The Architectural Future of the City of London

It seems a terrible shame that architects have forgotten how to design skyscrapers just at the moment they finally seem to have become an accepted part of London’s landscape.” – Edwin Heathcote, Financial Times, 10th June 2013

[The City of London is hereby taken as the historic City, encompassed generally by the postcodes EC1-4 and the area governed by the City of London Corporation, and not Greater London or Canary Wharf]

City460Heathcote has a point. Some of the proposals and plans for skyscrapers, especially in the City where land is so scarce and historical layout dominates planning procedure, are eccentric to say the least; and in Heathcote’s view, ‘short of style’. The City of London does not match its easterly rival Canary Wharf when it comes to space or practicality, although some would argue that such features – even luxuries – were never meant to be part of the make up of the character of the Square Mile. Financiers, real estate professionals and historians alike may have welcomed the addition of towers such as 30 St Mary Axe, known colloquially as the Gherkin, in 2004, and even the Shard earlier this decade, to London’s steadily developing skyline. But there is doubt, in many senses, surrounding proposed projects, including the Pinnacle on Bishopsgate, EC2, a shiny, swirling tower set to dominate the City’s silhouette, currently on halt pending redesign. There are thoughts suggesting that the tentative but also sporadic attitude of London’s architects is an acceptance of defeat – was the City ever supposed to house Europe’s equivalent of the Petronas Towers (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), or Burj Khalifa (Dubai, United Arab Emirates)?

City in Colour

As Heathcote points out, only since the 1980s has the Square Mile held any visual attraction on an international scale. Whilst the low-rise architecture dating from the Georgian period – some even older – is appealing to any traditionalist and architecture enthusiast, the contemporary combination of flash and cash didn’t really arrive in the City until recently. That job had previously been left to E14 out on the Isle of Dogs, redeveloped in the latter quarter of the 20th century and subsequently turned into a hub of financial services and plush, contemporary-style malls, all surrounded by water, in an environment relatively unhindered by archaic road design or residential limits. The Gherkin set the scene, followed by structures such as the Heron Tower, also on Bishopsgate in the heart of the City. The Square Mile, with a little help from a dalek-like splurge at London Bridge, now rivals Canary Wharf for imposing and impressive skyline. It is rare to find an image relating to financial London that does not include the Gherkin, Heron and Shard, alongside their dockland counterparts.

The Proposals

An impression of the Pinnacle
An impression of the Pinnacle

Part of the charm of the City of London vis-à-vis its global rivals is the mixture of tall and short buildings, marking the clash of historical tradition and contemporary design. Standing outside the Bank of England – or in Finsbury Circus, or by Spitalfields Market – one can appreciate such a clash. The danger, Heathcote points out, is the loss of such a fusion by the development of several slightly eccentric structures. The Shard was very much an isolated development, being south of the river and the first real architectural ‘rule-breaker’. The Pinnacle, however, is a tower-case that should be studied closely. Launched in 2008, the swirling tower is currently on hold due to lack of funds and a redesign effort. As an individual addition to the Square Mile’s skyline, perhaps there is not much to be said, but the decision to redesign the structure is a significant one. It suggests that architects are thinking twice about filling what is a historic city with chrome, steel and glass. In the meantime, the foundations and initial structures of the Pinnacle stand dusty and forlorn, like an underground dandelion among the high-risers.

Traditionalists will worry about other projects too. The ‘Walkie-Talkie’, on Fenchurch Street just south of the Gherkin and the Heron Tower, is due to be completed next year, and is already – with help of the many cranes atop it – dominating any view of the City from south of the River Thames. The tower expands outwards as it rises., supposedly reflecting – or at least, accurately – the valuation of the office space within it. Others, nicknamed the Cheese Grater and the Scalpel for their unconventional features and figures, are due for completion within the next 5 years. There are worries that the sudden increase in the number and eccentricity of City skyscrapers will destroy the charm and beauty of the oldest financial centre in the world.

Conclusion

While the Square Mile needs to compete not only with its East London neighbour Canary Wharf, but also with other European and global cities, architects need to ensure that the period charisma developed in the nineteenth century is not lost among gloss and height of the contemporary metropolis. The development of the Shard across the river is a perfect example of how London’s skyline can be enhanced without damaging the historic character of the City itself. There is so much ‘space’, especially to the north into Islington and Shoreditch, east into Aldgate and Whitechapel, and south into Southwark and Bermondsey, that could be utilized instead of packing what is essentially a few cricket grounds-worth of land full of New York-sized towers with increasingly controversial designs. Walking around the City is still a pleasure – from St. Paul’s Cathedral to the Tower of London, there are still ancient sights to see. How long before similar attractions are sold off for a new Taipei 101 is to be observed.

Follow the editor on twitter: https://twitter.com/jpewinfield

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