London: The new City of the Sky?

After the centre of London was destroyed by the Blitz in 1940, London has decided that it's finally time to repair its battered skyline.

The only way is up: high-rise hits Britain, and this time they mean it.

Hugh Pearman. First published in The Sunday Times magazine, May 2, 2004.

Behold the London of tomorrow. Behold the Britain of tomorrow. A nation where space on the ground is running out. A place where more and more people want to live, where more and more big corporate names want to make their mark, where the prestige of the sky-high office building meets the growing necessity for a new kind of high-rise living. The question is not whether this reach for the sky will happen - it's happening now - but what it portends. The destruction of our national character? Or the salvation of it?

Not since the 1960s, when so much went wrong, have we seen such a concerted emphasis on building high. Britain's planning laws and innate conservatism have since stifled most tall office towers - hardly surprisingly, given the abysmal standard of most of those that were built in the post-war years. Meanwhile the memory of some high-profile council tower-block disasters - especially the partial collapse of Ronan Point in East London in 1970 - meant that we were suspicious of building homes high in the sky for three decades.

But what a change is now taking place. At the same time that a new generation of office towers by big-name architects - Foster, Rogers, Grimshaw, Piano - is emerging, we are taking to high-rise living: this time not as take-it-or-leave-it council tenants, but as private buyers with the choice. Eye-rubbingly tall private apartment towers in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, for instance, are being built or planned by the alarmingly young developer Stephen Beetham. So you think nobody will buy? Think again. When Beetham's 47-storey, 561-foot, 150 million Manchester skyscraper on Deansgate was first proposed (5-star Hilton hotel in the bottom half, 219 apartments in the top half), all but a handful of the flats were sold before the tower even had planning permission. It is designed by architect Ian Simpson, whose work had been getting steadily higher and higher anyway as Manchester rebuilt its centre after the 1996 IRA bomb blast that devastated the city centre. Today, with work on the foundations only just beginning, contracts for one-bed flats there are being sold on for 250,000. Heaven knows what they will fetch by the time the tower is actually completed in 2007


Twisting tower will be London's highest

Charlotte Higgins, arts correspondent

Saturday June 19, 2004

The Guardian

Artist's impression of Make's 300m-tall Vortex.

Forget the Erotic Gherkin: here comes the Vortex. Plans for a 200m startlingly novel tower for the City of London have been unveiled by Ken Shuttleworth, the architect who defected from Norman Foster and Partners six months ago.

If it is built according to current plans, it will be 300m (984ft) tall - almost twice the height of the Gherkin - and a breathtaking sight on the skyline.

The Vortex - nicknamed because of its whirlpool shape - is the first project to be unveiled by Mr Shuttleworth's new practice, Make. Mr Shuttleworth was the creative force behind some of Foster's high-profile projects, such as Swiss Re (the Gherkin), Wembley stadium, the Millennium bridge in London and Hong Kong airport.

Eighteen of Mr Shuttleworth's 21 staff abandoned Foster and Partners to join Make. In a coup for the new practice, they have also beaten Foster to the enormous job of the redevelopment of the 23 hectare (57.5 acre) site around London's Elephant and Castle.

The shape of the Vortex is a hyperboloid: a slightly tapering column twisted to create the "waist" in the centre of the tower. So, although the silhouette of the building is gently curved, all the lines in it are straight, creating an extremely simple structure.

As well as the aesthetic appeal of the shape, it has commercial advantages, according to Mr Shuttleworth. "Every new tower has to be better than Swiss Re - it has raised the game," he said. "The top of Swiss Re is a fantastic space, but small. In towers the most commercially valuable spaces are the base, and the top. The Vortex maximises that."

Of the bright hues Mr Shuttleworth envisages for the tower, he said: "There's not enough colour in London. We could achieve colour with paint, or light, or glass."

It is unclear where the tower will be built. "We have a site in mind on the edge of the City of London. We are working with a developer," said Mr Shuttleworth. If all goes according to plan the tower could be complete within seven years.

Mr Shuttleworth said that his relations with Norman Foster were "quite amicable" over the recent split. "I thought it was time for a change. At Christmas there was a lull where all my projects were complete - I wouldn't have wanted to leave halfway through a wobbly bridge, for instance. It was a now or never moment." Mr Shuttleworth said that he was enjoying the opportunity to be "more expressive".

John Prevc, the architect handling Elephant and Castle for Make, had previously worked on the master plan for four years with Foster and Partners before breaking away to join Mr Shuttleworth in March. He brought the project with him when Southwark council invited architects to re-tender for the job under EU regulations. "One thing a lot of us found difficult at Foster and Partners was that there was a lot of aggression," he said. "At Make we are all interested in getting on".

Mr Prevc is also involved in a Make project that proposes, he said, to "do a Barcelona" on Edinburgh, redeveloping a mile-and-a-half stretch of industrial brownfield coastline aimed at "flipping Edinburgh around and reminding everyone that it is a coastal city".


London becoming more like New York.

June 30, 2004

London: Next City of the Sky?

computer-generated image of what the London skyline would look like in 2010 if planned high-rises come to fruition.

LONDON "Earth has not anything to show more fair," Wordsworth wrote of London two centuries ago. But the "ships, towers, domes, theaters and temples" that he admired from Westminster Bridge have long since given way to a more tawdry view, shaped as much by postwar bad taste as by wartime bombing. Now, with a panache rarely seen here, London has concluded that it is time to repair its battered skyline.

In doing so, it is looking quite literally for a new profile, one with shapely skyscrapers designed by big-name architects proclaiming London's determination to be known as an innovative 21st-century metropolis. By 2010, not just the majestic dome of St. Paul's Cathedral but also a new forest of glass and steel will symbolize the ancient heart of London. After centuries of sprawling growth, the city is finally reaching for the sky.

A number of Londoners are worried. They already fear that the city is losing its historic identity. For them, the ideal solution would be to tear down the concrete office towers thrown up in the 1960's and 70's. Instead, the strategy is to surround the eyesores with stylish new high-rises in the hope of hiding bad architecture behind good architecture. But even this approach is perilous: skyscrapers that look daring today have a way of looking dated tomorrow.

Ken Livingstone, who in 2000 became the first elected mayor of London, seems bent on taming the traditional free-to-do-as-they-will developers with some old-fashioned urban planning, but he also believes that central London needs greater population density. And to achieve this, he has endorsed the principle of building upward.

Architects could not be happier. Until recently, while they were designing skyscrapers from New York to Shanghai, their work in London was largely revamping existing buildings like the Royal Opera House and the British Museum. (The Laban dance center in southeast London, designed by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, is a rare new cultural structure.) This spring, with the completion of a striking 40-floor high-rise in the heart of the city's financial center, Norman Foster has come to personify the new policy.

He is hardly alone. For the first time since Christopher Wren rebuilt old London after the Great Fire of 1666, British and foreign architects alike have the power to transform the city's look. Mr. Livingstone's chief adviser on architecture and urbanism is a renowned architect, Richard Rogers. And while developers are driving the rush to build, it is the prestige of the architects that is making this possible.

The City of London, the so-called Square Mile east of St. Paul's Cathedral that serves as Europe's financial capital, is the focal point of new growth. "New City Architecture," an exhibition that is displaying models of 21 of the "finest" completed and planned projects in the City, picked five by Mr. Foster and three by Mr. Rogers.

Not all are tall. Mr. Rogers's Lloyd's Register of Shipping headquarters, with its glass and piping exterior echoing the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, which he designed in the 1970's with Renzo Piano, does not break the skyline. Mr. Foster's Millennium Bridge, which he designed with the sculptor Anthony Caro, is elegant but also usefully links St. Paul's Cathedral to the Tate Modern, a former power plant converted by Herzog & de Meuron.

However, it is Mr. Foster's new 600-foot-high building at 30 St. Mary Axe, which resembles a squat missile and has been nicknamed the Gherkin, that has fueled the push upward. Among other high-rises planned or near completion are Mr. Rogers's tall, slim triangular building for the British Land Company, Nicholas Grimshaw's 43-floor Minerva Building and Kohn Pedersen Fox's Heron Tower.

Robert Finch, the lord mayor of the City of London, definitely approves. "As a property lawyer who has been working in the City for over 30 years," he said in welcoming the "New City Architecture" exhibition, "I am delighted to see the dynamic ways in which the City has been able to make the most of the land available to promote iconic buildings which have become landmarks not only in London but across the world."

But St. Paul's Cathedral, which survived the blitz, cannot be overlooked. Until 1950, no building was permitted to rise above its 300-foot-high dome. But then rectangular towers began appearing, and even the front view of the cathedral was interrupted by an ugly office building. In 1987, Prince Charles lamented, "In the space of a mere 15 years, the planners, architects and developers of the City wrecked London's skyline and desecrated the dome of St. Paul's."

Today, planners' permission for new high-rises is linked to preserving sightlines of St. Paul's from different places in London. Sightlines to the Houses of Parliament in Westminster and the Tower of London are also considered important, and their obstruction is the main reason conservation groups like English Heritage and Historic Royal Palaces have tried to block some proposed high-rises. None, however, have been vetoed so far.

Neil Cossons, chairman of English Heritage, said his objection to the 600-foot-high Heron Tower was that "it would fundamentally damage a world-famous view."

John Barnes, conservation director of Historic Royal Palaces, said he feared the new Minerva Building would loom over the Tower of London. And he said he intended to oppose construction of what could become Europe's tallest building, the London Bridge Tower, or Shard of Glass, designed by Mr. Piano.

This 66-floor, 1,016-foot-high building, planned for the south bank of the Thames River, resembles a Gothic spire, broad at its base, then rising to a point. Mr. Piano believes that the Shard of Glass's shape fits into the London skyline and has emphasized its mixed commercial, residential and cultural use, as well as its energy-saving innovations. A public inquiry will nonetheless be held before approval is granted.

Still, architects here are on a roll. One, Ken Shuttleworth, recently proposed a round, 984-foot-high tower nicknamed the Vortex. Wide at the top and bottom and narrow at the waist, it resembles an elongated egg timer.

Whether it will ever built Mr. Shuttleworth says he is working with a developer the Vortex shows that architects here are thinking vertically.

While architecture can be a tool for urban regeneration, in one case this year it backfired. The opening of the Tate Modern on Bankside in 2000 immediately raised the quality of life in the run-down borough of Southwark. But when a 20-floor apartment building was planned for a site 150 feet from the museum entrance, the Tate objected. The case went to court, but the developers won.

"It's a sad day for Bankside," Nicholas Serota, the Tate's director, said.

So the drive upward continues unabated. Indeed, just as the high-rises built in the 1980's in Canary Wharf on the eastern periphery of London present a strong profile, it is possible that a concentration of tall buildings in the Square Mile will also provide a visual coherence. But it also seems likely to many that skyscrapers rising in isolation out of this horizontal city will always look out of place.

In the end, though, what most worries traditionalists is that London is losing its character.

"The capital's historic distinctiveness lies at the heart of its success," Mr. Cossons of English Heritage said. "We want developers to reinforce that distinctiveness, not obliterate it. So we will continue to champion the historic buildings, areas and views that make London unique."

He faces a tough battle.

An artist's rendering, showing the City of London's future skyline, circa 2012. The new skyscrapers seen here are the Heron Tower, Bishopsgate Tower, 122 Leadenhall, Minerva Building and 51 Lime Street. This view is from Waterloo Bridge, looking east. Construction on them will start soon.

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