Just as architects tend not to enjoy living in tower blocks themselves there is also some hypocrisy from politicians in this regard. Our leaders love to have monuments. Some tangible, physical legacy. Something big, bold and impressive that in their retirement they can gaze at and murmur to themselves: “I did that.”
Often when it comes to the eyesores others were responsible for there is a less indulgent attitude.
The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, touched on this theme recently in an exchange with the Labour London Assembly Member, Lady Gavron.
She had asked:
“Are your planning policies and decisions allowing London to become Dubai-on-Thames?”
“You would expect that a great city like London has to continue to develop. I think one of the advantages we have over, say Paris for instance, is that we are able to develop and to experiment with some fantastic buildings that are in many cases ‑ and not every one of them is successful, I will grant you that ‑ buildings that come to be popular and much loved by people in this city. I would just point out that the most popular building in London is the Gherkin followed by the Shard. Nicky, I remember listening to a passionate speech by you in which you hailed yourself as the inventor of the Shard and the person who helped to bring it about. Therefore I often find, when I listen to critics of tall buildings, that what they really dislike are other people’s children. Their own are wonderful, however those of anybody else are not so good.”
The exchange continued:
Nicky Gavron AM: Experts, and there is a growing consensus, want us now to reconsider and just pause and think, in light of experience,
about whether we should have a rethink on policy and its implementation.
Boris Johnson (Mayor of London): Do you regret the Shard now?
Nicky Gavron AM: Would you be prepared to consider that? Would you consider a rethink about policy?
Boris Johnson (Mayor of London): I will consider anything that I think to be reasonable and motivated by common sense. What we want to do is try to increase supply in such a way as to take the pressure off the market.
There are only two ways to go. You either go out over the green belt, which nobody wants to do, or you allow transport hubs and you allow buildings to go up. That is what we are doing. We are not allowing these buildings to pepper pot all over the landscape. They are happening in clusters where they are appropriate and where local people want them.
One thing I would say, I notice there is a group of people in the newspapers who write these portentous articles and they always have some architect who joins in the criticism. That architect will always be someone who is the father or mother, normally the father, of some prodigiously enormous building that they themselves are personally a little bit embarrassed by. What they do is divert attention and criticism from that building by attacking all the other ones.
It is no coincidence, Nicky, that you have not admitted your heroic role in the Shard this morning. I was there, upstairs in London’s Living Room. You gave a speech all about how you were proud of the Shard. Actually, as far as I can remember, you wanted the Shard to be 400 metres rather than 300 metres until you were told that was impossible by air traffic control. Why is the Shard so wonderful and acceptable whereas any other tall building is not acceptable? That I do not follow.
There are not “only two ways to go” as the Mayor should know better than anyone. Boris wants to have an airport in the Thames Estuary. That would allow Heathrow Airport to close and create 300,000 homes on the site in a new London Borough of Heathrow. I don’t think it is envisaged they would all be tower blocks. On a more modest scale, tunnelising the Hammersmith Flyover and a stretch of the A4 would provide capacity for a couple of thousand new homes on top – those explicitly would not include any tower blocks.
In any case, as has been repeatedly pointed out by Create Streets and others, there is a distinction between high rise and high density. That is because of the space that surrounds tower blocks. Therefore redeveloping a council estate to remove the tower blocks and instead have a square of mansion blocks would mean an increase in the number of homes.
Even among those who like tall buildings there would usually be a limit. Looking out across the skyline and spotting the Shard or the Gherkin or the Razor or the Cheese Grater might be an amusing challenge. It might be less amusing to have such a monstrosity next to your home. But in any case would many people really want the London skyline to be ever more cluttered with tower blocks? Do Londoners really want 200 more?
The cheap shot is always tempting. Yes, Lady Gavron has changed her opinion. Good for her.