Tuesday, 4 November 2014

London's skyline debate - lessons from New York

A trip to New York last month to meet fellow professionals was a fascinating chance to find out about attitudes to tall buildings in their spiritual home. 

What was surprising, perhaps, was the extent to which most of the questions raised by tall buildings in London are also debated in similar terms over there (as are other questions such as how to provide 'affordable' housing for the less well off; and how to provide affordable housing, not in quotation marks, for middle income groups).

NY's Muncipal Arts Society's Accidental Skyline report concerns the effects of a wave of very slender, very tall new towers under construction and planned, mostly near Central Park, which will change the views from the park dramatically, and, the report suggests, overshadow it unacceptably.  Generally these new towers are as built 'as of right', the planning parameters - including the transfer of developable area from one site to another to allow ever taller and thinner towers - being established by the zoning system.  There are opponents of tall buildings over there as there are over here - but there is no way to prevent the schemes being built.  There as here, the fact that the accommodation is for the super-rich seems to exacerbate the opposition.  One example, 432 Park Avenue, designed by Rafael Vinoly of Walkie-Talkie fame, is under construction and appears to have reached its full height (that is the whole tower in the photo below, not just the lift and stair core) - and there was plenty of unfavourable comment from New Yorkers that we met. To build a tower in one world city that no one seems to like, though, may be regarded as unfortunate - to be responsible for two...

I didn't entirely buy the objections - it's no more out of scale with its surroundings than the Empire State building, and there are far worse architects than Vinoly - but the objectors may have a point about the cumulative effect of the many towers that are planned.  

The quality of new architecture over there varies from terrific to dire, just like in London. And just as in London, one can't help feeling that at least part of the opposition to new tall buildings is because many of them are not much good - although New York, perhaps because of the discipline of the grid, has not suffered quite as much as we have from the Architecture of Funny Shapes.  And unlike us, they have world class and world famous exemplars that they are proud of, from the Woolworth Building to the Seagram Building, to compare the new ones with.  

One of those, the Rockefeller Centre, may just fail to make the cut of world class architecture, but it represents world class urban design, and that - together with the fact that you can now admire the city from its top level - is undoubtedly one reason why it remains popular.  Recent attempts to do 'towers as placemaking', such as the planned Hudson Yards development, struggle to add up to more than the sum of their parts, and fail to come anywhere near the coherence and quality of the Rockefeller Centre.  

It was a surprise to me to learn that there is at least one protected view in New York. Their approach is different from ours, though, and arguably more sensible.   The  Brooklyn Heights Promenade, laid out in the 1940s for pedestrians at an elevated level above the Brooklyn Queens Expressway which runs along the shoreline, has views out across the water towards Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.  The protected view - put in place when the promenade was built - controls development of the land immediately in front it at the lower level next to the water - now being laid out as the Brooklyn Bridge Park.  The protected view doesn't affect the way Manhattan on the other side of the water can develop, but it ensures you will still be able to see it from a place that was designed to take advantage of a view.  Protecting foreground rather than background was the original idea of protected views in London too, but as so often with UK planning, there has been mission creep.  

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