Skyscrapers: Reach the Stars

We are being softened up to want skyscrapers. Sky High, the room at the Royal Academy summer exhibition devoted to skyscrapers, curated by Lord Foster, is another push to generate excitement and acceptance for this most macho form of development.

Foster’s model collection is riveting. The disparate scales and styles of the models recall for me the Rem Koolhaas drawings in Delirious Manhattan, his magnificent book on skyscraper culture. Koolhaas spoke magically about the “culture of congestion” and the almost surreal urban lifestyle that it accompanied. The best critique of the book was Paul Goldberger’s “If only it were true!” The glamour, the majesty, the fantasy of the skyscraper culture made memorable cities out of unpromising heritage and made very effective business centres within a walking and transit compass.

But the unspoken message of the exhibition is: London needs these creatures; they will add excitement and business vitality. The work done on tall buildings before the formation of the General London Authority showed that there was no need to build tall in order to achieve the projected floorspace needs of the city. The market preference for large floorplates and the significant relative inefficiency of tall buildings in delivering economical, useable floorspace, all told against them. Only looked at from the standpoint of an individual site developer do they make some sense. Hence the multiple proposals before us.

In the current wave of London wannabes the tower-makers are in something of a policy vacuum, compared to their US antecedents. In New York there is a floor area ratio basis for negotiation, some urban design guidelines, and the presumption that all sites could build tall regardless of what their neighbours had done. In central London an astute developer with a well-placed site can build as big a building as can be accepted, with no area-related rules applied. The desire for a picturesque cluster of towers means that early projects usurp the unwritten rights of others: an accepted tower precludes adjacent sites being considered for other towers, in the interests of a well-spaced grouping.

The City of London was recently described by its planning officer Peter Rees as a vegetable garden. Buildings are planted to deliver the goods, then harvested and replaced when their time comes. The metaphor was recalled at a recent City presentation by Ken Shuttleworth, Neven Sidor of Grimshaw, Eric Parry and Sir William Whitfield. The “gherkin” is more of a marrow in this context, with the Minerva tower as a bunch of celery. What they and the other recent tower proposals have in common is a skin of glass. By comparison, the root vegetables, low buildings hugging the streetlines, all seem to favour stone or brick skins.

That meeting too was part of the campaign to build acceptance of skyscrapers. They are at home in Canary Wharf but seem banal. The City skyscrapers have the virtue of scale shock; this can also be a vice in urban design terms. Rather than settle in skyscraper ghettos, the developers want to live dangerously, like the adrenaline junkies who will work in them.

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