London Debates Skyscrapers Vs. Low-Rise Housing

The cancellation of a major tower by Renzo Piano has sparked a discourse on urban form.

Image Renzo Piano Building Workshop
Renzo Piano's shelved design for a West London skyscraper. (Renzo Piano Building Workshop)

If London and cities like it don’t give the green light to more skyscrapers, they risk being dominated by dumpy, “shorter and fatter buildings.” So warned one of London’s leading architectural authorities last week, after a major tower plan for West London was thrown out.

The scrapped building was a Renzo Piano glass-clad column dubbed the Paddington Pole. Peter Murray, chairman of New London Architecture, subsequently warned that if London lost its nerve for building tall, the results would be potentially very damaging. In a letter to London’s Standard newspaper, Murray asked:

Will we learn to accept towers as an expression of the changing scale of the city? Of course, we need to make sure they are well-designed and elegant additions to the skyline, but shorter and fatter buildings are not the answer.

The comments cut to the heart of an ongoing housing debate in London. The city’s population is rising fast, and building heights are rising with them, albeit without necessarily leaving much of a dent in its real housing needs. So great is the volume of new tall towers—260 of them with more than 20 floors were under construction or in the pipeline in 2015—that a time-traveling Londoner from the 1990s might struggle to recognize the city’s skyline today.

But London will have one less cloud-scratcher to contend with now that Piano’s plans for the Paddington Pole, a skinny 735-foot high tower in West London, were withdrawn after developers got cold feet. They did so thanks to widespread condemnation of the plan’s visual intrusion, an opposition that arguably rang louder because the planned site was away from the city’s main business district in West London, surrounded by the sort of wealthy, influential residential neighbors who typically crack the whip of power in the U.K. The site will still be built upon—quite possibly with a Renzo Piano design—but it is unlikely to reach anywhere near 700 feet high, which would have made it one of the city’s tallest and most prominent buildings.

Was this change of heart a mistake? Tower advocates like Murray—and there are many in London—insist on the need to boost building heights to increase density. London is still a city where many areas are dominated by low-rise, three-to-four floor, garden-backed row houses, mainly subdivided into apartments; it does very badly at packing in a lot of people per square mile. The city’s densest borough, Islington, still has less than two-thirds of the density of Paris as a whole.

There’s nonetheless something a little skewed about Murray’s fat-shaming of the built environment. In his letter, he points out that “the new design is likely to be less tall but wider in order to fund a £60 million public plaza and entrance to the underground.” So while shorter, a new design could house the same or more floor space than the original. There could be a potential concern here about a broader building blocking light to the surrounding area, but otherwise the greater width is surely a positive thing. The initial tower’s visual intrusion would have only provided 200 to 300 apartments, meaning its prominence on the skyline could feasibly be criticized as a form of vertical sprawl.

Advocates of a lower-rise London, however, do not necessarily do the city any favors. The influential group Create Streets, which campaigns for lower-rise, row house-style construction along street lines, released a paper last week stressing that London’s next mayor should “stop asking how to build more homes and start asking how to make new homes more popular.”

New medium-rise housing in London's Olympic Village has been widely deemed a success. (Flickr/Matt Brown)

The paper argues that the unpopularity of high-rise towers and new housing in general among residents is in itself a substantial cause of London’s housing crisis—one that could be remedied by a return to more traditional forms. If the success of new medium-to-high-rise rental housing at London’s Olympic Village is a benchmark, this stance is patently untrue. Indeed, to suggest that dislike of new housing is a key driver of London’s problem, when there is an utter desperation for affordable housing in any form, suggests a severe disconnect from most people’s lived reality.

Create Streets does make some valid points. They note, for example, that without the danger of overshadowing neighbors, low-rise housing potentially requires less space between buildings and can thus be denser. The probable medium-rise replacement for Piano’s Paddington Pole reflects their concerns to a degree, and may well end up being the best option on the table for Londoners.

Still, placed next to Peter Murray’s warning against inelegance, the Create Streets argument highlights a problem at the heart of the debate. While the need for affordable housing of any kind in London grows ever more urgent, elites that don’t require such housing are too often busying themselves with a spat over aesthetics.

About the Author

  • Feargus O'Sullivan is a London-based contributing writer to CityLab, with a focus on Europe.