The capital’s flirtation with tall buildings is becoming a love affair, thanks to the commercial and aesthetic success of recent designs. But how can we keep it going?

When was the shift from bad tall buildings to good tall buildings? The one that really lifted the lid was the first pickle out of the jar, the Gherkin. Canary Wharf tower, some 15 years before, was mediocre corporate but unwittingly it became a landmark, visible from the east, the north and the south. A sight of the tower was a sign that you were getting close to the centre.

By the time of early Docklands, London was ready to forget the legacy of the ill-conceived and poorly constructed towers from the sixties and seventies. But it took the audacity of Foster’s design to really shift perception. Despite its somewhat dumpy proportions (the tip was lopped off to appease the planners) the Gherkin experimented with the generic form of the orthogonal tower. It softened the edges, rounded the top and gave as much thought to the way it hit the ground as how it met the sky. It is a building that despite being a symbol of commercial prowess carries significant meaning, creates a sense of place and generates a great deal of public affection. When tall buildings are done well they become socially acceptable and very popular.

Our mayor can also be credited with the renaissance of tall buildings. Livingstone was told by our developer friends that unless London created more quality office space, it would lose out to other European cities. But his largesse was not just about bending to commerce (he is not exactly famous for his deference to anyone). As a mayor whose hands are tied when it comes to raising money, he relished the potential for increasing rateable income. His strategy has paid off. Not only is London now the financial capital of the world, but central government is beginning to trust our mayor with greater responsibilities.

Coincidental with this has been the decline of the heritage lobby. Over the past few years, we have witnessed a big change in attitude. English Heritage has lacked government support, has not been well run, and has had several humiliating losses at public enquiry. Of course it has an obligation to fight its side of the argument, but we are still being governed by views and panoramas going back to Canaletto in the 18th century.

The popular consensus is that we need a strategy for the siting of tall buildings: a London plan. But London never did have a plan. Although it is not as architecturally great as Paris, Venice or St Petersburg, all of which were built to a fairly megalomaniac plan, in its chaos lies a clue. Much of the city’s success is down to the energy and enterprise of its foreign-born residents, and its lack of order has made it a better melting pot. Perhaps we could have a strategy that respects eclecticism and muddle and allows exceptions to the rules – London can take it. The big issue for me is not where but how.

The tower that really shifted perceptions of tall buildings was the first pickle out of the jar, the Gherkin

I am all for positive discrimination for world-class architecture. But to do this you need an enlightened planning system that has the muscle to enforce the quality promised in slick presentations. During the construction process the arguments put forward by the developer, the architect and the clever planning lawyer often result in a dramatic loss of quality. So rather than an ineffective stick, perhaps a better inducement to excellence would be a planning bonus?

Once tall structures were designed to make you feel closer to God, now they take you further away from everyone else. Skyscrapers are often more about power, prestige, status and aesthetics than about efficient development but it is precisely that that makes them so alluring.

Well, alluring as offices, at least. Up to now we have not been ready to live in them. But as our social grouping evolves, so do our housing needs. The family with 2.5 children is no longer the dominant unit. Singletons and twosomes proliferate, as do the merged grown-up family that is too big for the average town house. High-rise living, although not ideal for families with young children, does have the flexibility to cater for these new arrangements. And with the value of residential outstripping commercial, now is the moment for a clutch of new skyscrapers for living.

As planning law rightly demands, a significant part of each new development must be given over to affordable housing (an interesting shift of social responsibility away from the state). This could well herald the re-emergence of the sixties slab block and point to a more humane approach to the design of tall residential buildings. But let’s make sure only the best see the light of a building site. We are experiencing a creative moment in London and one that needs to be exploited. But beware complacency and swagger, and beware the shape-playing of lesser architects – there is nothing worse than form without meaning.