue is demand driven. So given that buildings of a particular configuration in terms of accommodating particular activities are required by the market the next issue is where they could be best located.

    The documents also provided some clues by noting that different localities have different characteristics and different benefits and therefore some demand is better met in some locations rather than others.

    The next issue comes down to identifying suitable sites. Up to now this has to some degree been an exercise in planning. However, once a site is identified and a brief formulated it is an issue for the architect.

    So by the time the site has been identified some constraints are already existing. This would have been the situation with the Walkie Talkie’s proximity to the Tower of London. Therefore a challenge was already set in terms of the required configuration for the site and the resulting form of the building. It seems the building is bulkier as it rises? Does this mean that the upper stories are greater in area than the site on which it is located?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Yes, the Walkie Talkie gets bigger as it goes up. This creates more lettable floorspace and allows for the creation of an indoor garden with panoramic views inside the cap. You can find floor plans, tricksy perspectives and much else on the developer’s website. Another thought I have about the project is that the public should maintain a very high quality digital model of Central London. The architects can then submit digital models of their design proposals and both they AND THE PUBLIC can generate eye-level views to show the visual impact of the proposals.
      Years and years ago the Architect’s Journal collected a set of architect’s perspectives from its archives and then sent a photographer round to compare the optimistic drawings with the built reality. This was, to say the very least, enlightening. If there was a public model then people could take ‘as built’ photographs from the exact points used to generate digital images – with the viewpoints recorded for ever by GPS data. An app could make them available to future photographers.

  3. Jerry

    The architecture behind this historical building is ugly, that is what I would like to say. But, maybe it is very functional- that is the reason that it has been built there.

    Skyline should be made into city landscape planning policy, landscape architects should fight for the right of landscape architecture.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I see skyline policy as an aspect of urban design and urban design as multi-disciplinary. So I think the public and the professions should all have, and express, views on skylines and YES I think landscape architects have had too little to say on the subject.
      With regard to the ‘shape’ of buildings, I find the recent crop of skyscrapers in London simplistic. The main aim, it seems, is to produce a shape which has not been done before. So the spire was an obvious choice and it is also a choice with a long history in western cities. It was used to make church steeples. In fact The Shard keeps making me think of Constable’s paintings of Salisbury Cathedral. Perhaps they should put a Christian cross on top? Maybe not: it belongs to the State of Qatar. A Crescent is another possibility but it is not an official Islamic symbol and might not be too popular with the majority of Londoners. The ‘shards of crescents‘ inside the summit do not seem to have been interpreted in this way.

  4. Christine

    It would seem that a basic massing exercise on the developable area of the site and its building envelope would have helped identify the problem that the resulting bulk of the building would create in its context.

    It also seems that the ground conditions at the foyer of the Walkie Talkie Scorchie are different to the majority of buildings in London? (Although very common in cities in Australia).

    If this is so this would break the predominant street pattern creating different ground conditions and varying the pedestrian experience. Whether this is beneficial or detrimental in its context would need to be considered also.

    This could have been done to see the impact on surrounding buildings – and particularly the heritage sites. Discussion on planning principles for the site could have proceeded on the basis of the permitted developable envelope and its opportunities and constraints.

    This could have occurred prior to any design for a building on the site. Once a design had been proposed then a skyline analysis could have been undertaken.

    And yes, the articulation of the top of the towers also needs to be considered. It is not always helpful to say that variation or interest is the only objective.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I missed my opportunity to go along with a frying pan and an egg to see if I could do a fry up in London’s most recent warm period and, in truth, I have not yet visited the space around the Walkie Scorchie at ground level. The design of public space around high buildings is a special case for urban designers and on the whole I favour the solution used around medieval cathedrals during the middle ages: I suspect it is best to surround high buildings with low buildings. In our time the low buildings should probably be glazed. They have an opportunity to do this around the Shard but it is not yet clear whether this is going to be done. I suspect designes of wanting space at ground level for the main purpose of letting their great structures be seen AND PHOTOGRAPHED.
      With regard to discussion of planning principles what tends to happen, in the UK, is that we have a major battle about whether or not to allow the tall building and, if permission is granted, just let the designers do what they want.

  5. Christine

    One thing that caught my attention when looking at the photographs of the context of the walkie talkie scorchie was that Lloyds of London (definitely a modern iconic building) seems to have disappeared within this particular cluster. This is a shame. And it also seems the Swizz Re or Gherkin is in danger of also disappearing within the skyline of a cluster.

    So there is a case – particularly in London where the designers do design iconic buildings – that these are given similar respect as cathedrals and other historic structures.

    However, the clustering of highrises (now considered medium rise) in Broadgate and Canary Wharf where there are less ‘iconic buildings’ seems to have been a successful approach.

    So it seems to me that London should probably continue to produce both iconic buildings in a predominantly lowrise environment and clustered highrises in appropriate commercial or residential centres.

    There is a discussion that is needed around the issue of historic iconic ‘eyesores’ (ie Centrepoint). [ ]
    It is actually a quality building of its type – but inappropriately located.

    The issue of heritage rather than aesthetic contribution and the listing of modern buildings is a different conversation altogether. So it is a shame that the heritage organisations are having difficulty articulating their dual roles in identifying heritage and in ensuring appropriate regard is given to heritage icons within the skyline.

    The advantage of planning principles is that they could give designers the opportunity to consider issues of planning and urban design importance beyond the site. These aspects often do not form part of the brief for a site, but can often become issues of contention that then get confused with the quality of the designer’s response embedded within their particular building design proposal.

    So it may be that 1) a tall building is totally inappropriate for a site or it may be that 2)a tall building would be appropriate for a site if it was able to meet particular site and context constraints.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      You are right about Canary Wharf and Broadgate. I often look at Canary Wharf from Greenwich. The view is particularly good between now and Christmas for several reasons: the atmosphere is more atmospheric; all the office lights tend to be on at dusk; the sunlight, when it is there, is particularly rich at dusk (also because of the moisture-laden atmosphere). Greenwich Park provides a foreground ‘proscenium’ of trees and the result can look like a romantic medieval castle. The chief planner for the City of London (Peter Rees) hoped to achieve a similar effect in the City but has not, so far, pulled it off.
      Here is a link to an interesting comment on the City skyline from Simon Jenkins. He is a really excellent liberal journalist (in the classical sense of liberal – and therefore probably as disappointed with current British Liberalism as I am!) and the author of books on Britain’s 1000 best houses, 1000 best churches and (published this year) 100 best views. But he is also the Chairman of the National Trust and when it comes to skyline policy he is a hoary old tory.
      Re Centrepoint ‘I see what you mean’! I have heard it castigated as an eyesore for so many years that I too am having difficulty adjusting to seeing its good qualities. Its architect, Richard Seifert, was better than average for the 1960s but was excessively criticised during his working life. The architectural press hated him for being ‘commercial’ and the public hated him for being ‘modern’.

  6. Christine

    Yes, Simon Jenkins makes some interesting points.

    His comments particularly about one building (the Shard) becoming predominant on the skyline or on the hierarchy of dominance of additons to the skyline are incredibly important.

    The Edinburgh study makes the point that the symbolic buildings of the city should dominate the skyline with the exception of the Castle located above the city. This is fundamentally a decision about the image the city wants to project as much as it is about respecting the legacy of the past.

    I am not sure what the opinion is about the appropriate heirarchy of buildings in London?

    He also makes an interesting comment on the intention to create ‘make believe countryside’ in the Royal Parks. If he is correct about this, this aspect of the designer’s intent should inform the city’s policy on limiting the intrusion of buildings on the skyline around these parks. (This issue was also discussed in one of the reports).

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Renaissance London was very much a ‘city of spires‘ so one cannot argue that this geometry is inappropriate. The big difference is that Old St Paul’s (which had a spire) was devoted to God and the Spire is devoted to Mammon. One could make a case for this being a timely change: people seem to care less about God, even if they think he exists, and more about Mammon. We seem to have forgotten St Matthew. We care more for today and less for tomorrow: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” – Matthew 6:19-21,24 (KJV)

  7. Christine

    Are you suggesting that London is serving mammon? [ ]

    I am not sure which definition would be the one favoured by the Archibishop of Cantebury. But the spiritual welfare of London is his concern, and if the material development of the city is reflecting the influence of mammon, he needs to be talking architecture, landscape and urban design too!

    My preferred definition is ‘unjust material gain’ rather than wealth per se – and having experienced the GFC worldwide – it is an aspect of wealth accumulation we as global citizens should all be concerned about.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Yes, and before his recent appointment to the See of Canterbury Archbiship Justin Welby had spent his career making money. The poor old battered and tatty Church of England quite probably hoped that he would be good for their finances as well as for their popularity. I would like to hear more from him about architecture and landscape even if it meant hearing less about his views on tax policy! I will do a blog post about the Shard with some comment on its symbolic significance.

  8. Christine

    It sounds like Archbishop Welby has the perfect background to help London re-establish financial
    markets based on spiritually sound financial practices. I am looking forward to hearing more about his architectural, landscape and urban design commissions, his opinions on these topics as well as his sermons on the post GFC financial industry!

    It occurred to me reading into the new Melbourne Plan, after reading about London’s Tall Buildings Policy, that London probably took a bigger hit than most in the GFC because of it being predominantly (and historically) a financial services city.

    Not much mention is/was made of the differential exposure of cities to the GFC based on their industry structure.

    Melbourne for example, is moving away from its strong manufacturing base and is looking more towards the knowledge and finance industries to underpin its economic future.

    This seems to be a common trend in contemporary cities offshoring their manufacturing base?

    So it would seem there is going to be greater competition to become a financial services based city. This will also change the global financial risk profile for cities individually and collectively.

    If London is 1000 years ahead of the game – it also needs to be able to keep its eyes on the horizon in a dynamic way – rather than on other cities which are looking to follow its lead.

    Venice was a mercantile city. Perhaps it might be worth looking at what happened there for some lessons going forward (maybe Ruskin’s Stones of Venice)?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Sadly, the Church of England, in a different way to the Church of Rome, is totally hung up on sex. It is scarcely reported in the press except about the roles of women, gays and lesbians in the church hierarchy – and its views on these topics are about 50 years behind those of the general population.
      Financial services appear an attractive option for a post-industrial city. One of the things global financiers want is attractive residential property with good access to restaurants, theaters, airports , servants, trafficked girls etc. London has provided its incoming financiers with many of these things by selling them its property and allowing unlimited immigration. This has driven up property prices and is dispossessing the old middle class. I think that to follow London in financial services Melbourne would also need to take this route.

  9. Christine

    Hmmm. Yes, it is a difficult situation when Londoners feel they have no future in London. It would be very sad to go to London and not be able to meet anyone actually from London!

    Perhaps it will become necessary to introduce local quotas for schools, universities and positions to ensure some form of equity for the locally born?

    The phenomena of upward mobility is an interesting one. Perhaps because of the industrial revolution nearly everyone got used to being upwardly mobile (in much the same way as is the case in developing countries today). So the question becomes – what happens once a country is developed? What drives real economic growth then?

    The rural based aristocracy have been struggling with downward mobility since the industrial revolution also, with the middle class and the growth of cities, being the historical beneficiaries.

    Surely it can’t be only consumption by those in the financial services sector and imported money from the consumption of the wealthy from other countries that is supporting the London economy?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      In 1984 George Orwell wrote that ‘Airstrip One, for instance, had not been so called in those days: it had been called England, or Britain, though London, he felt fairly certain, had always been called London’ and Eric Schlosser has just published a book (Command and Control) reporting, on the basis of a trawl through US archives, that this is just what the Americans had in mind. Planes with armed nuclear weapons were not allowed to fly over US territory but were allowed to fly from Airstrip One. Visiting London is now like visiting an airport. If you are having a hard time in an airport (as has happened to me more than once) it can be a relief to find a fellow countryman. I spent an hour on the tube yesterday and hardly heard an English voice. This does NOT mean that civility has gone. A large girl with a badge saying Baby on Board came onto the train and a Middle Eastern man jumped up to offer her his seat while I was still puzzling over what the badge meant. Over 50% of Londoners were not born in the UK and do not have English as their first language. London (and the UK more generally) is definitely not the Workshop of the World any more but it has important positions in several industries: eg financial services, music, drugs, advertising and bragging.


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