Estimated reading time: 5 min
As the Guardian Art Critic Jonathan Jones explained, “There are two terrible differences between architecture and other art forms – permanence and prominence.” In London, the foundations of this mindset are steadily being eroded. Today these concepts have been eclipsed by gaudy monoliths acting as a platform for the designer rather than a pertinent inclusion to the city’s aesthetic fabric. As the Capital’s residents wrestle with the impending wave of new high-cost high-rises, it’s important to remember a time when tall additions to the capital’s skyline were deliberated over for months, and even years.
In 1950s London, new buildings, particularly those that rose above ten storeys, were few and far between. Unlike several of today’s imminent high-rises, Robert Matthew’s design for the New Zealand High Commission building was met with staunch opposition from local residents, planners, councils and even politicians. Deemed too conspicuous for the St James area, the building was dismissed as inappropriate not only for the environmental context in which it was planned, but as an embassy building in general. As the tallest building in the St James area and the first major office tower in central London, New Zealand House was always going to be a controversial design choice.
As London’s skyline changed, so too did people’s perception of the buildings, and today New Zealand House is recognised as a significant contribution to the texture of London’s skyline. Opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 9th May 1963, the building went on to earn a reputation as one of the most dynamic post-war buildings in Britain. The New Zealand House became a Grade II listed building in 1990 for its input to the surrounding environment. As the Architects’ Journal commented at the time: ‘Every so often a building is complete which can serve as a yardstick by which we measure our architectural standards and conceptions. Such a building is New Zealand House.’ Incorporating several previously unseen design features, it’s the House’s coordination with the social and structural context of the surrounding area that sets it apart from the swathe of new high-rises currently under construction in the capital.
“The building went on to earn a reputation as one of the most dynamic post-war buildings in Britain”
Part of the reason the design worked was it’s skill in incorporating elements of local influence with aspects of New Zealand’s indigenous culture. The public spaces of the building makes frequent use of New Zealand timber, whilst the Te Pouihi pillar, a three storey wooden sculpture carved from a single totara tree, sits in the building’s lobby. Chiselled in the New Zealand House basement by sculptor Inia te Wiata MBE, the sculpture features life-sized representations of Maori tribal figures. Sadly, this tradition of blending culture with function is disappearing from the new generation of high-rises, and it’s erasing the last remnants of enthusiasm for further development.
With the ever growing demand for office space, an increasingly slim green-belt and the city’s steady gentrification, high-rises are becoming the go-to for any new London developments, ensuring greater return for investors and a steady stream of wealthy tenants. But increasingly, high-rise development plans are meeting resistance from London’s residents, particularly as architects resort to more contentious designs in a bid to stand out.
It’s not merely the designs themselves that are causing controversy, however. The protected views surrounding St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster mean developments are forced into sporadic patterns. This is why so few areas of London feature more than a handful of tall buildings in a cluster, with Canary Wharf perhaps the most heavily developed of all areas in London. Half a century ago, stringent building regulations and conservative post-war urban planning meant skyscrapers had to be relentlessly scrutinised before any kind of planning permission could be agreed. The city famed for its historic architecture began to change in the early 1960s as Corbusian high-rise brutalism gained popularity. Following two decades of substantial additions to the London skyline, the 80s and 90s saw brutalism fall out of favour, stemming the stream of new high-rises to a trickle.
“High-rise luxury accommodation flourished and London’s skyline ascended to new levels of glass and iron clad indulgence”
As the millennium dawned, London rent rates sky-rocketed and foreign investment created an influx of overseas businessmen looking to pay top dollar for world class accommodation. As a result, building up became the only logical option for firms looking to make a real profit. High-rise luxury accommodation flourished and London’s skyline ascended to new levels of glass and iron clad indulgence. Take buildings such as 20 Fenchurch Street, otherwise known as the Walkie Talkie. The recent winner of the 2015 Carbuncle Cup, the Walkie Talkie has been subject to a wave of criticism. This might be partly due to the façades ability to focus sunlight enough to melt cars and creating down draughts capable of blowing people off their feet. While any design that requires a health warning should be avoided, it was perhaps the lack of architectural relevance to the surrounding skyline that ensured the Walkie Talkie’s notoriety.
Of course, comparing a 1950s designed embassy building with a modern day residential high-rise will never give the full story-but the carefree approach with which the Walkie Talkie was approved is symptomatic of the laissez-faire attitude to London’s new generation of high-rises. While New Zealand House defied the standard design of the time, every innovation it included was relevant to the overall function and aesthetic. Not only that, but the design aimed to limit the impact of the building on the surrounding skyline. In a clever use of perspective, the podium that spans the base of the entire building prevents the view of the tower from overwhelming those viewing it from the street below, while the lower façade was raised to match the height of the surrounding street displays.
As the capital plans to embrace even more vertical constructions, Boris, his town planners and the new generation of ‘starchitects’ would do well to remember the value of retaining a consistent design vernacular. Only through maintaining a cohesive and long-term vision of the London skyline we want can we create designs that truly convey the cultural and historical significance of this great city.
What’s your favourite London high-rise? Let us know in the comments below.