Are London’s new skyscrapers destroying the capital?

Two experts make their cases for and against the city's new skyline

The case for: We’ve been blinded by greed and architectural mediocrity

By Barbara Weiss, architect and co-founder of Skyline Campaign

The debate around building tall in London is still raging. Four years since New London Architecture revealed plans to build 236 tall buildings across the capital, the disagreement between proponents and opponents of the high-rise rush shows no signs of abating. On the contrary, the dispute has pitched residents against developers, who view towers as cash cows, and the Mayor, who views them as a source of much-needed housing units. Not surprising, therefore, that the number of towers in the pipeline has jumped this year to 510. While most Londoners (and the Skyline Campaign) do not object to skyscrapers per se, the issues at stake relate to appropriateness of location, visibility, affordability, quality of architecture – and who is calling the shots…

Many of the new towers are now built, so it is possible to judge them for what they really are: a collection of monstrous steel and glass lumps on the skyline, many of mediocre architectural quality, each participating in a competition for the most incongruous ‘iconic’ shape imaginable. This, along with garish cladding colours and materials, ensures that newcomers are in defiant contrast to London’s existing low-rise, multi-layered context, its richness derived from traditional materials, grain and proportions.

The sheer number of tall buildings, and their choice of shiny materials, has the effect of drowning all small-scale, delicate historic architecture, altering our perception of London’s best neighbourhoods and heritage assets, and ‘bombing’ many favourite vistas, ones that managed to survive centuries of wars, change and growth.

London has been forever evolving, but the army of towers that is appearing on the skyline is threatening its unique character, never to be restored. Whether this is the permanent destruction of London, or normal evolution, our world-class metropolis is in danger of becoming a shadow of itself, just like many other world cities, large and small, where greed and over-development have been allowed to take over.

The case against: If you want a better future, think vertically

By Javier Quintana de Una, Chair of the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat UK

Try to envision the skyline of London being flat. Imagine, for example, all those buildings which faced rejection or controversy when being proposed – the Shard, the London Eye, the Walkie-Talkie, the Gherkin – not being there. Imagine an endless London sprawl without visual references. A kind of Los Angeles, but with rain.

Worse, imagine the space provided by London towers spread horizontally. Imagine a city’s footprint four times bigger than the current one and commutes reaching record times. Imagine places such as Luton or even Cambridge swallowed by the capital in less than 20 years.

And, of course, imagine the traffic congestion and pollution associated with all this. Try to visualise the destructive consequences of this ‘suburban megalopolis’ on the Green Belt.

It is fair to say, just building towers might not be the solution to the lack of space in London. Towers transform the landscape and put pressure on their surroundings. When not carefully planned, they can also unbalance communities.

But the truth is London is making a significant effort in trying to provide people with the space we need. In parallel to transport infrastructure, most boroughs are allowing higher densities, not always towers, close to transport hubs, providing residential opportunities and a life experience in line with the kind of city London has become.

Affordability is also being addressed. New towers are mostly residential and increase the options to get onto the property ladder. Vertical student residences and co-living experiments are also on their way and technology allows for much safer buildings. Finally, the public are more aware of the identity these towers confer to their boroughs and the demand for good design has increased.

Try to envision a city of towers, with spires combined with vertical architecture and green space. Imagine a polycentric city with vertical references providing space in the right location. Imagine a new London with a higher profile, literally, showing the world that we also want to touch the sky. That’s a city of the future.