Federation for
Housing and

Is the skyline being screwed?

The IFHP Travel Squad reports from London: The city of London is changing dramatically these years and that includes the skyline which is being ‘screwed’, as Guardian architecture critic Rowan Moore states.

There is no precise way of putting this, but the city of London is changing dramatically these years and that includes the skyline which is being ‘screwed’, as Guardian architecture critic Rowan Moore states in an article on the current planning and development taking place in London (The Guardian, How a high-rise craze is ruining London’s skyline, 01-12-12). Moore argues that the current approach architecture and planning discourse in London profoundly changes not only the skyline, but the image of the city at large.

Many new challenges
Like almost all cities today, London finds itself confronted with many new challenges: new patterns in the global market, unemployment, urban migration and influx to the city all put great pressure on the urban landscape, and certainly also a high increase in land-prizes and rent. One of the most significant and debated new towers in London is the Shard rising from the southern bank by the London Bridge. Following generation of towers like Foster’s Gherkin, the Shard offers 72 deluxe habitable floors of the in total 95-stories including the impressive upper floor open-air observation deck.

Designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano the irregular, almost unfinished looking tower has not only become a signpost for the development and regeneration undertaken in the London Bridge Quarter and Southwark area. The Shard has almost become a symbol of the complex condition and massive urban growth in London in the first half of the 21st century. During the 1980s and the 1990’s the city was declining.

Today, the city is confronted with a completely new situation. The demand is way bigger than the supply, and the city is now in constant search for investments from outside to finance the thousands of development, regeneration and housing projects needed in the inner and peri-urban areas. After years of declining – and a pause during the global recession five years ago – there are now being built over 30 new towers and high rises from 490-650 feet in London. The historic and financial city center, nevertheless, continues to appear “empty”. Prices on apartments constantly go up in the inner city meanwhile the outer urban areas continue to grow in both scale and span.

Screwed skyline and developer egos
We are witnessing a ‘doughnut in reverse’ condition in London these years, Peter Murray describes the current condition in London. The massive building activity is visible from South to East London. Consequently historic landmarks, from towers to hills, and parks become background, the critics argue. None of which need to be a problem if the new towers, high rises and regeneration projects is well designed, and maybe more importantly in the right place. The 309 m high Shard, which officially opens to the public on February 1st 2013, has already been subject to massive criticism and debate pushed forward by the professional environment as well as by the general public.

Some of the most pessimistic statements come from critics like architecture critic Rowan Moore, arguing that the London skyline is being screwed and only developer egos seems to be served. In opposition to Moore’s architectural elitism, is the far more pragmatic Peter Murray, chairman at the New London Architecture (NLA). 

“The pressure from outside financially as well as socially put great pressure on the city and forces it to think big and act fast. The city has entered a new era and that requires both innovation and sacrifices.”

– Peter Murray, architect and chairman at NLA

To Murray, critics like Rowan Moore and his followers represent a dangerous route of criticism that only admires craft architecture, and does not pay any attention to architecture and planning that serve society, Murray argues and continues:

“Moore would never look at shopping malls as a catalyst for place making, but the fact is that we have to accept that malls and shopping centers like the one in Stratford, are very popular public spaces today.”

A city under pressure
More people go there and dwell for hours compared to any other places in the city, and that might be something that we need to keep in mind in a time where the skyline and urban environment is changing, Murray says. There is no doubt that the city is under great pressure these years. The financial crises, unemployment, lack of housing, and segregation are just some of the challenges that shape the condition London amongst most cities is faced with. And one could argue that the Shard is not only a new landmark for London, and a signpost of the development taking place in the area of London Bridge and Southwark. It is also a symbol of the complex condition and massive global urban growth that cities all over the world are witnessing in the first half of the 21st century.

See also:
>> The IFHP Travel Squad reports from London (news)
>> IFHP Centenary Congress 2013, 08-11 June 2013 (event)