City of pricks

London is no longer a Victorian city constructed on a medieval street plan, but a collection of cheapskate towers and characterless streets

On Architecture

This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The biggest event of the architectural summer was not the construction of the ludicrous earth mound nearly on top of the historic Marble Arch as a way of attracting customers back to Oxford Street, but the appearance of the new highest skyscraper in the City, 22 Bishopsgate (it has not yet acquired a nickname), which both dominates its surroundings and, in a very curious way, disappears from view, a building of profoundly emphatic characterlessness.

How, one wonders, have we allowed such a featureless monolith to dominate all views of the City?

Each of the subsidiary London boroughs started giving permission to tall buildings, without regard for architectural quality

The story goes back to the 1980s and pressure on the City, particularly from the big American banking companies invading London at the time, to provide the big floor plates which were a requirement of new technology. In the late 1980s, Michael von Clemm, an American banker, chairman of Credit Suisse First Boston, appeared to solve the problem by proposing that London constructs a second city, more nearly approximating Manhattan, out on the Isle of Dogs enabling the older London to retain its historic character.

A new city, designed by an American architectural practice, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, was constructed on the site of the former West India Dock. During the 1990s, this looked like a possible long-term solution to the development of London. You kept the skyscrapers away from the city and Westminster — following the model of Paris, which has to a great extent managed to protect its historic fabric.

The person who was single-handedly responsible for a change to this policy was Ken Livingstone, an improbable ally of big property developers and international capital, who took the view that skyscrapers were a necessary manifestation of urban growth. He gave permission to a number of very prominent skyscrapers, including the Shard, which I continue to regard as an elegant building, and the so-called Walkie-Talkie, designed by Rafael Viñoly, a Uruguayan architect, which I don’t: it’s too large in scale and its bulbous dimensions overshadow everything round it.

The problem with this approach was that once one permission had been given, everyone wanted to get in on the act. Each of the subsidiary London boroughs started giving permission to tall buildings, without regard for architectural quality. Southwark gave permission for Strata SE1 at the Elephant and Castle, a building which looks like a cheap razor, and, most egregiously, One Blackfriars, which dominates the bend in the river with its fat backside like a bustle. Big buildings began to pop up all over the place like tumours.

The City has tried to control this growth by restricting it to an area south of Liverpool Street, presumably in a vain attempt to protect the distant views of St. Paul’s, which is anyway now grossly overshadowed by new developments. 22 Bishopsgate is by far the largest, a monster amongst monsters.

Its particular origins lie in the frenzy of speculation before the crash of 2008. A scheme was submitted to the Corporation’s planning committee as long ago as June 2005 for something originally to be called Bishopsgate Tower, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox in the style of a helter-skelter, at a time when Ken Livingstone was so keen on signature buildings. The project was bankrolled by a German fund manager, DIFA, and in 2007 taken over by Arab Investments, when the building was rechristened “The Pinnacle”.

The new version of the City resembles the downtown of an average American city and has lost much of its character

This project failed as a result of the banking crash and the site was bought by AXA Real Estate in 2014. They redesigned the building in the light of the changed priorities of the new Head of City Planning, Gwyn Richards, who wanted the building to be squarer and squatter and, as he describes it, “less gimmicky”. “The new scheme follows our guidance for sleek simplicity, in contrast to some of the more gimmicky buildings we’ve had recently …

We’re taking a more disciplined approach now: no building should be trying to shout down its neighbour.” This approach helps to explain why the building which has emerged is so aggressively nondescript. Computer-aided design has allowed the architects to construct a massive building whose only character is that it has no character, like the Invisible Man. It is the tallest building in the City, dwarfing Herbert Baker’s Bank of England, Soane’s curtain wall for it, the Mansion House and St. Paul’s.

You could say that there is no point crying over spilt milk. The new version of the City resembles the downtown of an average American city and has lost much of its character — the proud sense of a Victorian city constructed on a medieval street plan, which resisted Christopher Wren’s desire to impose some sort of logic to it. Instead, it is now a collection of cheapskate towers, with windswept, characterless streets, where commuters retreat into what are called “vertical villages”, with space for bicycle parking and a market on one of the upper floors.

But is this really what we want our cities to be: so bland and anonymous?

Instead of St. Paul’s dominating the view, 22 Bishopsgate is a monument to Ken Livingstone’s desire for buildings which look like pricks.

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