Do we need more tall buildings?

Peter Stewart
21 June 2001

Peter Stewart, director of design review (1999 - 2005), on how tall buildings arouse strong feelings and why the debate about their merits is not just a matter for quangos.

Last week the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) and English Heritage published a consultation draft of a paper entitled 'Guidance on tall buildings'. Proposals for tall buildings are coming forward all over England; the views of both bodies are important to planning authorities in dealing with planning applications, and the paper advises authorities and applicants about the way the two organisations will evaluate such proposals.

The two organisations have different remits: CABE exists to promote high standards in architecture and urban design; English Heritage has a statutory role in securing the conservation and enhancement of the historic environment in England. Some have expressed surprise that CABE and EH have been able to agree on a joint document on this subject - and deduce that the result must necessarily be compromised and anodyne. In fact, the press launch of the guidelines revealed more in common than some of the journalists present might have been hoping. The launch took place on the top (eighteenth) floor of New Zealand House, a few hundred metres from Trafalgar Square and with panoramic views over most of London. Much of the discussion was conducted with reference to views from the windows, from which London is revealed to be a city of towers already. Some of those (such as New Zealand House itself) are now listed; others (like the soon to be demolished Marsham Street) are regretted by almost everyone. It is clear that, just like any other form of building, tall buildings can be good or bad.

Tall buildings arouse strong feelings, and the debate about their merits is not just a matter for quangos. The failures, mostly from several decades in the past, may be remembered more vividly than the successes. In city centres, people may think of bronze-tinted reflective towers symbolising the anonymous face of international corporations - ordinary people keep out. In the inner suburbs, we think of the social and environmental failures of some post-war public housing. Buildings of all heights can fail in all sorts of ways - but when tall buildings fail, the results are so much more obvious.

Yet there is clearly a demand for such buildings. Some of the best provide stunning and popular places to live and to work. Building tall is not the only way of building to high density, but it is bound to be a part of the story in bringing our city centres back to life and providing the intensification of activity which helps cities thrive.

The guidelines list a number of criteria which will be applied by the two bodies in evaluating proposals for tall buildings. In summary, these are:

  • The relationship to physical context (topography and built form) and the effect on the skyline.
  • The effect on the whole existing environment, including the elements of the historic environment with statutory controls (listed buildings, conservation areas etc), but also other open spaces, including rivers, their settings and views from them, and other important views, prospects and panoramas.
  • The relationship to transport infrastructure, and particularly public transport provision.
  • The architectural quality of the building (the importance of the design of the top of a tall building is stressed)
  • The contribution that the development will make to external and internal public spaces and facilities in the area: the provision of a mix of uses, especially on the ground floor of towers, and the inclusion of these areas as part of the public realm.
  • The effect on the local environment (microclimate, overshadowing etc)
  • The contribution made to the permeability and legibility of a site and the wider area.
  • Function and fitness for purpose: the provision of a high quality environment for those who use the buildings.
  • The sustainability of the proposal, in the widest sense.

In assessing major proposals for tall buildings, CABE and EH liaise and take into account each other's views when arriving at their own conclusions. Because of the differences in remit given to them by government, however, there may be occasions on which the two bodies arrive at different conclusions about particular proposals. This could arise, for example, as a result of giving differing weight to various pros and cons of proposals.

For English Heritage, the overriding consideration will be whether the location is suitable for a tall building in terms of its effect on the historic environment at a city-wide as well as a local level. If not, then no tall building will be acceptable, however good the design. CABE's priorities are slightly different. It will consider proposals in the round: the overarching principle will be that any new tall building should be of first class design quality in its own right and should enhance the quality of its immediate location and wider setting; it should produce more benefits than costs to those lives which are affected by it.

CABE consistently presses local authorities to be more demanding about the standard of presentation provided by applicants for major planning applications - a demand supported by PPG1. The best examples of presentations are now very good indeed; the worst cannot be understood by professionals, let alone members of the public who are entitled to express a view. In the case of tall buildings, the guidelines ask that proposals should be illustrated by realistic views from all significant viewpoints affected; this cannot be done without a thorough 360 degree view analysis.

Any major proposal for a tall building has an effect in its immediate environs which goes far beyond the question of its appearance. Such proposals cannot be evaluated without an urban design study which addresses questions such as public and private transport infrastructure, permeability and pedestrian linkages, the public realm, the effect on surrounding ground floor uses and so on.

CABE and English Heritage will not support proposals for tall buildings unless they are satisfied, through the submission of fully worked up proposals, that they are of the highest architectural quality. For this reason, outline planning applications will not be supported. They will ask for guarantees that architectural quality will be maintained throughout the implementation of the entire project and, in particular, that inferior detailing or materials are not substituted at a later date. The commercial viability of a proposal is relevant to this issue; a planning consent for a tall building which is beautiful but not viable may be followed by an application for a new scheme of which the reverse is true - and having conceded the principle, the planning authority's hand will now be the weaker.

The first wave of tall buildings a few decades ago probably produced more blunders than wonders; if we can learn from those experiences, there is no reason for history to repeat itself.