Tall Building Designs, UK Skyscraper Proposals, Tower Architecture Research, Debate

Tall Building Designs

Skyscraper Research Discussion

15 Aug 2005

Tall Buildings

UK Tower Proposals

Article by Michael Short

It is first useful to define what is understood by a tall building and why this issue has contemporary significance. The urge to build tall is not new (Abel, 2003) yet the definition of what may constitute tall depends upon the urban, cultural and societal context. For centuries building height was controlled by the limit of a person’s ability to build staircases, thus setting a maximum attainable height of around 4 or 5 stories (Yeang, 1996). For the purposes of this discussion however, a tall building is defined by some element of ‘tallness’, in other words a building which creates a different set of conditions in the design, construction and operation from those that exist in the particular setting (Beedle, 1986).

Tall buildings have multiple functions and meanings depending upon a range of contextual factors. Until recently, the church and mosque dominated the skylines of European, central and south American, north African and Middle Eastern cities (Vickers, 1999). The modern movement, however, resulted in great change in many cities around the world, much of it immediate and rapid (Watkin, 2000). Modern movement architects sought new forms of height control that would rationalise the city into segregated uses (Vickers, 1999). The style of this time held that “architecture ought to do you good and should serve as an instrument of moral and social reform” (Watkin, 2000) and hinted at the paternalistic ideas of the main proponents of the movement. It represents a time when “planning…completely disregarded the concept of the urban web and of cultural continuity” (Cohen, 1999: 317). The regulation of built form in general, and height in particular, spread rapidly during this time as a means of controlling the worst excesses of modernism.

Tall buildings symbolise the dominance of particular cities and cultures over others. They are often seen as beacons of capital (Sudjic, 1992) and political power (Kostoff, 2001) and therefore can be prominent symbols of inequality as well as modernity (Abel, 2003). There is a sexual prowess attached to the power and symbolism of tall building which has alluded to the virility of the city (Sudjic, 1992). In almost all instances however, the tall building is iconic as a landmark, whether it be a single building or a cluster of buildings (Lynch, 1960). The “skyscraper, more than any other building type, has the capacity to capture the public imagination” (Höweler, 2003: 8). No matter what the real or supposed function, meaning or symbolism of tall buildings however, “love or hate them, one cannot ignore them” (Abel, 2003: 13).

Shanghai Tower building design by Gensler:
Tall Building Designs - Shanghai Tower
image from architects office

The current fashion for tall buildings and attempts to limit and encourage them reflects the increasing impact of globalisation on the development of the world’s major cities and has seen a plethora of proposals emerge in a diverse range of cities (Abel, 2003). Major cities compete on the global stage to have the tallest building with which to announce the confidence and global nature of their economies. Indeed, tall buildings are “an alchemical mix of real estate speculation, technological advancements, and architectural experimentation” (Höweler, 2003: 8). Political leaders have left their mark on the urban landscape of the cities they represent (McNeill, 2002) with tall buildings; President Mohammad of Malaysia publicly backed the building of the then tallest building in the world, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, as a symbol of Malaysia’s entry into the global economy (McNeill, 2002).

The level and type of regulation of such buildings has substantially changed since the immediate post-war period to reflect the renewed interest in tall buildings mainly “due to the limitations of land availability in prime locations, the increasing profile of the sustainability agenda, and the re-emergence of a confident planning profession.” (DEGW, 2002). In the first instance, however, a discussion about what regulation of building height means, why one regulates, how and by whom is central to understanding the many conflicts inherent in this task.

Regulation of building height
Regulation is of crucial importance in managing change in the built environment. It has evolved to address conflict between interests, and usually to seek to control unfettered, relatively short-term development by developers in the search for profit (Hill, 1993; Greenstreet, 1996; Painter, 2002). In this sense, land-use regulation (planning), at least in theory, is defined in terms of the failures of market mechanisms, and the wider ‘public interest’. This means that methods of regulation often differ between countries (and in some countries between cities and regions) reflecting different traditions of urbanisation, politics, attitudes to profit, property rights and other externalities.

Regulation is “a rule made by an authority” (Soanes, 2002) and usually refers to conscious and active intervention by the state or other collective organisations (Madanipour, 1996; Painter, 2002) in areas of concern. Planning as a method of managing change in the built environment is crucial in the negotiation of the production of space between the state and the market and is therefore subject to the political economy (Madanipour, 1996). It seeks to mediate between these often conflicting sectors (Cullingworth and Nadin, 2002) through the negotiation of mutually acceptable outcomes for the benefit of the ‘public’. Indeed “politics, conflict and dispute are at the centre of…planning” (Cullingworth and Nadin, 2002: 2).

Shenzhen Stock Exchange building design by OMA:
Shenzhen Stock Exchange Tower - Tall Building Designs
render from architects practice

Planning seeks to resolve, in mutually acceptable ways, conflict between property owners who seek to maximise their investments, and the ‘public’ under whose name planning as a form of regulation is undertaken. Planning seeks to change land use resulting in uneven distribution of the costs and benefits from development. It is represented by a series of choices, the management of which is crucial to the regulation of the built environment (Cullingworth and Nadin, 2002). In terms of the control of buildings more specifically, Greenstreet (1996) suggests that the state usually insists upon a certain basic minimum level of performance within the built environment through statutes, regulations and codes which address the location of building types and uses, building height and detailed criteria for their construction.

The ideal ‘product’ of planning is the place itself and can be “conceptualised as comprising layers of different outcomes over time” (Hillier, 2001: 72); Kain suggests that the built environment is “continually rebuilt to reflect changing motives, attitudes and tastes as societies evolve politically, economically and technically” (1981: 2). Punter (2000) suggests that there are five phases in the evolution of regulation of the built environment; fire and construction safety, public health, public efficiency, aesthetics and environmental sustainability. This is true not only of regulation of the built environment in general but building height particularly; as outlined in Chapter 2, building height control has evolved to address a variety of concerns including impact upon the built heritage. The distinctiveness of place is one of the “terms of reference for the negotiation and articulation of identity” (Hillier, 2001: 69), in other words place reflects both who we are what we represent.

The regulation of building height means taking into account the rights of property owners, those who use the surrounding urban spaces, but also involves decisions about the direct and indirect impacts of new development on the existing historic fabric of the surroundings. Our cities reflect our collective culture and, as such, represent cultural values and urban life. In order for cities to maintain their distinctiveness, regulatory tools are crucial to determining not only the impacts of tall buildings on their immediate surroundings and wider city, but their siting, form, height and relationship to the built environment in general.

The case of London
In England, the issue of new tall buildings has been given impetus through the publication of the Urban Task Force report Towards an Urban Renaissance which suggests a strategy to provide homes for almost 4 million additional households in England over a 25 year period whilst trying to achieve the quality of life and vitality that makes living in English towns and cities desirable (Urban Task Force, 1999). In such a highly urbanised country as England, the addition of 4 million new homes (with a target of at least 60% being built on brownfield land) will have enormous impacts upon the shape of urban areas, and will require increased building densities, improved public transport and more sustainable ways of living. Within this context, the land use planning system plays a vital part in securing positive change in towns and cities (Urban Task Force, 1999) and therefore has a key role to play in providing for coherent and streamlined systems for development control.

Tall buildings proposals in England have multiplied in recent years and have a range of advocates from politicians to global business. On the face of it, they appear to offer a solution to across the country, particularly in the cities of the south. In response to this increase in pressure, CABE and English Heritage have produced England specific guidance on tall buildings which, for the first time, has attempted a national policy framework. The government however, deems this guidance inadequate, and suggests an amendment to national planning policy guidance to give local planning authorities the tools with which to “do their jobs effectively” (House of Commons, 2002: 31). There are, however, voices in the country which are seeking to question the assumption that by building tall, the current space shortages in urban areas will be solved. The House of Commons report into tall buildings recognises that “tall buildings are more often about power, prestige, status and aesthetics than efficient development” (House of Commons, 2002: 5).

In London specifically, the skyline of the city was uniformly low with only the Houses of Parliament and St. Paul’s Cathedral punctuating the skyline until the twentieth century (Simon, 1996). This by and large remained in place prior to the second world war, after which technological and social changes, as well as major bomb damage, created a new climate (Catchpole, 1987). In 1947, two architects, Holden and Holford, prepared a report for the City of London on how to plan in the post-war period (Simon, 1996; Holmes, 2004). A standard plot ratio was proposed limiting the usable floor space in commercial buildings to a multiple of the acreage of the site, in order to limit the height and density of new buildings. Furthermore, these restrictions were designed to protect adjacent structures from being deprived of air and daylight. The importance of St. Paul’s retaining dominance of the city skyline remained paramount. These ideas were absorbed into regulations adopted by the city. Height restrictions were relaxed from 1956 largely in the form of waivers granted to developers, and broad guidelines were set to assess new development proposals on their merits (Attoe, 1981; Simon, 1996). Eight criteria were established by London County Council (LCC) for the consideration of tall buildings; visual intrusion, location, site size, over-shadowing, local character, effects on the river Thames and open space, architectural quality and night scene. In 1962, London County Council made these guidelines more specific, reasserting that the developer had to make a convincing case for tall buildings (Simon, 1996; Holmes, 2004). The main regulatory dilemma therefore was that any centrally located towers that would be acceptable to both developers and tenants, would have “fundamentally altered the skyline and the views of St. Paul’s and Big Ben from numerous perspectives” (Simon, 1996: 3). In 1969, the Greater London Council (GLC), successor to London County Council, identified three zones of regulation for tall building construction; i) areas inappropriate for tall buildings; ii) areas sensitive to the visual impact of tall buildings; iii) areas where tall buildings may be permitted (Simon, 1996). The GLC listed criteria for each zone and undertook photomontage as a tool of regulation and assessment (Attoe, 1981). It created a series of 80 viewpoints of London-wide significance which were later refined into a series of 28 view points which were further updated in the mid-1970s and early 1980s (London Planning Advisory Committee – LPAC, 1998). Even though a range of policies were in force within the metropolitan area to control building height, by 1968, 109 buildings had been erected over 46m and 32 over 76m (Catchpole, 1987), many being approved by central government over the wishes of the metropolitan government.

In 1986 the GLC was abolished by the central government with the result that planning functions were taken over by the 32 constituent boroughs of the metropolitan area. LPAC sought to fill this void with a series of strategic criteria which new tall buildings had to meet for approval (LPAC, 1998). It described the importance of visual cones, visual corridors and panoramas as being of major importance in the assessment of proposals, and identified 34 strategic viewpoints as a result of this. Strategic Guidance for London Planning Authorities, known as PPG3 (LPAC, 1998), was issued in 1996 and identified ten strategic views which were to be given protection by the 32 boroughs in their planning decisions. More recently, London has recently been granted a new devolved government for the first time since the abolition of the GLC in 1986 (Cullingworth and Nadin, 2002). The Greater London Authority and the Mayor of London have responsibilities over the strategic planning of London through the London Plan, a strategic planning document designed to guide land use and built form in the city (Mayor of London, 2002). This strategic document reflects the Mayor’s vision of a world city. Specifically the strategy suggests that “tall buildings will be particularly appropriate where they create attractive landmarks enhancing London’s character, help[ing] to provide a coherent location for economic clusters of related activities or act as a catalyst for regeneration” (Mayor of London, 2002: 248). Furthermore, in providing strategic direction to the 32 constituent boroughs, the Mayor states that they “should not impose blanket height restrictions on tall buildings” (Mayor of London, 2002: 248), a dramatic departure from the history of height regulation in London. The political support of tall buildings in appropriate locations in the capital, has resulted in a plethora of proposals in the city (Holmes, 2004). English Heritage, the government agency responsible for the maintenance of the historic environment, has had a key role in assessing proposals for tall buildings in the capital. In London the arguments revolve around architectural heritage and governance and conflicts between the various groups representing these interests (McNeill, 2002).

Two useful examples of proposed tall buildings in the metropolitan area are the Swiss Re building on the site of the former Baltic Exchange in the City of London, and the London Bridge tower on the south bank in Southwark. In different ways, both cases exemplify the apparent problems of reconciling the competing and conflicting demands of actors within the development process.

Swiss Re Building, City of London
The Swiss Re building has been a contentious addition to the cluster of tall buildings in the City of London, although the architects assure that “the distinctive form of the 40-storey tower will add to the cluster of tall buildings that symbolise[s] the heart of London’s financial centre” (Foster and Partners, 2004: online). The new building is an innovative bullet-shaped structure designed to minimise resistance to wind forces (Abel, 2003) and is environmentally progressive (Höweler, 2003); the building will require no air conditioning for 4 months of the year, as a computer will open windows to let circling air sweep into the building (Calvert, 2002). Furthermore, stale air will be pushed into sky-gardens and be re-oxygenated by the plants (Calvert, 2002). Interestingly, one of the many justifications for the scheme rest on the professional reputation of the architect, Sir Norman Foster. In a sense, when an architect of such stature is involved, the status of the scheme is enhanced.

The building itself is being constructed on the site of the former Baltic Exchange, a grade II* listed building containing one of the finest City interiors of the Victorian and Edwardian era (SAVE, 2004). It was badly damaged by a terrorist bomb in 1992 and the building was substantially destroyed. Both English Heritage and the City of London, at the time, insisted that any redevelopment of the site would require the restoration of the interior, the main façade and the Baltic Exchange (SAVE, 2004). Planning applications received were required to incorporate these requirements. However in 1996, having undertaken extensive detailed examination of the remains of the building, English Heritage “agreed in principle not to insist on the reinstatement of the Hall and St Mary Axe facade” (SAVE, 2004). As a result, the owners of the site submitted an application for Norman Foster’s Millennium Tower, a tower which would be the tallest in Europe. The planning application was withdrawn in the face of opposition from both English Heritage and Heathrow Airport. The site was sold in 1997 to Swiss Re and another application for a tall building was submitted in 2000, fondly known as ‘the erotic gherkin’, which proposed to demolish the listed building entirely. The planning application was approved by the Corporation of London in 2000 with the support of both the Mayor of London and English Heritage. An attempt by SAVE Britain’s Heritage to make the Secretary of State call-in the application for determination and hold a public inquiry into the planning application failed (SAVE, 2004). The remains of the building were demolished and the Swiss Re building erected on the site without reference to the former historic building.

The impact of the so-called ‘erotic gherkin’ tower has been felt not only the historic site where it has now been completed, but also on the skyline of London, particularly upon St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London (a World Heritage site) and Tower Bridge. The interplay of the main actors in the planning application for this building provides an interesting example of how decisions are made in the ‘public interest’. The obvious quality of the architecture of the building and the kudos associated with the architect appear to be the main justifications for the loss of an important listed building, the protection of which should be primary, and the surrounding historic area. The national agency responsible for this protection, English Heritage, in this instance found that the ruins of the building would be far too difficult to rebuild and that the justification for the new building outweighed concerns about the impact upon the built heritage. Interestingly, the agenda of the politicians at all levels of government converged; the Secretary of State representing central government, the Mayor of London representing the metropolitan area, and the leader of the City of London Corporation all supported the building claiming the ‘public interest’. It was left to SAVE Britain’s Heritage, a conservation charity, to challenge this unusual convergence of views between the politicians and national heritage body, also in the ‘public interest’.

London Bridge Tower, Southwark
The London Bridge Tower has recently received planning permission after nearly 3 years of due planning process. The tower, on the south bank of the Thames directly opposite the City and up river from Tower Bridge and the Tower of London will rise just over 300m (see photograph 3). It, again, has been designed by an immensely respected architect, Renzo Piano, which adds credence to the issue of quality in the proposal. The proposed building includes 125,000 sq.m. of offices and residential, whilst increasing the concourse area of the station below by 40 per cent. This building would create a significant stand-alone landmark on the south bank of the Thames separate from the cluster of tall buildings in the City of London.

A public inquiry was held into the planning application for the tower. In this case, the local planning authority (Southwark Borough Council) supported the tower mainly for the resultant regenerative benefits to the local area, as did the Mayor of London. English Heritage, Historic Royal Palaces and the authorities of St. Paul’s Cathedral opposed it. Proponents of the scheme suggested that “it would strengthen London’s status and function as a world city by removing outdated and poor-quality buildings and thus enhancing the character and appearance of the conservation area” (Wood and Moren, 2003). Opponents of the building were concerned about the oppressive impact upon views of St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London (Weaver, 2004).

In giving planning permission for the building, and taking into account the Planning Inspector’s recommendation from the public inquiry, the Deputy Prime Minister explained that the tower “would stand comfortably in its immediate urban…[and]…townscape context” (Weaver, 2003). Furthermore, the Deputy Prime Minister held that the building would:

“represent an improvement [to views of St. Paul’s] and would not reduce the cathedral’s visibility or setting. Nor would it diminish the status and importance of the Tower of London” (Wood and Moren, 2003: 21).

It is also clear that the quality of the design was of critical importance to this approval, which may not have been given had the architectural quality been disputable. In effect, however, this building will transform the scale of London; St. Paul’s Cathedral still holds its own against tall buildings in the City, but London Bridge Tower is three times its height. The ability of the cathedral “…to retain a central and unifying role on [the] skyline” (Simon, 1996: 16) remains open to question as result of this scheme, and those which are following quick on its heels.

It remains to be seen whether this building is erected, but it does exemplify the issues inherent in the assessment and regulation of these types of buildings. Conflict within the state over whether to approve this building is more clear than in the case of the Swiss Re building. The politicians of the various strata of government clearly supported the scheme yet state agencies in the form of both English Heritage and Historic Royal Palaces opposed it, all it would seem, claiming the ‘public interest’.

The new tall building projects outlined in the final section of this paper have survived the regulatory process to hopefully add significant new character to London. The importance of high quality design is particularly important as “ever-diminishing percentage of…gross cost on architecture set against the computer-controlled air conditioning, cabling, and all the other technology now seen as an essential part of the accoutrements of a modern office building” (Sudjic, 1992: 73). The mistakes of the modernist period should not, and cannot, be reproduced in the contemporary city. The quality of the designs in both cases was, however, used as justification for the proposals over valid and significant concerns regarding the impact upon the built heritage. It is evident that contemporary interventions in the cityscape need to address the surrounding historic landscape so that they “genuinely enrich the lives of citizenry…through collective and judicious combination of analogy, metaphor and reference to the collective memory of [the] culture” (Kimm, in CTBUH, 2001: 423).

One of the obstacles to undertaking this proper assessment and regulation is the role of the main actors in the process. All levels of government and national agencies are part of the state apparatus and, as such, are both judge and jury in the decision-making process. It would appear that in acting in the ‘public interest’, national, metropolitan and local planning policy can be either ignored or over-ruled thereby creating a system which has little meaning or resonance to those who are being represented. Cities are a reflection of our collective culture (Attoe, 1981) and, as such, represent cultural values and urban life. If cities are to maintain their distinctiveness, tall buildings which are significantly higher than their immediate context “should be assessed both in terms of their impact on their immediate surroundings, and their impact at the wider city scale. High buildings should be designed to the highest standard to maximise their positive contribution, and to moderate potential impacts” (DEGW, 2002: 2). As a result any regulatory process should be clearly defined and transparent with all the main actors in the process able to defend their positions publicly. In that way, decisions made in the ‘public interest’ would be defensible.

Short, M. (2004) Regulating the impact of proposals for new tall buildings on the built heritage. Planning History 26: 3 pp. 3-10.

Tall Buildings : background to this article

World Skyscrapers

Skyscraper Images

Skyscraper Designs

Tower Designs

Tall Buildings References

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Aug 2005

The Changing Room Installation by UNStudio
image courtesy of UNStudio architects office

Tall Buildings around the World

Tower Images

Skyscraper Developments

World’s Tallest Building : Burj Khalifa

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