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.
Luckily, most couldn't afford the rent anyway.
Believe it or not, Londoners like skyscrapers. While the idea of building tall towers in a historic European city might strike many as like painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa, a new survey suggests that Londoners broadly consider the city's recent rash of high-rise building as a good thing. A poll released this week by think tank New London Architecture showed 45 percent agreeing (against 25 percent disagreeing) that tall buildings such as The Shard, The Gherkin, The Walkie-Talkie and The Cheese Grater had improved the city's skyline.
Developers will be rubbing their hands with glee at the news. Well over 200 new towers are planned for the city in the near future, a change that will reshape the skyline and change the city’s appearance and fabric radically. Look more closely, however, and you notice that this freshly announced enthusiasm is far from unbridled.
First, it's worth explaining why London is a relatively soft target for tower builders. Improvised rather than planned on a grand scale, the city has only lately concerned itself much with historical preservation. It's never been as immaculate or orderly as Paris and has never thought of itself that way, which is why towers have been waved through by planners here for at least 50 years, often with enthusiasm.
Granted, in the United States these buildings would have been seen as more suitable for Peoria than New York. Still as an architecturally sheltered child in the 1980s, I remember being impressed by the Gothamite glamor of the (actually rather stubby) Natwest Tower and the dreary but compelling rocket-cactus of the Post Office Tower. Viewed against a city that remained at times filthy with centuries of coal dust (which lingered long after coal burning was banned), they looked like the Starship Enterprise had accidentally landed in a backdrop from Oliver Twist. Once you let one or two towers in, it's almost inevitable that their high-rise progeny soon stomp into the skyline to join them, yet heftier and more demanding of attention. Now, looking from my seventh floor window in South London, all I see are cranes and tower skeletons punctuating the horizon.
But while Londoners don't seem to mind their look, they still feel ambivalent about them in other ways. While the NLA survey has 61 percent of respondents happy to work in a tall tower, most people don’t want to live in one. In fact the least popular tall buildings in London are the towers of the brutalist (and expensive) residential Barbican Estate. Among people over the age of 34, this rises to an unequivocal 70 percent, perhaps due to experiences of high-rise public housing, which often went to the bad in London, though more due to poor maintenance and badly planned access rather than height per se. Given that 80 percent of the new towers will be primarily residential, this dislike is a problem.
So what to do?
The bittersweet, sad answer is that the majority of Londoners won’t have a chance in hell of ever living in one of these towers anyway. Most are priced above standard market rates, located in areas where the majority of buyers for new builds are already overseas investors who are often absent. Such development have been heavily criticized. Their most vocal recent opponent so far has been the Prince's Foundation, a charity overseen by that great loather of architectural modernity, Prince Charles. The foundation rejects towers and instead suggests following the mid-rise model of the mansion block, London's first flush of tall, grand apartment buildings built from the late Victorian period up until the war.
The Foundation report eloquently damns the new breed of tall towers as "glittering towers of exclusivity." When an organization sponsored by a man whose servants carry his own kid leather toilet seat around for him complains about exclusivity, it shows the extent to which something is rotten in the state of London. The problem with London’s new towers is not specifically aesthetic. It's that they will do so little for the majority of people who live and work in the city.