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Architectural imbecility in London

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  • billt44hk
    Thinking about what we can learn from Venice then reading Simon Jenkins in this weeks Sunday Times on the tsunami of developers tower blocks about to hit
    Message 1 of 7 , Aug 9 2:45 AM
      Thinking about what we can learn from Venice then reading Simon
      Jenkins' in this weeks' Sunday Times on the tsunami of developers
      tower blocks about to hit London (and other British cities) -
      motivated by greed, egged on by egomaniacal big name architects'- has
      got my blood boiling today.
      Approved in the face of all planning sense, by our moronic deputy
      prime minister -John ''Two-Jags'' Prescott (and Jenkins is saying the
      planners have anyway abdicated their responsibilities), but also with
      Ken Livingstone on board, Jenkins treats us to some indignant

      Oh hell I'll just paste in the whole thing:-

      Prescott Towers, the height of architectural imbecility
      When members of parliament arrive at work one day next year they will
      get a shock. Looming over their view up-river will be a stupendous 50-
      storey tower of luxury flats. It will be higher than the NatWest Tower
      and the highest residential tower in Europe.

      Last month it was personally approved by the deputy prime minister,
      John Prescott, in defiance of all planning advice, local and national.
      He seems to have gone mad. MPs will be outraged but it will be too
      late. Prescott tower, as it should be called, will have slipped
      through every net.

      Similar towers are being built or proposed along the Thames from
      Greenwich to Deptford to Bermondsey. One will crowd the Tate Modern,
      another rise over Waterloo station, another slice the South Bank next
      to the Festival Hall, and more will dominate Vauxhall, Chelsea
      Harbour, Battersea and Kew Gardens.

      The ever-narrowing Thames will seem like a torrent in a canyon of
      high-rise. "Landmark towers" are also proposed in a ring across north
      London, from Bishopsgate to Islington to Queen's Park. These are not
      stumps but giants, from 20 to 40 storeys high.

      Others are now proposed across Britain. Leeds is seeing two 30-storey
      "kissing towers". Manchester has a 47-storey Beetham Tower, Newcastle
      a mooted 50-storey tower. Others are planned for Birmingham, Brighton
      and possibly Liverpool. The craze for a single totem of modernity is
      manic. It was in like spirit that Chicago built the Sears Tower,
      highest in the world, to show the city was somehow "more manly" than
      New York. Malaysia's giant Petronas Centre in Kuala Lumpur was meant
      as a slap in the face of the West, yet it is now being out-towered by
      Shanghai, Pusan, Dubai and other tinpot civic dictatorships desperate
      for a year in the record book.

      None of these structures carries civic significance. They are not town
      halls or museums or strategically placed features. They are merely
      speculative developments in random very high buildings (known as VHBs)
      . They have been unleashed by that most lethal political phenomenon, a
      socialist enthralled by capitalism, in London's case Prescott and the
      city's mayor, Ken Livingstone. Both are on their backs and purring as
      property men tickle their bellies. The Vauxhall tower turned
      Prescott's head when its developer, Broadway Malyan, offered him a few
      flats on the cheap to tenants of his choice — known in the game as
      "affordables". They will not be affordable for long.

      Why London should want to play this game is a mystery. It has nothing
      to do with economics. There are hundreds of acres awaiting cheaper
      high-density, low-rise building. VHBs tend to be expensive to maintain
      and hard to let. A third of the residential towers in Canary Wharf are
      unsold or are left empty as bank collateral. Even the "Siefert" towers
      that dotted the London skyline in the 1970s were mostly flogged cut-
      price to government departments, hardly an economic necessity.

      Today's towers will either stand empty as vacant assets, like Centre
      Point, or be filled by new "parastatals", banks and consultancies
      dependent on government contracts. It was not skyscrapers that made
      London the financial and (no less important) tourism goldmine that it
      is. It was the lack of them, the civilised, unthreatening scale of
      London's streets and neighbourhoods.

      The towers are aesthetically banal. They strike with one club, a
      quirky shape (box, step, pyramid, phallus, wedge, shard) of uniformly
      bleak glass and steel. Their windy footings and servicing zones crush
      all humanity out of their surroundings. There is not one that does
      not. The residential towers are like fortified camps, defying all
      comers. The blocks by Lord Foster and Lord Rogers in Battersea might
      be creatures from Mars, so hostile are they to their neighbourhoods.

      The chief sponsor of this so-called "f***-you" planning is Livingstone
      himself. High buildings policy is one of the few powers he has vested
      in him. Early in his reign he visited New York and returned with a bad
      case of "Manhattan syndrome", a belief that skyscrapers are the key to
      a mayor's virility. With his office in what he himself calls "the
      testicle" he craved erect phalluses all round him. Developers with fad
      architects in tow promptly beat a path to his door.

      Height controls collapsed. Because Canary Wharf had breached the 600ft
      rule, everywhere could. The cluster policy was set aside in favour of
      "landmarks", more or less wherever a developer wanted one. Sight lines
      from Hampstead, Richmond or Waterloo Bridge were forgotten. Only St
      Paul's retained a modicum of dignity from the rule book. The socialist
      Livingstone had fought for humane planning in Covent Garden and Coin
      Street. The Blairite Livingstone fights against it at Spitalfields and

      The public still tends to the view that the loss of the familiar in
      cities, however sad, somehow "cannot be stopped". The result of the
      collapse of VHB control shows this is naive. Planning does make a
      difference. Others argue that if towers are beautiful (which all are
      to their creators) it should trump planning, as if a concern with
      settings, views and neighbourhoods were nothing to do with
      architecture. Yet we would not put the "gherkin" in the middle of Hyde
      Park or next to Big Ben because it is "original". We retain a
      lingering sense of public aesthetic.

      In his new book, The Edifice Complex, Deyan Sudjic charts the
      incestuous relations between power and architecture, the role mega-
      buildings play in "unchaining the ego" of their patrons. Not for
      nothing is architecture the one art that flourishes under
      dictatorship. Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Saddam Hussein were all
      enthusiasts for building, magnetised by its offer of immortality. They
      saw in architecture what Sudjic calls the "instinct to control,
      categorise, shape life as it will be lived in space". In a street a
      person knows he or she is a Londoner. In a VHB we are ants, impotent
      and lost in anywhere.

      To find the centre of power in any society, watch where the architects
      cluster. They are adept at using an artist's licence to flatter power.
      They must, because their art is expensive and prominent. It is on
      public exhibition for generations to come. It also needs to obliterate
      what went before. Tower builders claim the entire city for their
      canvass. They demand the right to overpaint Canaletto.

      Town planning supposedly controls this. It was once a profession at
      which Britain excelled. It evened out the peaks and troughs of
      building cycles. It helped cities evolve rather than self-destruct
      under political or commercial pressure. Planning is democracy talking
      to architecture. Above all London's planning had a concern for the
      context of buildings, how new ones fitted alongside old. These
      concerns are familiar in Paris, Rome, even in American cities.

      London's planning has lost its way, swept aside in the same tide of
      greed as did such damage to its skyline in the 1970s. The tide is not
      motivated by some new vision of the city — it has none — but by a
      simple desire to make money wherever permitted. But its abuse of
      opposition is visceral. It accuses those, including less grand
      architects, struggling to honour London's character, of living in the
      Stone Age or seeking a "pastiche city". Nothing is more Stone Age than
      these megaliths. Nothing is more pastiche than these Mies van der
      Rohe/Philip Johnson lookalikes.

      Their presumption is on spectacular display at the New London
      Architecture show at the Building Centre. Visitors are invited to view
      London not as citizens do, from street level, but as architects do,
      from the heavenly clouds above. A model of the metropolis is at floor
      level, so the new towers seem diminutive. Virtually every one of the
      200 buildings craves "icon" status, a term idealised by the writer
      Charles Jencks, whose The Iconic Building has the gherkin as a moon
      rocket on the cover. This is architecture as "musique concrete", an
      art detached from context or audience.

      I believe Britons will deplore the towers about to pepper-pot their
      cities, as they deplored the same rash a quarter century ago. They
      congregate in streets and patently love them. Today's leading
      architects simply cannot design streets. They are like artists who
      cannot draw and composers who "don't do tunes". They do towers but not
      the spaces in between. They really want to live on the moon. Prescott
      is there with them.

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