The City’s head of planning has undoubtedly done some good for London, but he has failed to come up with a strategic vision for London’s skyline
Despite the Walkie-Talkie, Peter Rees has done some good for London. As keynote developers such as Stuart Lipton readily attest, he created a planning process far more conducive to the needs of developers and has been successful in attracting cutting edge modern architecture and some of the world’s most celebrated contemporary architects to the Square Mile.
But cities are not measured on how comfortable they make starchitects or developers feel, they are measured on the strength and clarity of their character and in this respect, Rees has irrevocably damaged London. Rees and the Corporation of London have recklessly propagated a skyscraper gold rush that they have consistently failed to imbue with a co-ordinated, strategic vision of what London’s skyline should be and, more pointedly, of what architecturally defines London and makes it unique.
Back in 2002 Rees stated that “[We] do not have a vision of how [London’s] skyline should be, but any attempt to say one is good, one is bad, is doomed to failure. What on earth is the point of urban planning if not to articulate a collective vision of what our cities should look like and be?
Cities, especially London, may evolve organically but the buildings of which they are comprised do not. To assume that all that is required to guide the development of tall buildings in a historic city is a benign sprinkling of architectural fairy dust and inventive culinary doppelgangers amounts to a breathtaking abdication of responsibility at the exact point where it is needed most.
Rees’ tenure has recklessly propagated a skyscraper gold rush
Instead of a sensible tall buildings policy, we have perpetual platitudes about the value of contrast. Yes, part of the City’s innate dynamism comes from the juxtaposition of old and new and well designed and sensitively located tall buildings can undoubtedly contribute to this drama. But contrast is never more important than context.
Rees justifies the disfigurement of much of the City’s historic fabric by celebrating the contrast between New York’s St Patrick’s Cathedral and the canyon of skyscrapers that surround it. But in New York, it is the skyscrapers that form the overriding context and identity of the city and this is not in any way threatened by the cathedral. Whereas the City’s urban character is primarily drawn from its historic fabric and yet it is this that is consistently terrorised by the gulag of high-rises Rees has encouraged.
The failure to articulate a vision for tall buildings in London is not the fault of Rees or the City alone. The autonomy of the boroughs and the indifference of the mayor and the GLA have also played their corrosive part too. But Rees set a toxic precedent of planning irresponsibility that has now been successfully exported with hundreds of towers now mushrooming across London in complete isolation, a development which Rees himself bemoans. Thanks to his efforts, not only does the genie refuse to go back in the bottle, but the bottle itself and much of London’s unique architectural character with it, has been smashed.
Ike Ijeh is Building’s architectural correspondent