As part of Radio 4’s excellent season ‘London: Another Country?’, Rosie Millard has produced a compelling documentary exploring the different attitudes to tall buildings in London and Paris.

The documentary investigates the differences between each city’s approach to high-rises and explores the multiple effects this has had on their respective economic success, urban character and cultural appeal. Views are canvassed from a broad range of built environment protagonists from both sides of the Channel including ex-London mayor Ken Livingstone, CABE chairman Paul Finch, architect Renzo Piano, current GLA Deputy Mayor for Policy and Planning Sir Simon Milton and critics Dejan Sujic and Francois Chaslin.

‘Towering Ambition: A Tale of Two Cities’ begins with a trip up London’s newest skyscraper, Kohn Pedersen Fox’s Heron Tower in the City of London. This is the launch-pad to discuss some of London’s other current skyscraper proposals and to analyse their contribution to London’s dynamic urban character, cosmopolitan energy and her envied status as global financial capital. Ken Livingstone states that the mix of old and new is part of London’s “charm” and Dejan Sujic goes even further when he claims that London is “the most successful world city in Europe and perhaps anywhere.”  

The discussion then switches to Paris where the situation is very different. Unlike London, central Paris has been largely preserved in aspic for the past 150 years. Various commentators and an American tourist point out that its unified, artistic and controlled urban form have created “the most beautiful city in the world” and are key to its visual and cultural appeal.

But others claim that this inflexible “museum preservation” strategy has had a detrimental effect on the city’s economic performance and have dulled perceptions of Paris’s capacity for excitement and creativity, particularly in comparison to ebullient London. “A city that stops building is dead” proffers Paul Finch. Recent moves by Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë to relax Paris’s notoriously rigid height restrictions and a presumed willingness to consider high-rise proposals in the centre of the city are cited as evidence that Paris may well be looking to its Albion neighbour for urban inspiration.

For London at least where the level of public debate surrounding its evolving tall buildings and their effect on the skyline is non-existent, this documentary is long overdue. Paris’s skyline may well appear dormant but this is in stark contrast to the energetic level of civic debate and discussion currently underway about what form they wish their city to take. By contrast, London’s skyline evolves in silence.

This fascinating and informative programme therefore offers a rare glimpse into the world of London high-rise development as well as an intriguing account of the fierce rivalry that has characterised the historic development of both London and Paris. Challenging the visual composition of the city commonly perceived as the world’s most beautiful also takes some bravery but it offers a refreshing new perspective grounded in architectural awareness and solid historic research.

However, although Paris’s failed high-rise experiment (the notorious and consistently unpopular Tour Montparnasse) is discussed; London’s multiple equivalent mistakes – both past and present - are largely glossed over. The bitter controversy that often surrounds London’s tall buildings and their effect on the historic skyline and fabric is ignored, thereby belittling the integrity of the investigation and implicitly offering the simplistic and unchallenged conclusion that high-rises equate to progress and modernity (London) and low-rises engender stasis and sterility (Paris).

There are fleeting references to the complex wider subject of the conceptual validity of tall buildings and their fractious London history. Renzo Piano briefly refers to the Shard’s Public Enquiry and the presenter herself pitches the following critical question to avowed skyscraper aficionado Ken Livingstone: “why do new buildings have to be tall?” His dubious answer, that “financial organisations require a concentration of people in small spaces” offers a tantalising glimpse of how much more interesting and resonant this documentary this might have been had it offered a slightly more balanced point of view.

‘Towering Ambition: A Tale of Two Cities’ was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 14.07.10. It is available on BBC iPlayer until 21.07.10. The ‘London: Another Country?’ series runs until 17.07.10.