In the forest of tall and quirky structures that is the City of London, it’s beginning to seem that nothing is too bizarre to get built. So why has Fosters’ proposed Tulip prompted such a barrage of opposition? And will it nevertheless gain approval?
The skyline of the City of London is no stranger to controversy. Ever since the Gherkin unexpectedly gained planning permission in August 2000, London’s oldest district has become a battleground for some of Europe’s tallest structures. From the public inquiry that dogged the former Heron Tower to the firestorm of controversy the Walkie Talkie left in its wake, building tall here is more often a question of perseverance than it is of planning.
And now a new high-rise proposal seems about to become the City’s next major planning saga. The Brazilian billionaire Jacob Safra is set to become indelibly linked to his controversial proposals to build a 305m-tall concrete viewing gallery in the City of London shaped, improbably, like a tulip.
Located right beside the Gherkin, which Safra also owns and Foster + Partners also famously designed, when its planning application was submitted last autumn the Tulip immediately ignited the now-familiar touchpaper of ire and incredulity that City high-rise schemes frequently unleash.
Also read: Fosters tweaks Tulip after GLA gripes
Perhaps predictably, Historic Royal Palaces, which manages the Tower of London and is frequently the only significant stakeholder bulwark against the City’s scrum for the skies, scathingly dismissed the scheme as “alien and exotic” and demanded it be rejected. And the Civil Aviation Authority, another statutory skyscraper nemesis, raised concerns over the impact the Tulip might have on radar systems at London City airport.
To the surprise of many, the Greater London Authority (GLA) – an organisation hardly averse to tall buildings – has savaged the proposals, dismissing the idea as “incongruous” and citing a host of “serious concerns” ranging from public realm, heritage and transport, to height, design and contravention of the London Plan.
A spokesperson for the Tulip project said: “We welcome the detailed technical comments by GLA officers and, as part of the ongoing planning process, we will continue to work closely with the City of London Corporation and the GLA to resolve those matters raised and to improve the package of public benefits associated with the Tulip.”
Historic England has a reputation for fence-hovering on the topic of high-rise buildings in London, and has also formally objected to it. Incredibly, even the City’s own built environment team have concluded that the tower would have a detrimental impact on the quality of public realm within this part of the Square Mile.
And Julia Barfield of Marks Barfield, the architectural practice that created London’s most iconic observation decks at the London Eye, probably spoke for much of the architectural community when she professed to being “mystified” by the plans.
Still, there is every chance that the Tulip could be awarded planning permission when its application is determined, conceivably at the end of next month. Even the Gherkin came in for a fair amount of criticism during its planning and construction phase, remote as that time may now seem. So it wouldn’t exactly be unprecedented for a proposal facing strong opposition to neverthess succeed in winning approval.
But the strength and breadth of condemnation here appear significant. After almost two decades in which conservationists and heritage campaigners against tall buildings in the City of London have endured continual defeat, could the tide finally be about to turn?
In order to assess the Tulip’s chances and try to find out just why it has proved so controversial, we examine here the key factors – for and against – that could decide whether or not the Tulip ever comes to bloom.
For: Plans for the Tulip involve a 12-storey elliptical glass pod placed at the summit of a fluted concrete tower that spreads outwards at its summit and base. The pod itself is subdivided into three “petals” clustered around a central “bud”, with moving glass viewing gondolas sliding across its surface. In a City of London that now sports a cheesegrater, a gherkin, a can of ham and a scalpel, the addition of yet another unusually shaped object to the skyline does not exactly defy context. Moreover, with a “stem” just 14m wide, the Tulip exhibits a significantly more slender profile than any of its neighbouring skyscrapers. According to the design and access statement, the form “creates an instant visual relationship with the Gherkin” and maintains a mass that is “elegant and sculptural.”
Against: The City of London’s skyline has come in for much criticism in recent decades over an allegedly cluttered and uncoordinated visual form that has been disparagingly compared to a “collection of cheap perfume bottles”. The addition of the Tulip is unlikely to dampen these concerns. It also potentially adds an unwelcome note of irreverence and irrelevance to London’s skyline and image – can a city that has a gigantic cotton bud as its second-tallest building really be taken seriously? Also, the Tulip’s position as a fluted vertical shaft at the edge of the City’s loosely defined high-rise cluster remains at odds with the strategic idea of a cluster being one where the tallest structures are located near the middle rather than the edge.
What could be the impact on London’s heritage?
For: While towers are now commonplace across the City of London, it is important to remember that this is London’s oldest district and one of Europe’s most important historic urban centres, so heritage concerns are a hugely sensitive and potentially incendiary topic. But the City’s recent reconfiguration into a high-rise district is virtually complete, so rejecting the Tulip on the grounds of any perceived heritage harm smacks of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. In any case the planning application’s heritage assessment argues strongly in the scheme’s favour, claiming it would cause no harm or alteration to the setting of the Tower of London or its relationship with the City and the river.
Against: Unesco has already threatened to delist the Tower of London as a World Heritage Site because of the modern high-rise structures dominating its background, to which the Tulip will add. So although this guardian of international culture has yet to comment specifically on the Tulip proposal, it is unlikely to be impressed. Historic Royal Palaces, which has already offered its reaction, has been scathing. The organisation claimed the Tulip would be “extremely damaging” to the tower’s setting and would challenge the tower’s “eminence as an iconic, internationally focused monument”. The conclusion of its report was that “the height and attention-seeking nature of the Tulip’s design would make it the most visually intrusive element of the cluster […] Its effect would be both major and adverse.” A spokesperson for the Tulip project said: ”We recognise the position of the Historic Royal Palaces as an important stakeholder with whom we engaged with prior to the submission of this planning application. ‘We will continue to work to address these comments as part of the planning process.”
Is it too high?
For: At 305.3m high, the Tulip would be London’s tallest building after the 310m Shard. Therefore it is difficult to argue against the Tulip in terms of height when planning permission has already been granted relatively recently to not only one taller building but several nearby skyscrapers whose height is only marginally less. This makes the Greater London Authority’s objection on grounds of height particularly contradictory. Why, as it alleges, is the Tulip’s height “unjustified” when it is only 36cm taller than the planned One Undershaft next door? Especially when the height of the latter building was evidently sanctioned recently by City planning authorities? If the GLA has issues with the tall building policy (or lack of) being pursued by the City, then it should be explicit in airing these and not use proposed developments as a scapegoat.
Against: The four weightiest pieces of statutory criticism heaped onto the Tulip so far – from the GLA, Historic Royal Palaces and Historic England – have all focused on its height. Historic Royal Palaces argues that the height of the Tulip would reduce the Tower of London’s status to that of a “toy castle”, while Historic England condemned the proposal as a “virtual cliff-edge” that also “reduces the visual dominance of the Tower of London”, although it moderated this view slightly by adding that “the harm here is less than substantial”. The Civil Aviation Authority insisted on an assessment of the structure’s impact on air traffic control radar coverage. The National Air Traffice service was satisfied the building itself would have no impact, although it said high-rise cranes do have the potential to affect airspace and so the construction method would need to be considered carefully.
Does it meet a need?
For: The design team argues that the Tulip will provide a “new state-of-the-art cultural and educational resource for Londoners and tourists”. Although the attraction would charge an as yet undetermined entrance fee, it aims to offer free entry to 20,000 London state schoolchildren every year and predicts their visits will deliver “national curriculum topics”. Fosters also last week increased the amount of space dedicated to education after planners raised “significant concerns” about the scheme. The 12 elliptical floors will offer 360 degree views across the city, and the design and access statement claims that the “thrill of sliding between floors” in the external gondola pods will be like no other experience in the city.
Against: The boom in skyscraper construction in the City means it now has several high-level viewing galleries so it is difficult to justify the Tulip on the basis that it provides yet another, particularly as this one – unlike most of the rest – will not be free for most people. The design team claim the project was developed partly in response to the difficulties of providing public access to the top of the Gherkin. Surely if Gherkin public access were truly the aim, that would be easier to deliver than constructing an entirely new building next door? The question of need is one that vexes London Eye co-creator Julia Barfield. “When we did the London Eye, there was no place where people could view the city from a height [except] the top of St Paul’s. You could say it wasn’t a desperate need, but it was providing a platform at a height so that people could see the city for the first time from a new perspective. Now there are three of those, with the Shard and the Walkie Talkie [as well as the Eye]. So do people really need another one?”
What about the public realm?
For: The design team makes a clear commitment to “enhance the public realm surrounding the proposals”. As part of this strategy, a two-storey entrance pavilion will be built near the base of the Tulip with a rooftop garden open to the public. In addition, an adjacent “pocket park” partially framed by green walls would also be constructed, adding green space to a part of London with virtually no soft landscaping. The design and access statement claims that the total green surface area of the site will be increased by 8.5 times what exists there today.
Against: One of the more unexpected channels of criticism has come from the City of London’s own built environment officers. Tom Noble, City of London group manager responsible for public realm, stated that “we have serious concerns about the capacity of the public realm to adequately manage the additional number of people that this development will bring”. He also predicted that these numbers were “likely [to] lead to people walking in the carriageway and experiencing discomfort”. A spokesperson for the Tulip project said: “We welcome the detailed technical comments by City of London Corporation and, as part of the ongoing planning process, we will continue to work closely with the Corporation to resolve the matters raised.”
Nonetheless, these reservations ape the public realm concerns of the Greater London Authority, which berated the Tulip’s uninterrupted concrete shaft as a “significant expanse of solid and inactive building frontage [that] would appear incongruous […] in this heritage sensitive location”. The GLA also cites the “site layout and loss of public realm as a significant concern”.
The word on the street
Opinion on the merits of the Tulip vary sharply on the City’s streets. On Bury Street itself where the project is set to be built, opinion generally veered from cautious to hostile. “What is it?” asked Edward, a derivatives trader from West Sussex. When he was made aware of its purpose his scepticism was barely dented. “Well, it looks a bit ridiculous. It’s like the sort of thing you expect in Las Vegas or Dubai. It doesn’t seem appropriate to London, to me.”
Fabienne works at an insurance firm on nearby Lime Street and was only marginally more positive. “I don’t mind the glass egg at the top and it will be nice to have something for tourists as well as office workers. But this long pillar thing it’s on just looks stupid and ugly.”
However, when canvassing the people queuing up to visit the top of the Walkie Talkie, opinion was generally warmer. “It looks kinda cool,” mused Steve, a student from the University of Berkeley in California. “The gondola rides look awesome and it’s great that an old city like London can do something cool and contemporary.” Helen, a TV producer from Winchester, was also generally supportive. “I like it, I think. It looks odd but it’s daring and provocative; I like things that push the boundaries.”
But Maria, a tourist from Oviedo in Spain on her first visit to London, wasn’t so sure. “When I was growing up in Spain me and my friends all thought of Big Ben and Buckingham Palace whenever we thought of London. Buildings like this [Tulip] are nice but that’s not really why we come to London. I don’t think this kind of thing is part of London’s identity.”