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7 Myths and tall storeys
When I was seven my father took me to the top of the Empire State Building, then the world’s tallest, at 102 storeys. The Chrysler Building, Radio City, the Woolworth Building and many other pinnacled and craggy skyscrapers were spread out like a great model before me. The city was an adventure playground. It belonged to me. I did not fear it. I didn’t know then that people died building it, or that a small plane had crashed into it.
Thirty or so years later I took my seven year-old daughter whizzing up the same high speed elevators to the rooftop, reliving my boyhood as she gazed upon the same scene - but it was not the same, dominated now by long, box-like forms, like the World Trade Center. Not the city of shining spires, but of the banal, formulaic extrusions of Anywhere USA, alien to Manhattan’s iconic early 20th century ensemble. All that changed on September 11 2001.
Back in London, the still growing list of skyscraper proposals is debated in urbannewspeak: regeneration, density, skyline, capacity, sustainability, infrastructure, critical mass. As every Londoner knows, it was Planning, not the Blitz that has changed it out of all recognition, inventing urban myths that spawned the now reviled 60s skyscrapers, threatening the soul of this most civilised, human scaled, great city. Why is it then, that skyscrapers are back, bigger than before, and myths are still peddled?
Myth No 1 - higher densities require skyscraper buildings.
Density is measured in rooms per hectare or plot ratio, guidelines for which are contained in development plans. These have to relate to urban capacity, which in turn is related to the values placed on green space, historic architecture, underground services, modes of transport, air quality, water supply and, not least, quality of life. European capital cities such as Paris, Prague, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Rome, St Petersburg, Copenhagen and many smaller ones achieve higher densities than most British and American cities without skyscrapers. American inspired skyscraperspeak is propaganda. Most Americans live in sprawling, low density suburbs, not high rise flats. Even in their city centres, wide roads and car parks combine to yield moderate densities. Outside a few prestige buildings for the super rich, Manhattan apartment blocks are truly banal. Vested interests are at work.
Myth No 2 - modern cities cannot do without skyscrapers.
Forcing skyscrapers into our ancient, civilised cities would destroy them. Huge buildings require superblocks to sit on, destroying historic, human scaled street patterns, as the WTC did in Lower Manhattan. This would have befallen Paris had it not been for the wise decision to preserve its urban structure, by planting their skyscraper cluster at La Defense. Perhaps Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan of 1944, marking Croydon for such a role in London should have been pursued more vigourously.
Myth No 3 - technology can fix it.
Technology- the invention of the lift, made skyscrapers possible, but new imperatives of safety and security seem to require different, as yet unknown solutions. Sir Peter Hall (Regeneration, 21 Sept 2001) was right to warn of the need to start “thinking the unthinkable” about how we plan, build and live. Any structural engineer could (or should) have known for example that progressive collapse of the Twin Towers was inevitable once the structure of even a single intermediate floor was sufficiently weakened. Washington DC, a planned modern, high density city, has no skyscrapers.
Myth No 4 - Skyscrapers are OK in the right place if they are attractive.
The mantra of all promoters is something even English Heritage finds difficult to counter. There is now a huge industry dedicated to proving that almost any land a developer happens to own can be labelled as the right place for a new skyscraper, in the name of “regeneration.” Just like the hundreds of 60s and 70s “iconic” London skyscrapers, now hideously dated, unsustainable, sick and detached from the street matrix. Does Swiss Re resemble a gherkin or a bomb?
Myth No 5 - allowing enemies to influence our cities is defeatist.
An almost laughable, but thoughtless knee-jerk. The very location and subsequent form of practically every city since time began has been strongly influenced, if not totally defined by security alongside food and water supply. Think of York, Chichester, Canterbury, Edinburgh, Plymouth. In times of war or threat of war, defence and minimising casualties become a nation’s first priorities. If we fail to protect people, we must share the blame for the body count. Building form matters. Low rise is less vulnerable. If we need to rethink city planning, along with some building types, with greater security in mind, let’s not waste time.
Myth No 6 - Regeneration means bigger buildings.
Postwar “regeneration” produced many large scale mistakes. Solid, street oriented urban buildings were replaced with megaliths, compounds and culs-de-sac that turned their backs on the city, fragmenting it, making it less permeable, more dangerous. Even larger scale redevelopment is not the answer. Repeating the mistakes of the 50s and 60s, only bigger, makes money for a few, widening the gap between rich and poor.
Myth No 7 - limited numbers
When did any aspect of a city become finite? Can there be any greater self-delusion than to believe that only 15 or 20 really classy skyscrapers will be allowed in London? History and the power of money suggest otherwise. Is the 2012 Olympics an irresistible force? Is this the new Democracy, or the new Dictatorship?
I am not the first to suggest that, whether in the context of security or simply meeting the needs of cities, ancient or modern, the question of whether to build more or bigger skyscrapers should not be reduced to political gestures, “iconic” appeal or floorspace, but enlarged to retaining or regaining functionality, distinctiveness, sustainability and above all, warmth and beauty at human scale. If we lose sight of those values, the enemy will have won. •