Insurer Swiss Re spent 18 months working to get its new tower through planning, but it is still awaiting approval. Little wonder that the industry is crying out for clear and consistent guidelines on designing skyscrapers.
Insurance firm Swiss Re must be a little perplexed by the fuss over its planned 41-storey City of London headquarters, now commonly tagged the “gherkin”. After spending 18 months working with architect Foster and Partners, English Heritage and the Corporation of London to ensure that it had a squeaky-clean planning case, the application is currently residing on deputy prime minister John Prescott’s desk.

Instead of receiving planning permission, previous owner Baltic Exchange intervened, claiming the plans to demolish the old exchange, a grade II-listed building, contravened a previous deal Baltic struck when it sold the site to Norwegian construction group Kvaerner. Baltic demanded an environmental impact assessment by the DETR, and there is a strong possibility that there will be a public inquiry into the scheme, putting the decision back at least another year.

This is just one example of the headaches that architects and developers suffer when submitting plans for towers in the UK. With the rash of new designs for skyscrapers, from the Arena Central tower in Birmingham to Blackfriars Investments’ plan to build the world’s tallest building (at 470 m) in Southwark, there seems to be a lack of clarity and consistency in planning controls. This stems from the lack of a tradition of tall buildings in the UK, but leaves those submitting plans scratching their heads over where they can build them, how high they can be and what limits there are on design.

The Swiss Re spat is part of an ongoing saga at the former Baltic Exchange site. Another Foster-designed block on the site, the 385 m Millennium Tower, was put forward for planning by Kvaerner-owned developer Trafalgar House Property in October 1996. The plan was eventually withdrawn at the start of 1998 after complaints from English Heritage that it was “too tall and too bulky”. The fact that the second design is experiencing similar troubles, despite having the backing of Corporation of London planners and English Heritage, is a cause for considerable irritation and concern.

There are fears that the case could set a dangerous precedent. “We offered twice to do an environmental assessment, but were told it was not required,” a Swiss Re insider says. “Planning is complicated enough without this.” And Kvaerner is equally nonplussed. “This site is on derelict land in the middle of the City. If you can’t build it here, you can’t build it anywhere,” is chief executive Keith Clarke’s blunt assessment. “It’s not like we’re sticking a tower block up in Chiswick. This is not ‘Del-Boy’ architecture where you cram square footage into a small space – this project is by one of the world’s greatest architects for an intelligent and involved client.”

Clarke is concerned about the role of the environmental impact assessment in the case. “There is a danger in just jumping for an EIA, because it’s nice and friendly and should be done. But it just slows up the process.” And it creates another layer of bureaucracy, says a Corporation of London source. “This adds to the process, to the difficulty of getting projects off the ground and to the cost,” he says. And the threat from businesses wanting tower blocks in London is that they could move abroad if they are knocked back. “Communications are far less critical nowadays,” says Foster director Robin Partington. “Clients could well ask themselves, ‘Why does this need to be in London?’.”

What we have seen up to now is a more hit-and-miss take on high-rises

Stephan Reinke, HOK

Not surprisingly, these fears cut no mustard with Baltic Exchange chief executive Jim Buckley. “It doesn’t matter what you build on the site – a tower or a bungalow,” he argues. “The fact remains that this is a grade II-listed building. You cannot just justify this for economic reasons.”

Buckley’s point is the focus of the debate on towers, not only in London but across the UK: economics versus tradition. Whatever one feels about them aesthetically, skyscrapers are a symbol of money. And with London vying with Frankfurt to be the financial centre of Europe, the “mine’s bigger than yours” competition is hotting up. “Towers are an emotive subject,” says Argent development director Tony Giddings, who is looking at putting up a residential tower in Reading. “There have been some awful examples of them in the past. The problem is, if you put a bad one up, you’re stuck with it.”

The concern is that, as with the Swiss Re tower, there are no clear guidelines laid down for skyscrapers. Despite the planning advice for high buildings published by the London Planning Authority last year, architects still feel they are in the dark. “There are no parameters for London,” says one architect who is putting together a tower design. “The views to St Paul’s Cathedral seems to be the only concrete condition.”

Moves are under way to establish more clarity among London planners. Both the City of Westminster and Tower Hamlets authorities are drafting tall building policies. Westminster is concerned that there will be plans for a 20-storey block behind Selfridges in Oxford Street, and Tower Hamlets has come up against developer Ballymore’s plans for a skyscraper. Tower Hamlets has set a 25-storey maximum height for the Millennium Quarter in Docklands’ South Quay, but Ballymore is sticking to its plans for a 37-storey tower at 1 Millharbour.

Westminster’s planning head, Carl Powell, says the council’s policy, which will be published in the summer, is reacting to increasing pressure from developers to build skyscrapers in the area. “Until now, there has been a presumption against skyscrapers within Westminster,” he says. “We think it’s the right time to rethink that.” Powell says the study will also consider whether the demand for towers is genuine. “These buildings have a trophy value. We are trying to judge whether there really is a demand, or if it’s simply the developers wanting to make a quick buck.”

Towers are an emotive subject. The problem is, if you put a bad one up, you’re stuck with it

Tony Giddings, Argent

Such a debate is by no means restricted to London. There is pressure for Manchester City Council to create a tall buildings policy, again because of demand from occupiers for more office space. This has raised some concern among local architects. Roger Stephenson, partner in Stephenson Bell and chair of the Manchester Conservation Areas and Historic Building panel, thinks judging towers on their own merits is a better approach. “Manchester is typified by a varying height of buildings, not like the City of London. It goes up and down like a yo-yo.”

Stephenson thinks there will be a future test case in the GN Tower, a 22-storey block of flats designed by Assael Architecture for developer Nicholson Estates in Manchester. The tower, sited between the G-Mex and the Great Northern warehouse, is due to go to planning next month. “I think there will be a fight over that one,” he says. His worry is that the Manchester market could overheat, with developers splashing out increasing amounts for land and continuing to push up building heights. “This city is about organic growth, not just bunging all the tall buildings into one place.”

Bunging towers together is just the approach taken by Birmingham. It has earmarked an area of the city centre to accommodate skyscrapers, such as the HOK-designed Arena Central, for developer Hampton Trust, mooted to be the UK’s tallest tower, at 250 m. But even this has not escaped dispute: Prescott accepted the plans earlier this month only under the condition that the tower would be 175 m high, not 250 m.

HOK director of project management Stephan Reinke says this clustering of skyscrapers in Birmingham is more of an American approach. “If you look at pretty much all American cities, there is a downtown with skyscrapers, which steps down to the edges of the city, then you are back to the plains,” he says.

Will London’s mayor cut towers down to size?

When eventually elected in May, the new mayor will have powers to refuse tall buildings in London, under guidelines laid out by the DETR last year. Although the boroughs will still be responsible for planning applications, the mayor can refuse permission for towers: more than 25 m high fronting the Thames, 75 m in the City of London and 30 m in other areas of London. “It’s more of a broad-brush approach to tall buildings,” a DETR spokeswoman says. One architect raises some hope that the new mayor will be able to bring some clarity to the situation. “He or she has got to get off the fence on this one,” he says. Some architects say their clients are waiting until the mayor is voted in to put forward their plans for skyscrapers.

On top of the world

While UK planners fuss over the Swiss Re skyscraper, other countries are busy trying to build the world’s tallest tower. South-east Asia and the USA are locked in a battle over the world’s tallest title. Current leader is the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, built in 1996, which stands 452 m high. The US pretender to the throne is a 610 m behemoth at 7 South Dearborn Street, Chicago, planned by developer Scott Toberman, which received planning permission late last year. Whether the USA can stay in the race may be doubtful: the Federal Aviation Authority imposes a height limit of 610 m. Meanwhile, closer to home, Frankfurt is on its way to having Europe’s tallest building, with construction due to start on the 365 m high Jochem Jourdan-designed Millennium Tower in 2002.

Germany 1 England 0

Comparing Foster and Partners’ experiences in London and Frankfurt gives some clue as to why the German financial centre may be more welcoming to those planning skyscrapers than England’s capital. The practice began designing the nearly 300 m high Commerzbank tower in Frankfurt in 1991; construction was completed in 1997. It started work on the Millennium Tower in the City of London in 1996 but the plan was withdrawn in early 1998. Foster started designing the Swiss Re building proposed for the same site in 1997. It was put to planning last year and is now being considered by John Prescott.