Early in April a group of well-known people protested that the proposal to build another 230 buildings in London of 20 or more stories in height would radically alter the skyline of the capital, and should not be done without the public being properly consulted about and informed of what such a development would mean. About three-quarters of the proposed developments are in the City or in the Docklands, to the east. Those complaining about the projects argue that a city as architecturally notable as London should have a serious planning strategy about what can go where, but it does not. The mayor, Boris Johnson, manifestly has what he thinks are more important things to do. It is time that certain basic questions were considered. Let me suggest some.
First, is the London skyline so important that it is worth preserving in its present form, either in part or in whole? I would contend that it is. When we think of the skyline we think of various things: the famous view from Hampstead Heath, the view along the Thames in both directions from Hungerford Bridge, what we can see from the top of the London Eye, or the view from different vantage points of key structures, such as St Paul’s Cathedral or the Elizabeth Tower — as we now call the campanile that houses Big Ben. To put a clutch of skyscrapers on the south bank of the Thames at Vauxhall (around where the American Embassy is about to relocate), or around the existing high-rise development at Canary Wharf would have little impact on what the world regards as the main totems of central London, most of which are on or near the river — the Palace of Westminster, Whitehall and Trafalgar Square, St Paul’s, the Tower and Tower Bridge. But to add to the stock of skyscrapers in the Square Mile, or anywhere farther west that would overshadow some of those historic sites, must be highly questionable.
Second, should London bar all buildings above a certain height, as is the case in Washington DC and much of Paris? That, surely would be too restrictive. There are parts of London — such as Vauxhall — that will be transformed for the better by the activity that building skyscrapers will bring, and where there is going to be little or no damage to existing fine architecture. As with Canary Wharf, such projects change the face of part of London, but they do not change the face of what we understand as London. I worked in the Docklands during the Eighties and Nineties when the last big transformation was beginning among the dereliction of the wharves there. Only a fool or a Luddite would say that London was better off as it was.
Third, how should this be regulated? Land is a finite resource, and London is a global landmark; both these facts need to be borne in mind before what we understand by the capital is obliterated by a rash of Manhattan-style high rises. It really is a job for the mayor. He needs to decree what areas should welcome high-rise buildings — which should be most of them — and which ones have to remain, for aesthetic reasons, as they are. London remains a leading destination for tourists: they know what they want to see and that is not an architecturally inferior version of Chicago or Manhattan which crowds out buildings renowned the world over. There are already strict regulations about maintaining the lines of sight to certain buildings, but a glance at the City from Hungerford Bridge reminds us just how crowded the city is becoming, and how increasingly dwarfed the great cathedral is. Skyscrapers are not as boring as they used to be. It is easy to be impressed and amused by the Shard, the Cheesegrater and the Gherkin, and it is good that London should be an exhibition centre for the best contemporary architecture. But you can have too much of a good thing, and all future high-rise developments should be away from architecturally sensitive areas.
Fourth, how many of these buildings are actually necessary? Roughly three-quarters of the floorspace they would provide should be residential. Everybody seems to want a penthouse, though that might change if the only view they get from the 50th floor is of the other buildings that surround them. Along the river to the east, even in the heart of Docklands a short walk from the new financial district, there is derelict land that could accommodate low-rise housing as well as high-rise. It has roads, railways and a light railway providing excellent transport links, as well as the Jubilee Line to Stratford. High-rise gives developers more for their money, but sometimes intelligent planning demands another solution to the problem of the housing shortage.
No advanced society that wishes to create wealth and provide better living conditions for its people can avoid continuous building. But it has to do it with sensitivity, especially in an old city such as London, or one risks obliterating not just the past but the charm and appeal that a city has because of its heritage. No-one would countenance building high-rise around Notre Dame or the Vatican as we have around St Paul’s. So we have to say not just that enough is enough, but to find a mechanism to regulate how we build not in an individual site, but across a large expanse of land.
We have had listed buildings in some form since the 1882 Protection of Ancient Monuments Act, though it was the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act that made the process more common. I think it is time to take the logical step on from this, and have a process by which landscapes can be defined and listed. It should not be impossible to say that, in London, between Vauxhall Bridge and Tower Bridge nothing should be built within half a mile of the river to the north; and that parts of London on the South Bank and away from the river should also be restricted. There may also come a time when Docklands is deemed to be too crowded, and needs to be controlled. And landscape listing could apply out of towns too. It would be a wonderfully effective way of controlling wind farms.