An influx of foreign capital and an acute housing crisis have created a surge in tall buildings, and in an ancient, low-slung city, that’s controversial.
By Richard Massey
Once dominated by landmarks like Parliament, Tower Bridge, and the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the London skyline is now home to tall buildings like the Gherkin, the Shard, the Cheesegrater and, to the chagrin of many, the bulbous Walkie Talkie.
If that were all, then no harm no foul. Big cities have big buildings, and as one of the world’s top financial centers, and with a population north of 8 million, it’s reasonable that London would have its fair share. But the capital of the U.K. is also home to the Razor, a 43-story residential tower south of the River Thames that won the 2010 Carbuncle Cup as the ugliest building in the U.K. And a recent study by New London Architecture found that there are 436 tall buildings in the pipeline citywide – a backlog, according to critics, that could one day ruin the tapestry of one of the world’s most historic cities.
Opposing the recent high-rise trend is the Skyline Campaign, which looks to at least curb the construction of unsightly tall buildings in bad locations.
“The prime concern is that the character of London is changing,” says the Skyline Campaign’s director, architect Barbara Weiss. “We’re getting really trashy buildings going up. The city is covered in cranes, and that has scared a lot of people.”
Weiss says that the biggest problem with the new buildings is that they are residential, not commercial. Instead of being owned by one group, like an REIT or a developer – and built to a very high standard – the towers are sold out to numerous buyers, making long-term maintenance, among other
concerns, a key issue.
Weiss says a brand-name architecture firm is oftentimes hired to design the structure, but a less accomplished firm is the one that actually delivers the product. The result?
“They are building them as cheaply as possible,” says Weiss. “The details and materials are shoddy. … These are the slums of the future.”
Even though Weiss and her supporters oppose the new towers, they do not deny that there is an acute housing crisis in London – particularly for affordable housing. Her solution to the problem is mid-rise buildings of around eight to 10 stories in the suburbs of London, where land is still available. In all facets, Weiss says, mid-rise buildings – from financing to construction and to maintenance – are simply “easier” than towers.
Weiss says nearly all of what’s either been recently built, is under construction, or is in the proposal pipeline, came about during the administration of former Mayor Boris Johnson, in office from May 2008 to May of this year. At the helm as London emerged from the Great Recession, it was Johnson who made it possible for the sudden wave of modern towers.
“It was really selling off the skyline,” Weiss says of Johnson’s brand of economic development. “It was a way of bringing cash into a cash-depleted city.”
Now that Johnson is gone, the Skyline Campaign has turned its attention to the new mayor, Sadiq Khan, and has asked him to enact a six-month moratorium on planning consents for tall buildings. Citing the Mayor of London Order, Khan declined to grant the moratorium. However, he did say that his administration is doing a full review of the London Plan, and that he will assess “how effective the existing London Plan has been in resisting inappropriate tall buildings and consider additional measures if these are necessary.”
Under one demographic projection published by the city of London, the population is expected to grow from about 8.7 million to about 10.8 million by 2041. That translates into a lot of housing – 60,000 units a year. In the dense city center, that means towers. And the London Tall Buildings Survey, issued in March, points squarely at the emerging residential market. Of the 436 tall buildings in the pipeline, 85 percent are from 20 to 39 stories, and 73 percent are for residential use.
Peter Murray, chairman of New London Architecture, the agency that authored the report in partnership with GL Hearn, says there’s a way to make sure the necessary housing gets built – towers as well as the mid-risers mentioned by Weiss – without ruining the city. Murray proposes a 3-D rendering of all London so that developers, planners, and the public at large have a strong visual understanding of what a tower would look like on the front end, not on the back end, when it’s too late.
The problem is, the citywide 3-D rendering does not yet exist.
“It’s quite expensive and that’s what [Sadiq Khan] is hesitant about,” Murray says.
Besides, Khan is under intense pressure to deliver affordable housing before saving the London skyline.
“After he gets around to the first [problem], he’ll get around to the second [problem],” Murray says.
London, of course, is not the only city dealing with the volatile mix of a housing shortage and a tsunami of foreign dollars. Referencing similar phenomenon in New York, Sydney, and Vancouver, Murray says, “The international markets like towers.”
And it’s the international question that looms large for the U.K. and London. With the recent vote to leave the European Union, the U.K. is trying to not only plot its exit, but to plan for its future. And as it pertains to London and its housing crunch, it boils down to what happens to the EU workers from Poland who do a lot of the dirty work in the U.K. Murray says as much as 60 percent of the skilled workers in the construction industry are from Poland. If they are sent packing, Murray says, “delivering our 60,000 houses a year will be a pipe dream.”
While new towers have certainly angered plenty of people, in certain places, they are widely accepted, as with the financial center of Canary Wharf in East London. And there are plenty of people who love the mystique of skyscrapers piercing up through the horizon.
Murray said he was at a social gathering not too long ago, and with the skyline looming in the distance, the
conversation turned to tall buildings.
“There were people as concerned about losing their view of the Gherkin as they were of losing their view of the dome at St. Paul’s,” he says.
Weiss launched her campaign in March 2014, and more than two years in, she says it has finally started to garner widespread support and media exposure. Her cause was reinforced in July when the Skyline Campaign won its biggest fight – reducing the 72-story residential Paddington Pole, designed by architect Renzo Piano, down to the 18-story commercial Paddington Cube. Though market forces were also at play, Weiss will take the win.
But even in victory, for Weiss, the outlook is grim. Just after news of the Paddington Cube was announced, another announcement was made. The Dubai developer of the so-called Jenga Tower, across the Thames from Westminster, found a builder. There are 89 towers under construction, another 233 have been approved, and yet another 114 are proposed. Due to fluctuations in the market, and the sheer time and capital it takes to build a tower, it’s likely that not all of them will deliver. Still, the London skyline has already changed and it will continue to change for years to come.
“We are coming to it late,” Weiss says of her efforts. “The horse has bolted already.”