Sunlight, tall buildings and the City of London's new urban landscape architecture

I had a short walk and ride around the City of London at the weekend. It is an unusual place and, though I have never had the experience, thought about being  in a crevasse. The City has a medieval street pattern overlaid on a Roman street pattern. It can’t be changed and land values are sky high. So they keep building higher and with steel and glass. You might think this would produce gloomy canyons but, in fact, there is a phenomenon akin to total internal reflection, as in a ‘sun tube’, which brings light down to street level. The odd aspect of this is that the light is normally less-bright than sunlight and has a ghostly quality (as when sun shines through ice). An exception results from the Walkie Talkie.

As it neared completion in 2013 Rafael Viñoly Architects design for 20 Fenchurch Street began to act as a solar mirror. It focused so much sun in the pavements that it became possible to fry eggs. Londoners therefore changed its name to Walkie Talkie Scorchie – though Fryscraper is a popular alternative. The above video begins where Lovat Lane runs south from Eastcheap – so the sunlight is coming from the north! It shows the once-dark alley blazing with solar glare. Viñoly should have known better: he had the same problem with the Vdara skyscraper in Las Vegas. The effect is known as a ‘death ray’ but, properly directed, the sunlight reflected from tall buildings can be a welcome addition to dark pedestrian spaces.

 Viñoly’s response to the problem has been to point his fingers and toes at other consultants. He whines that [in London] ‘the superabundance of consultants and sub consultants dilute the responsibility of the designers until you don’t know where you are’ so that ‘architects aren’t architects anymore’. In truth, he did not have the right consultants. What he needed was a physicist to calculate what would happen and a landscape architect to make best-possible use of the reflected light. Gillespies are working on the design of the Fenchurch Street Skygarden and I am sure they would have been pleased to help out with the street level design problem.

Architects (notably Richard Rogers) often argue that high buildings save the green belt, save on transport infrastructure and are good for sustainability. All true but this does not mean tall buildings are always best. Simon Jenkins tried to discuss them at the RIBA  and reached the conclusion that ‘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.’  An expert House of Commons committee (2001-2) and the City’s Chief Planning Officer (Peter Rees) argue that high buildings are unnecessary and undesirable – because similar densities can be achieved by other means.

The planning and design of tall buildings should form part of an imaginative scenic conception of the future urban landscapes they will help create. Conservation is not enough. Innovation is not enough. Past and future concepts must be brought into harmony. This requires design imagination.

7 thoughts on “Sunlight, tall buildings and the City of London's new urban landscape architecture

  1. Christine

    Because of the lack of ‘new’ build opportunites UK architects and developer builders should spend an obligatory few years post-graduation working on highrises across the myriad of tall cities in the US or the few tall cities in Australia. (I am not sure if building an ’empty’ city of highrises in China would have quite the same experience value)

    What this would do – is make highrise a little more prosaic – and concentrate their mind on design and urban quality. Money is money is money, so any commission should bring in money. This might help the RIBA audience better appreciate your commitment to the design of the London skyline and streetscape.

    I am not sure that the answer is all (RIBA) or nothing (London CPO). However, Peter Rees point that densities can be achieved by other means should be reassuring that good choices can be made to best meet the demand for greater floor plates that may exist. The solution could be horizontal (ie field theory buildings ie. the Pompidou Centre is a transitional building between feild theory and high tech.) or vertical. [,_seen_from_Tour_Montparnasse.jpg ]

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      That is a really good idea about sending UK architects and developers overseas (though a lot of them come from overseas and many of those born in the UK go to work overseas). I would very happy for them to ‘do time’ in South America (Sao Paolo would be ideal) or in China (Shanghai would do). London does not have to be like other cities. It would do much better being like itself. With a few exceptions (eg Tour Montparnasse and the Pompidou Centre) Central Paris has been more self-confident than London about protecting its identity.

  2. Christine

    Yes, perhaps some time in Sao Paolo and Shanghai would possibly be helpful for UK and overseas architects not from highrise cultures.

    London is an incredibly unique city and it would be great if it realised that like New York, nearly everyone wants to be like it. (I am not sure how they think they are going to be like New York and London at the very same time, but people are very contradictory creatures!)

    There are a few contemporary buildings and structures which hit the ground running so to speak as iconic buildings – the Gherkin is one and the London Eye is another.

    The problem may be that all the new building in London are trying to create their own Biblao effect and when they are clustered, they compete within the cluster for attention.

    Something of this happened in New York with the pediments [ ] creating one of my all time favourite architectural photographs, but there was an underlying discipline of the grid and stepped setback which created a uniformity underpinning this diversity.

    There is something to be said for having to wear and dance in your creation, so I am happy to see the trend continue, if not with quite the same panache as the original.
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    1. Tom Turner Post author

      What a wonderful photograph. I need to find more time for photomontage. I fell in love with it aged about 12 and its time to get going. Getting good results was difficult when you had to cut prints and stick them together. Digital cameras make the job much simpler. Dancing the results might put me off but I am delighted to see others doing it. On the whole, photographers do not like being photographed.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Thank you. I often think about competitions but have not organised one recently because I do not want to waste the competitors time (or the organisers’ time!). That said, many of the people who entered the Tiananmen competition were not interested in prizes and not even too interested in the results. I think they just enjoyed developing and exploring design ideas.


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