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Last week I participated in the annual conference of the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats (CTBUH) which took place in London for the first time since 2001. The conference explored the fascinating theme of how building tall in historic cities and the issues of how tall buildings impact on, and contribute to, the notion of ‘heritage’.

When the CTBUH conference was last held in London it memorably invited HRH Prince Charles to address its delegates. Prince Charles’ speech that day was reported by Architecture Correspondent Giles Worsley in the Daily Telegraph under the headline “Prince attacks soaring egos of skyscraper architects”. (see: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1365039/Prince-attacks-soaring-egos-of-skyscraper-architects.html). The Prince told the conference that the trend towards building ever higher skyscrapers was taking “commercial macho into the realms of adolescent lunacy” and urged designers of tall buildings to more carefully consider their response to context and to contribute real public realm amenity on the ground beneath them.

From this starting point it is perhaps easy to start with assumption that building tall would inevitably be damaging to a conventional view of ‘heritage’ – yet this is far from the truth. Indeed it is interesting to note that in cities like New York the tall buildings are THE heritage with the Empire State Building for example attracting 3.5 million visitors a year and generating visitor revenues of over $100m a year!  And in London we already have the Richard Rogers’ Lloyds of London building listed as Grade 1 in 2011 when it was just 25 years old.

Proposing to build tall in London is however very different to building tall elsewhere. For starters London is already a successful, sustainable and sophisticated business centre which doesn’t need to build tall to change its fortune. Instead therefore it presents the opportunity, and arguably the requirement, to build exciting new buildings which will complement and enhance its commercial success.

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But what is really different about building tall in London is the way that permission needs to be ‘negotiated’ through a combination of design quality and getting the balance right between the impact on, and the ‘payback’ to its context. And the planning rules certainly ensure a scrutiny of the emerging proposals. At their core are the important ‘protected views’ across the city skyline, some of which originate – incredibly – from King Henry VII’s very own views of London in 1536!.

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There is no doubt that the amount of effort applied to building tall, and the impact it has on its environment, can produce remarkable design solutions. Arguably the game-changer in London was ‘the Gherkin’ (30 St Mary Axe) by Foster and Partners which was completed in December 2003. As a radical new organic form it set the precedent for a new generation of tall buildings in the city, and arguably it provided an immediate response to the concerns voiced by Prince Charles at the CTBUH conference just two years earlier. Its form narrows at its base to create larger and lighter space for a large public square at its base. Its peak tapers to create an extraordinary glazed viewing space and a unique addition to the London skyline. And in between the simultaneously curved and faceted skin adds real aesthetic interest and reflectivity. Indeed it already seems inevitable that it will become London’s first Grade 1 listed tall building. 

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Alongside the Gherkin other buildings of real note have emerged, which have the potential to be international exemplars in their responses to the challenges of design, engineering and sustainability for a historic city, such as Rogers Stirk Harbour’s ‘Cheesegrater’ (the Leadenhall Building) and, perhaps, Renzo Piano’s Shard, which is the tallest building in Europe.

So, whilst the new London skyline includes buildings like the Shard standing at 3 times the height of the dome of St Pauls Cathedral, it could be argued that since Prince Charles’ 2001 speech, London will be seen to have built some of the best tall buildings anywhere else on the planet which will undoubtedly form its ‘future heritage’.

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(Images of Gherkin courtesy of Foster & Partners website)

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