Wednesday, 14 November 2012

New towers of London: Cheesegrater, Walkie Talkie and the rest

The view towards the City of London from Waterloo Bridge is one of the best in London, which is one reason why it appears in the header to this blog*.

The more recent photo above shows the present state of the City's skyline, with cranes as prominent as buildings, most notably on the sites of two of the City's new towers: Rogers Stirk Harbour's 'Cheesegrater' (next to Foster's Gherkin) and Viñoly's 'Walkie Talkie' (on the right), the frame of which now begins to show us the shape of building we will be getting (in case we hadn't quite believed it).

If you've spent your adult life involved in putting up buildings, the sight of this forest of cranes should be enough set the pulse racing irrespective of what you think about the buildings.  Colonel W A Starrett, author of 'Skyscrapers and the Men who Build Them' (1928), wrote that 'Building skyscrapers is the nearest peace-time equivalent of war' - if you have witnessed the level of activity at the foot of one of these sites, or at that of the nearby Shard until recently, you can see what he meant.

But the tall buildings that the cranes are putting up are even more effective at eliciting a reaction.

Fluctuating vital sign measurements are not always a good thing - a recent rant in print from Simon Jenkins about the ruination of London's skyline, along much the same lines as we have heard from him rather too often before, being a case in point.

On the other hand, you can find websites dedicated to the slightly anorakish musings of skyscrapers enthusiasts, the antimatter opposite of Simon Jenkins, who enthuse about heights above Ordnance Datum, cladding systems and all sorts.

Ruskin wrote (in the 1850s)  'Have not these words, Pinnacle, Turret, Belfry, Spire, Tower, a pleasant sound in all your ears? ….can you really suppose that what has so much power over you in words has no power over you in reality?'  It seems unlikely that he would have approved of skyscrapers, but we can trace a path from this statement of the emotive power of verticality through Louis Sullivan's exhortation (in the 1890s) that a tall office building should be 'every inch a proud and soaring thing', to the clear intention of many of today's skyscraper architects to amaze us rather than follow the more sober route of Mies van der Rohe's towers.

It is permissible, though, to take a more sober view.  London needs to grow within its borders.  Paul Finch pointed out in last week's Property Week that there is no shortage of land in Greater London to allow it to do so without needing to expand into the green belt - there are oven-ready sites, which have been sitting there for a decade or two, for tens of thousands of new homes in the Royal Docks and Greenwich Peninsula.  Closer to the centre, however, it is a very different story - there is the strongest demand to build, and the least room to build, partly because nearly everything is now a 'heritage asset'.  I don't like the look of the Walkie Talkie at all - but even if, as I suspect, I am not alone, that's not much of a reason not to build it, when compared with the arguments in favour of doing so.  The only way is up - a case that was made convincingly at this summer's excellent exhibition 'The Developing City'.  Otherwise London will end up like the Paris that the tall-poppy-loppers would like it be - but not in a good way.

*(it did when I wrote this post - it was updated in 2015)

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Autumn in leafy Mayfair

This new building just off Curzon Street in Mayfair caught my elevation composed of brass leaves / tiles - a welcome upping of the game of decorative elevational treatments in recent buildings in Westminster that was discussed here.  This is beautiful and subtle - a long way away from the world of 'Look at us we hired an Artist!'.  Doubly pleasing to find out that this is the work of my own professional alma mater Squire and Partners, boldly going off-piste as they do occasionally.

Considering that Mayfair is such a posh area, it's surprising how dreary many of the buildings built there in the last hundred years or so are.  Or perhaps not.   Many recent buildings have espoused the anodyne, milk and water architecture that one can't help thinking is put forward by cautious developers and their architects who want to avoid upsetting planning officers or planning committee members, rather than representing anything that anyone actually wants.

Westminster City Council sponsored an exhibition at New London Architecture a few years ago, Contemporary Westminster, to show that they are not the fuddy-duddies you might have thought and that plenty of fine new buildings do in fact get built there - which is true.  They need to keep it up though, because  buildings as good as the one shown here are the exception rather than the rule - there are still some horrors, plenty of mediocrities, and a few that manage to be both mediocre and horrible.

An annual design award scheme could help raise the game.  They can be problematic, though - some other boroughs that run them have found that prizes mostly go to schemes turned down by the council and given planning consent at appeal.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Flanders Fields in Hyde Park

Depending on your point of view, it's either unfortunate, or possibly appropriate, that as Armistice Day approaches, much of the eastern part of Hyde Park resembles the Somme in 1916.

Apart from that particular association, its present condition is entirely regrettable.  2012 has been a special year, and many major public spaces, including this one, have been heavily used, mostly to good and successful effect.  But the underlying trend, noted before in this blog, is for many of London's public spaces to be used more and more for special - and revenue-generating - events.  The mudbath shown above illustrates that as well as rendering these spaces full of unsightly tat and unavailable for quiet public enjoyment while the event is on, and while it is being set up and taken down, there can also be serious long term effects - much of the park continuing to be unsightly and unusable through the autumn and winter months.

By the end of November, the delights of 'Winter Wonderland' are due to reappear here.  Bring your wellies.

Perhaps it has been decided by The Royal Parks - who run Hyde Park and who are under pressure from their masters in the Government to make their estate pay its way - that this part of the park is in fact now a showground, and that anyone who wants grass and trees will find plenty of that in the west half of what is admittedly a very large park, in Kensington Gardens.

But it would have been nice to have been asked if we thought this was a good idea.

(Guest contributor: Ebenezer Scrooge)