My decorator was discussing a flowering clematis that was getting in his way as he tried to paint the front door. He said he didn’t really understand about plants because he was brought up in a tower block in Shepherds Bush and never saw any.
Shock! Horror! I hear the anti-tall-buildings brigade cry as their worst fears are confirmed about the effect of such buildings on the social fabric of the land. I would respond by suggesting that it is not the problem of the tall building per se, it is that they were not designed to provide such amenities and the spaces at ground level were not properly thought out. I would say to the Create Streets lobby that there were many Victorian working class terraces – streets! – with small back yards and outside privies that provided no green space at all.
Gardens don’t always have to be on the ground: the Derry and Toms Roof Gardens, 30m above Kensington High Street, opened in 1933, has more than 70 full-size trees and a flowing stream stocked with fish. And, of course, we’re soon to be getting the public gardens on top of 20 Fenchurch Street, which will be 175m above the street and host to more than 2,000 sub-tropical plants – a veritable “hanging gardens of modern Babylon” according to its developers.
But these are simplistic solutions to the integration of plants and buildings; we need to design greenery and architecture in a more holistic way. As far as I am aware, my old friend Ken Yeang was the first architect to take this idea seriously. He has been designing sustainable tall buildings with gardens for years, including his Solaris building in Singapore, a green building in all senses. Recently, his ideas were successfully translated by WOHA for the Parkroyal on Pickering hotel, where leafy terraces flow down the building. Also in Singapore is Arc Studio’s Pinnacle@Duxton, a development of seven towers linked together with sky bridges at the 26th and 50th floors that include an outdoor gym, play area, mini parks and even an 800m running track.
Stefan Boeri Architetti also owes a debt of gratitude to Yeang for its Bosco Verticale nearing completion in Milan; its two residential towers of 110m and 76m in the centre of the city will be home to some 900 trees.
In London, Carey Jones and Amin Taha Architects have designed a 130m tall tower in Nine Elms with 2,500sq m of communal sky gardens. Landscaping allows for intimate ‘park bench’ areas, larger breakout spaces for ‘social passing trade’ and, for nine months of the year, enough space to grow a weekly salad box for every household. As part of the Battersea Power Station redevelopment, Foster + Partners is building a residential block where the entire top of the building is laid out as one of the city’s largest roof gardens – over a quarter of a kilometre long.
There has been much debate about London’s tall buildings following the NLA’s revelation that some 237 new towers are proposed. It is a shame that more of them didn’t follow Yeang’s example and take a more adventurous view of the space that tall buildings provide. If local authorities supported the idea of gardens in the sky through Section 106 or CIL, they could provide an alternative to the scarce resource of available land in London. If we rethought our ante-diluvian ideas about where public space is located in a building, we could make better use of land, create greener and more exciting buildings, grow food and educate people like my decorator.