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.
Sadiq Khan used his discretionary powers to cancel the Norman Foster design. Does this signal a tougher attitude to flashy development?
Surprising news came this week from the office of London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan: Norman Foster’s Tulip, a 1,000-foot-high observation tower, is not coming to the city. The project’s approval was unexpectedly overruled earlier this week after being “called in” by the mayor.
It’s not the tower’s unpopularity that’s a surprise. The flashy but essentially functionless concept has largely been greeted with public ridicule since being unveiled last year. It’s that the mayor has used his discretionary powers to cancel it.
Khan convened a panel of four architects and planners to assess the plans for the Tulip, the case in favor of which was made by representatives of Fosters and Partners. The report stemming from this hearing offers a fairly damning verdict. The Tulip’s bulbous head, the panel’s report said, would have had “the appearance of a surveillance tower.” The planned roof garden, a little above ground level, would not have counted as a real public space, while overall the panel had “reservations about the quality of the architecture.”
This is still putting it mildly. Rising abruptly from a small, narrow footprint, the Tulip’s top-heavy column would have looked like something between a dangerously long hemorrhoid and a weird vibrator. Functionally, its proposers, the J. Safra Group, had at least added an educational component to the project (it had a sky classroom stuck up in the bulb), but there was an overwhelming whiff of vainglory and pointlessness to the plan, leading people to wonder what they would actually gain from the tower’s visual intrusion.
The mayor’s intervention is a far cry from London’s recent past. London’s mayor has always has the power to “call in” controversial building plans for reconsideration, to review and possibly overrule the decisions made by the local borough, where the primary responsibility for planning approval lies in London. When Boris Johnson, likely to be Britain’s next prime minister, was in office, he called in 19 building projects. In every single case, it was to give the green light to a development that a London borough had rejected as unsuitable, unsustainable, or inappropriate.
Among the more notorious projects was a plan to build homes on the site of London’s main postal sorting office at Mount Pleasant (ironically named, given that it has also hosted a prison and sewage dump). The local council rejected the plan because it decided that developers could offer far more affordable units than planned and still turn a healthy profit. After Johnson’s intervention, however, the plan went ahead, promising just 14 percent affordable units on a site which might have sustained 50 percent.
This is a pretty dismal legacy to leave, one that extends far beyond the now notorious Garden Bridge project, a Johnson flagship that cooked up a whole cauldron of bad ideas and sleaze before being canceled. Indeed, it seems that the only occasions on which Johnson did query London architectural plans was when he thought they weren’t flashy enough. His response, for example, to Nicholas Grimshaw’s quietly excellent reconstruction of the city’s London Bridge Station was that it was “boring” and might be improved by gargoyles.
So does this mean that London’s recent friendliness toward uber-flashy, developer-driven construction projects might be drawing to a close?
Whether the bad old days are truly over is up for debate, although clearly some lessons are being learned after this long period of laissez-faire. The criticism of the Tulip’s insufficient public spaces in particular seems to stem from the experience of the nearby Walkie-Talkie, which got waved through on the promise of a new sky park at its peak, and then delivered a pathetically small and hard-to-access fern-filled conservatory. If London is going to let greenwashed projects through in the future, then the greenwashing may at least have to be on a reasonable scale.
At the same time, new towers continue to sprout across the city. In the vicinity of the Tulip’s proposed site, buildings are pushing ever taller. Indeed, one reason the Tulip was rejected is that its proposed location on the edge of this growing high-rise hub would have spoiled the city’s attempts at creating a pyramid silhouette (taller buildings in the middle, shorter at the sides) for the cluster of towers.
The height in itself might not be a problem if what the buildings contained felt more appropriate to London’s needs. But in a city screaming at the top of its lungs for more affordable housing, giving the city more gimmicks like the Tulip and luxury towers intended to flesh out investment portfolios is like offering someone gasping for water a twist of freshly ground pepper—irrelevant and aggravating. Mayor Khan’s rejection of the pointless Tulip seems a step in the right direction, but it’s too soon to call a genuine attitude adjustment in London’s cockpit.