Friday, 19 April 2013

Are tall buildings blighting our skyline?

To the RIBA / Observer debate on tall buildings, where we hear from Rowan Moore and Simon Jenkins (two journalists), who think tall buildings are a blight, and from Julia Barfield and Peter Rees (two professionals), who don't.

For such a subject that is so emotive - at least in architectural and planning circles -  it was a surprisingly even-tempered and consensual occasion, with everyone, panel and audience, lay and professional, basically agreeing that the answer to the question 'are tall buildings blighting our skyline?' is that the ugly ones are and the beautiful ones aren't; and that it would be nice if there was a bit more planning to counter the opportunism of the promoters of projects.

Moore thought that the London Plan sets out the right policies and quality standards, but that many project that have been built or approved fail to meet these policies and standards.  Rees made the slightly odd assertion that you shouldn't build high unless it is necessary to do so (why not?), but that it is necessary in the City because there is no spare land, so you should make sure you do it well.  Barfield pointed out that you can't blight a skyline with beautiful buildings, and reminded us that the best tall buildings are listed.  Jenkins' view was that the argument is about planning, not architecture, and that the 'pass was sold' long ago.

For Jenkins, the problem is that there is no one to dictate what the skyline should be like.  Your blogger pointed out from the floor that dictating is best done by dictators - my thinking being that lack of consensus is part of the problem. Is the fact that some people don't want these things - almost certainly a minority - enough to stop those who want to build them, who are doing so because they are providing offices and flats that are wanted?  And in spite of the theoretical consensus about stopping the ugly ones, there is less agreement than you might think about which those are.

This was a room full of people who cared about the subject; most don't.  The self-selecting audience - with those admitting to being architects, in a show of hands prompted by Simon Jenkins who thought he was in the lions' den, forming only about a quarter of those present - answered 'no' by a clear majority to the proposition.

The most chilling observation of the evening, almost certainly accurate, came from Rowan Moore, who suggested that the planning car crash that is the 'emerging Vauxhall cluster' of towers is a result of a development zone being on the border of two local authorities (Lambeth and Wandsworth), the politicians of each of which are prepared to let rip, in development terms, because there are few voters nearby who care, and other areas of the boroughs will benefit from what Jenkins referred to as the 'bribes' (Section 106 etc.) that smooth the path of these things.

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