The Tower(s) of London

Blog — 21 Feb 2024

A recent article by Peter Coy in the New York Times despaired that London’s skyline is a “jarring profusion of odd skyscrapers with funny names” he blamed a combination of architectural ego and bad planning. Coy is principally talking about the City of London, a place where, since the construction of Norman Foster’s St Mary Axe, tall buildings seem to get tagged with silly nicknames, Gherkin, Walkie Talkie, Can of Ham, Cheesegrater, and Scalpel spring to mind.

It is interesting that a New York correspondent should criticise London, New York was the quintessential 20th century city of towers, its mid-town skyline was to Manhattan as the Eiffel Tower was to Paris. Central London’s skyline has radically changed in the 21st century, Jason Hawkes is a photographer who shows this quite graphically:

The towers in Canary Wharf were at least planned as a tight group, and the City has a cluster policy that seems to have some logic. But the ones that have sprung up away from the centre in places such as Vauxhall, Old Street, Perivale and Ealing, more often than not for residential or student uses, feel random and ill conceived. These are buildings that don’t really seem to have any relationship to each other let alone the streets below.

Atlas Student Accommodation, Lambeth

Towers are undoubtedly emotive, and the problem seems to be that as soon as one is consented others will rapidly follow. Prime City of London values, and a strong planning policy means that the tall buildings in the Square Mile are invariably greener, better designed and of higher quality.

The desire to build tall has not been derailed by covid or the working from home problem that empties the streets on Fridays, eleven more towers will be built in The City of London by 2030. This seems to suggest that it is a little unfair of Peter Coy to blame planners and architects in the first instance, there is no doubt that ill informed planning authorities and mediocre architects have created some real horrors, but that is also true of low to mid rise buildings across the capital. There is clearly a demand that developers and investors are more than willing to satisfy, and in the process provide mixed use tall buildings, often with high level public spaces and other community benefits.

Building tall as an expression of wealth and power is not just a modern phenomenon. The towns and cities of pre-renaissance Italy were defined by clusters of slender stone and brick towers built by wealthy families to protect and store their wealth and to demonstrate their own importance. (Rather like Peter Rees’s recent reference that Manhattan’s private residential pencil towers are merely “safety deposit boxes”). You can still see traces of this in Bologna, Lucca and to some extent Florence, however, it is best preserved in San Gimignano whose skyline shows us how extraordinary and poetic these towns and cities would have been.

Torre Guinigi, Lucca
View over Lucca from Torre Guinigi
San Gimignano

At least the City does have a coherent and considered policy on towers, for the rest of London it seems to be Sadiq Khan who holds the reins. He has often overridden local planning decisions and the views of local residents to consent schemes on the basis of deals that go beyond social housing targets. Usually clustered around transport interchanges in outer London boroughs, the lower values inevitably impact the design quality and the materials used in construction with predictably mediocre results.

If London does have a problem with towers, it is because they are in the wrong places. Towers in the City with its un-paralleled transport links make sense, at a Crossrail station in West Ealing it doesn’t.