Strap line 2015

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08 Feb 2018

Peter Murray on London: Hitting new heights

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The mayor has the design quality of our tall buildings in his sights

I was very pleased when I read the draft New London Plan published by Sadiq Khan at the end of November. Its focus on “Good Growth by Design” and the role of the mayor’s design advocates (of which I am proud to be one) was good news in itself and has been generally welcomed by the architectural profession. But of particular interest to me was Khan’s policy on tall buildings and his response to New London Architecture’s (NLA) campaign of the last four years to get a better strategic grip on their design and location.

In 2014 we produced our first survey of the tall buildings pipeline and came up with the figure of more than 260 towers over 20 storeys, either in construction or in planning. This surprised everyone. Not even Boris Johnson, mayor at the time, understood the scale of change that was about to take place on the skyline. At that time he was aiming to deliver some 42,000 new homes per year. “But that doesn’t mean towers popping up all over the place!” he said confidently in November 2013. It did.

As a result NLA called for the mayor to fund a 3D virtual model of the capital, so planners and local communities could understand the  impact of tall buildings, and we suggested the mayor should set up a commission to pay particular attention to their design.

In the draft Plan the mayor pays a lot of attention to the design of tall buildings. He says that  “architectural quality and materials should be of an exemplary standard to ensure the appearance and architectural integrity of the building is maintained through its lifespan”. The cumulative visual, functional and environmental impacts of tall buildings must be considered when assessing tall building proposals and when developing plans for an area.

3D virtual reality digital modelling will be used to help identify these areas, assess tall building proposals and aid public consultation and engagement. The mayor suggests that tall buildings should be the subject of design review prior to applications being made. Not quite a tall buildings commission, but a step in the right direction.

The draft Plan unusually strays into design detail. It says a tall building can be considered as being made up of three main parts: a top, middle and base. The top should be designed to make a positive contribution to the character of the skyline, and mechanical equipment must be integrated in the total building design. 

The function of the base should be to frame the public realm and streetscape, articulate entrances, and help create an attractive, lively public realm which provides a safe, interesting, and comfortable pedestrian experience. The base should integrate with the street frontage of adjacent buildings, and where appropriate enable the building to transition down in height. This picks up on another area I have been looking at – the re-emergence of the podium. I’ve always thought the Lever Building in Park Avenue with its low-level street frontage and set-back tower, a more successful urban form than Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building opposite with its wide plaza and sheer facade. In Toronto the planners have created great streets with tall buildings set back from lower family homes and retail frontages.

The mayor says he doesn’t believe that all tall buildings need to be iconic landmarks, which is good news. While I enjoy the diversity of forms in the City cluster, residential buildings need to sit more comfortably together. The draft Plan is not quite as direct as the guidelines of China’s State Council, which forbid the construction of “bizarre” and “odd-shaped” buildings and call for buildings that are “economic, green and beautiful”, but it might go some way to calm the fears of outer Londoners like Tory Assembly member Andrew Boff who described Khan’s plan as “declaring war on the suburbs”. 

peter m 2Illustration by Elsa Jenna

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