The Need for Tulips

11 Apr 19 | Kieron Hodgson

Last week the Corporation of London granted planning permission for a building known as the ‘Tulip’ to be located at 20 Bury Street just next door to the Gherkin at 30 St Mary Axe. At 305m it shall be marginally shorter that the Shard and consists of a vertically elongated, glass viewing pod on top of concrete shaft.

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Last week the Corporation of London granted planning permission for a building known as the ‘Tulip’ to be located at 20 Bury Street just next door to the Gherkin at 30 St Mary Axe. At 305m it shall be marginally shorter that the Shard and consists of a vertically elongated, glass viewing pod on top of concrete shaft.

I have read with interest some of the commentary surrounding the proposals all within a climate of increasing hostility to tall buildings in London as evidenced by the recent sessions on the issue at the London Plan EIP.

It always used to be correctly and consistently argued that tall buildings were appropriate in the City because a) the city is geographically constrained, b) there isn’t much room on the ground plane so you have to go up and c) that new office floor space is necessary if the City is to compete internationally and retain its position as a leading centre of commerce. The interesting thing is that none of these arguments formed much of the narrative behind the Tulip when it came to end game planning decision making, with emphasis instead being placed on the Tulip as a unique visitor attraction with public access, opportunities for education and architectural wonder as the key planning benefits.

All of this is of course perfectly fine and there are many benefits associated with the delivery of a more sustainable and mixed use Corporation of London. However, I do think we need to be a conscious of a move away from justifying our tallest and most prominent buildings with tried and tested arguments based on need to more subjective arguments based on anything else up to and including spectacle.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am very much in favour of tall buildings and mixed use and innovative design and observation towers and spectacle but there are many examples across London where tall buildings and major projects have been presented, have incurred cost and have failed because they were not based on a sufficiently robust needs case or timely novelty or spectacle factored too much into the decision making. The Arcelor Mittal Tower, the Garden Bridge and the Docklands high-wire all spring to mind.

London has always built its best and most inspiring buildings (railway stations, garden squares, pioneering social housing, flagship office buildings) when they have been needed for the growth of the city and need has been a consistent factor in the planning decision making associated with these major projects. As a consequence London’s history, heritage and skyline is a product of its natural growth and expansion to meet its needs as opposed to other younger cities who have expanded more quickly and whose brand has become defined by its architecture.

Placing no emphasis on need and too much emphasis on spectacle therefore runs the risks of lowering the bar for access to our cities skyline with new plots potentially becoming available on the basis of lesser and more subjective judgements such as high fashion and sparkly design, so let’s not forget the case for need as a reassuringly reliable catalyst for the best and most innovative buildings in London and which shall hopefully continue to be a core defining characteristic of our great city.

Kieron Hodgson Director,Planning

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