Tall Tales

18 Apr 18 | Ailish Killilea

When is it appropriate to build tall? The location of tall buildings, or by common definition, buildings comparatively taller than their surroundings, should ideally be driven by: a location’s physical capability to absorb height; and, the location’s relevance or importance as a location within an urban environment. Tall buildings should tell you something about a city; they are the punctuation marks upon a City’s skyline, the clefs and codas of its symphony. But to achieve this ideal, a City needs a composer or an author, a single, unifying body or policy document to shape its skyline in a strategic way.

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When is it appropriate to build tall? The location of tall buildings, or by common definition, buildings comparatively taller than their surroundings, should ideally be driven by: a location’s physical capability to absorb height; and, the location’s relevance or importance as a location within an urban environment. Tall buildings should tell you something about a city; they are the punctuation marks upon a City’s skyline, the clefs and codas of its symphony. But to achieve this ideal, a City needs a composer or an author, a single, unifying body or policy document to shape its skyline in a strategic way.

The path of policy rarely runs so smooth. No national definitions of a ‘tall building’ have ever been produced, and Historic England’s guidance on tall buildings remains the principal source of best practice guidance. Within this guidance, clustering is recognised as a generally good principle for creating good development at height which is successful, but  tall buildings in isolation, when executed contextually to the surroundings and of exceptional design, can also be found acceptable. The Shard, for example, was granted at inquiry with the Inspector finding its isolation to be a fundamental contributor towards it being acceptable. Despite the clustering that Southwark Council have nonetheless promoted around its base, the initial shock of its height, and its astonishing prominence across London have been overcome through its architectural distinctive. Despite its scale, it is not entirely acontextual; it is highly glazed to physically reflect the existing context and the tapering of the tall form mimics the church spires and masts of historically docked ships at London Bridge. This is now a building appreciated for its wayfinding attributes, not only south of the river but also London-wide, and a celebrated symbol of the city.

The success of The Shard, however, does not suggest that introducing height in glorious isolation will always be a successful approach. In this regard, the public inquiry surrounding the Chiswick Curve, a two tower proposal reaching up to 32 storeys at Chiswick roundabout in Hounslow, will be watched by the development interest. This is an example of where the height and massing of the proposal, and its isolation from anything of a similar scale, was not found acceptable for its location. Hounslow Council refused it for its ‘serious’ impact on highly sensitive neighbouring assets such as Kew World Heritage Site and the Grade-II* Gunnersbury Park and Cemetery, as well as, more generally, on the ‘wider area and skyline’. Such is the level of opposition that Historic England have chosen to appear in objection at the inquiry.

The outcome of this case will tell the industry much about the principle of striking off and self-identifying sites for tall buildings, particularly in a world where most UK cities lack a coherent tall buildings policy. Across the country, this creates an open door to testing the appropriateness of Sites; indeed, it is this door that Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs are leaning on in Manchester with their St Michael’s scheme. Standalone tall buildings will continue to be considered for construction in isolation under the draft New London Plan, and the same continues to be the case across the country.

It is evident that values in London will mean it will continue to build high, and the NLA’s annual Tall Buildings Report continues to show an appetite for height. It was estimated that 152 new tall buildings will have been completed by 2019, and the 2018 report, published today, is sure to indicate London’s current aspirations to go tall. Without any direct guidance on where they should go, the free-for-all remains, and we’ll continue to see  the fight for Britain’s skylines played out in the public meeting and inquiry room.

Iceni Projects now provide Townscape services. To see more of the Heritage and Townscape teams’ experience and expertise, please click here.

Ailish Killilea Associate,Heritage,Townscape

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