Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A spat between two architects has London wondering just how far the city should let its tower boom go.
Renzo Piano’s proposed new 735-foot tower might just be a skyscraper too many for London. That, at least, is the highly critical take from rival architect Terry Farrell on the recently announced project. In an open letter Tuesday, Farrell damned the new scheme for a slender residential cylinder built over London’s Paddington Station as “piecemeal” and “opportunistic.” He also went public with his own alternative, a mid-rise concept he had developed himself during ongoing work on the area’s masterplan.
Professional one-upmanship aside, Farrell may have a point. London has seen so much new high-rise development recently that its skyline is fast developing a porcupine bristle. But while most new London towers—including The Shard, also designed by Piano—have restricted themselves to a corridor flanking either side of the River Thames, Piano’s tower strays into the uncharted territory of wealthy residential West London.
Proposals such as Piano’s are forcing London to confront some thorny questions about its skyline. How many London towers is too many? And just how clustered should they be?
Visually, it’s certainly true that Piano’s proposed tower makes no attempt to blend in. A narrow glass candle of a building, it would cast both shadow and sunlight sparkle for great stretches across the surrounding streets of Italianate Victorian housing.
That said, Terry Farrell’s buildings can hardly be called shrinking violets. He’s not averse to the odd glass spike himself, and in London he created this inescapable deco ziggurat that—hilariously given its ostentatious aesthetics—houses Britain’s secret service. And while the Piano plan’s aesthetics might not be to everyone’s taste, that hasn’t stopped some other yet more controversial projects (step forward, the Walkie Talkie) being waved through in the past.
What arguably makes the Piano plan more obnoxious is its location, far to the west of any of London’s existing tall buildings. As things stand, London’s many new skyscrapers (and there truly are many: more than 260 buildings of over 20 stories are considered “in the pipeline” currently) are already somewhat awkwardly scattered across the city. There are two main clusters, around the City of London and Canary Wharf, but there are now also towers (like this boring lipstick-shaped number) creeping along the Thames and southwards away from the banks. Planting a glass middle finger in West London will only enhance this haphazard impression. London’s planners may dream of the glamour of Manhattan or Chicago, but what they’re actually approving looks more like the slapdash tower sprawl of Atlanta.
Defenders of towers say that this rising skyline is inevitable, the only possible antidote to sprawl. An adviser to Mayor Boris Johnson recently wrote that:
If we are genuinely serious about preserving our green belt at the same time as managing London’s population explosion, we will need to continue to build upwards. Tall buildings can create real value and provide the density so badly needed in a rapidly growing city. They are not just suitable as bases for the thousands of new companies requiring office space in the capital each year, but as homes for Londoners too.
Except that one criticism of Piano’s new tower is that won’t really do much to push up density. Despite its prominence on the skyline, it would offer no more than between 200 to 300 new apartments. Farrell’s alternative plan is an antidote to all this. By contrast, his buildings would rise no higher than 180 feet, but provide over 1,000 new housing units. They would also, the architect argues, do more to integrate the railway terminus with the surrounding streets.
The problem with Farrell’s plan, of course, is that it hasn't been actively commissioned—it’s not an alternative with a place at the table equal to Piano’s. Farrell is nonetheless doing London a service. So great is the need for space in London that most Londoners are reasonably open to high-rise proposals. But when it comes to tower projects that don’t even add much in the way of density, it seems they may have finally had enough.