The fact that most local authorities, urban ones anyway, regularly accept and embrace contemporary architecture is a mark of great progress.
But this greater acceptance, demand even, for modern design has brought forward a plethora of weird and wonderful towers, all made possible by imaginations unleashed by CAD technology.
Indeed, every self-respecting city has to have its tall towers nowadays. Every week, more and more are announced. The question now being rightly asked is, should anything go? This question is currently being played out in a public inquiry called by Ruth Kelly into Rafael Viñoly’s Walkie-talkie tower in Fenchurch Street in the City. Kelly has called in the 39-storey tower under pressure from Unesco, which is concerned about views not being protected around world heritage sites – in this case, the Tower of London. In what’s being seen as a test case, English Heritage has waded in because the tower is on the edge of a cluster proposed around the Gherkin, and breaks with tradition by being wider at the top than the bottom. It has said it “would be London’s ugliest and most oppressive” building. Cabe, meanwhile, has praised the scheme, and it has also been backed by the likes of Lords Foster and Rogers, who say the building will improve London’s “drab and uneventful” panorama. Kelly certainly has a tough decision on her hands, but ultimately in its favour, Viñoly is an architect of great standing, and as Richard Simmons, the chief executive of Cabe, has pointed out, the City has always had big buildings that “stretch the technology and aesthetics of the day”.
If the Walkie-talkie does get the go-ahead, that shouldn’t mean that London – or indeed any other city – should necessarily give tower designs an easier ride. EH and Cabe both want to see guidelines drawn up by local authorities and the mayor of London that offer guidance on where tall buildings can go ahead, rather than limited guidance on the basis of restricted views. Developers would argue that this is impractical, as they are the ones who really know whether a site is financially viable. That said, by being more prescriptive and holistic, councils could reduce clashes between developers and heritage authorities and ensure that the public realm is properly catered for at street level. It could also bring a much needed reality check and spark debate on whether high-rise is sustainable, and a good way of housing families.
Towers change the character of an area. Get it right and they inject excitement and capture the public’s imagination; get it wrong and they become eyesores that destroy areas for years to come. It might be today’s fashion item, but when we get bored and fall out of love with a tower, it can’t be thrown to the back of the wardrobe like last year’s pair of shoes. So, a yes to towers in principle – but only after due debate.
Denise Chevin, editor