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Although it took place over a decade ago the issues raised are still relevant, and the debate still ongoing following the recent crop of tall buildings - including Heron Tower and most recently the Shard - and others now planned.


Is there a role for tall buildings?


Organised by London and Southwark Churches Action re the Environment - Nov 2001

The meeting was set up before September 11th as a Christian contribution to the ongoing debate in London on tall buildings. Although taking place on the same day as the memorial service in Westminster Abbey for the 200 British victims, it was sufficiently long after the attack on New York to avoid the initial reactions concerning tall buildings. But it did take place while the public enquiry over Heron Tower was in full swing.

The first contribution was from Dr. Gordon Higgott, an architectural historian with English Heritage, and a witness at the enquiry. He gave an illustrated talk on the history of St. Pauls Cathedral's place on the London skyline, which served to earth the debate on tall buildings with specific examples.

Higgott saw our treatment of St. Pauls as an indication of how as a nation we treat churches and spiritual values. Even without its spire, which was destroyed by lightning, Old St.Pauls was the tallest building in London. Wren designed the new cathedral with a two storey elevation, so that the upper one would ride above the lower buildings around it. Erosion of this view began when tall warehouses were built along the Thames in the 19th century, and was continued in the 1930s, when there were still no planning laws, by the office blocks, Faraday and Unilever House. The voluntary height code established after this later became a planning principle, though not enshrined in law.

Perhaps the most famous image of St.Pauls was that taken on 30 December 1940, with the dome proudly standing out through the World War 2 destruction around it.

The dominance of London's skyline by tower blocks began with the Hilton Hotel overlooking Hyde Park, continued with the residential towers at the Barbican, and then by Centre Point.

Following the building of the Nat West Tower, (now renamed Tower 42) a Skyline Protection Bill was introduced in 1977 but not enacted. Later after the demise of the GLC the London Planning Advisory Committee proposed 34 protected views, but these were rejected by Nicholas Ridley in 1989 who only allowed nine.

A postcard view of London now is the night time photograph showing a floodlit St.Pauls on the left and complementary Tower 42 on the right. Tall buildings can be complementary, and are often best in groups. However Higgott saw Calatrava's proposed tower of 1996 as a direct challenge to outdo St.Pauls, and Foster's Millennium Tower on the Baltic Exchange site (cleared by an IRA bomb) as totally unacceptable - both were scrapped, but Foster's Swiss Re 'gherkin' is now under construction on the Baltic Exchange site.

Higgott then showed slides of how the Heron Tower, called in for a public enquiry, would affect views of St. Pauls, especially from the north end of Waterloo Bridge with its sweeping view of the Thames and City skyline. Finally he showed a view of the proposed London Bridge spire shaped tower [the Shard] appearing directly behind St.Pauls, and ended with the comment that London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone, wants to do away with strategic views.

Harley Sherlock, a housing architect, author of Cities are Good our Us, and member of the London Forum, then gave an illustrated talk showing that, as far as housing was concerned, tower blocks were unnecessary, and the same density could be achieved with low rise based on the Georgian pattern. He then showed examples of new and converted housing schemes which met this criteria.

With a three storey height limit two thirds of the dwellings could have private gardens, but there was little public open space. Going to four storeys half the dwellings, the family housing, had private gardens, and there could be public open space equivalent to the Georgian squares.

He also showed how a traditional basement, three storeys plus attic Georgian terrace in Islington was converted. The basement and ground floor became a family dwelling with a garden at the back, and with the street at the front lowered to give more light (the Georgian developers raised the street level with material excavated to form the semi-basements, which is why there is often a steep slope down to mews at the back). The two upper floors, reached by the original main entrance also became a family dwelling, but inverted so that its bedrooms were over the bedrooms of the lower dwelling. The front of the attic became its dining/kitchen, with the back of the attic removed to provide a roof terrace.

Bringing his thesis up to date he criticised the developers of the Millennium Village in Greenwich for spoiling Ralph Erskine's design; by bringing inappropriate two storey dwellings into the scheme, other blocks had to rise to eight floors to maintain the density.

The Very Revd Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark Cathedral, followed commenting on the two preceding presentations, making points of his own, and bringing in some theology. He began by reminding us that many of the issues were surrounded by subjectivity, and that church towers and spires were not necessarily making statements about God. The tower of Southwark Cathedral acted as a landmark guiding travellers from the south to London Bridge, and spires and domes were often monuments to man's pride and the latest technology.

He did not believe that views of St.Pauls should be preserved as this was theologically flawed because of the incarnation. The church should be cheek by jowl with commerce and deep inside the heart of the community, and not dominating the skyline. This was why the canons of the cathedral had founded St. Thomas Hospital.

Culturally what does a big St.Pauls dominating the city say to other faiths? In the ensuing discussion it was pointed out that church buildings could also be sacramental and visible outward signs. However the great cathedrals are also part of our cultural heritage important to everyone regardless of their religion, and should be protected in their settings, are great architecture, and aesthetically important. It was also commented that the Eiffel Tower is not a spiritual structure but may contribute to our spiritual enjoyment of Paris.

The meeting ended with a quotation from the Heron Tower enquiry; "St.Pauls needs the sky as music needs silence."

It should be noted that while English Heritage and Westminster Council oppose the Heron Tower the Corporation of London and the Greater London Authority support the scheme. So does St.Botolph Bishopsgate which will benefit from planning gain, though it should be pointed out that the church building is already overshadowed by the surrounding buildings. Neither was Harley Sherlock against tall buildings per se, but just uneccessary tall residential towers.

On the same day that this conference was held the Architect' Journal reported on the previous week's conference it had convened on Tall Storeys? held at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. (AJ 29-11-01). For the Corporation of London tall office towers remained essential for the City's economic viability, providing what tenants wanted; it would not be enough for 'satellite' locations such as Canary Wharf to offer tall buildings. The difference since September 11th was that the next generation of towers would be stronger and safer than ever before, with better management procedures for evacuation.

However the next day Building Design carried news of a Commons Committee inquiry on tall buildings which would convene in the New Year. It will inquire whether restrictions should be imposed on future tall buildings in the UK, and whether security considerations should be taken into account before new buildings are given the go ahead.

The government has already attempted to speed up planning applications and is also about to overhaul the planning system to speed up major infrastructure projects, such as Terminal 5 at Heathrow which received planning permission this very week after a record length public inquiry. This would allow parliament to decide whether projects should go ahead, leaving only details to be settled in local planning inquiries.

The one conclusion from Reaching for the Sky - Sacred or Secular? is that in London at least towers will continue to be built, and it is likely that St.Pauls setting will continue to be eroded. Not surprisingly each tall building, whether sacred or secular, has mixed motives behind its construction, so it is difficult to answer biblically whether there is a role for tall buildings. On the whole tall buildings in the Bible do not get a good press, though the Name of the Lord is a strong tower, and the New Jerusalem is as high as it is wide.

The evening presented a fascinating history of the London skyline, and a reminder that it is possible to produce good urban family housing without going above four storeys. That it raised more questions than it answered concerning tall buildings was all to the good.



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