The Shard, London

The Central London Skyline – What Massive Changes

To start 2020, a new decade, we look back over the past ten years at central London’s changing skline and what it means for the Capital:

In early 2000s, the first Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone (‘Red Ken’ no less) proposed that the City of London should have an area between Liverpool Street, Bank and Aldgate known as the “Cluster” – tall buildings to accommodate companies with requirements of c.500,000 sq ft. His aim was not to turn London into a Manhattan of Europe, but to keep London’s place at the Centre of Europe. After the development of Docklands took major corporations to the East, the idea made the City attractive again.

Prior to this, the main tall buildings in London were the 183 metres (600 ft) Nat West Tower (now called Tower 42) and Centre Point, both built in the 1970s and designed by Sir Richard Seifert. The NatWest Tower was designed with cantilevered floors in three parts, which roughly corresponded to the three chevrons of the NatWest logo when viewed in plan.

Centre Point sat proudly in a run-down area of the West End, at the top of Oxford Street, waiting for the area around it to improve. It stood empty from 1966 when it was completed until 1975, except for a brief occupation by housing activists in 1974. Today it is high-end residential – having been fully let as offices for the first time in its 40-year history in 2008.

Both buildings have their stories – both were designed by Sir Richard Seifert.

Digressing, at the same time, Wembley Stadium, West Ham United, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea all developed or had plans for new stadiums – more on this below.

The history of tall buildings in London started with St Paul’s Cathedral in the 1600’s. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren it is London. The BT Tower, which can be seen from almost the 4 points of the Compass due to where it sits was, for a while the tallest building in London. A number of tall buildings went up in the 1960’s, 1970’s and early 1980’s. The NatWest Tower was considered the first London Skyscraper.

Docklands was developed throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s to the East – Developer Olympia and York creating in London a smaller mirror of their creation in New York.

Up to 2005, the Central London Skyline was relatively low. Then, perhaps “not so Red” Ken’s decision to open the planning restrictions and create this cluster.

The first Skyscraper of this new generation to be built, the Heron Tower (now Salesforce) could be considered Iconic – it is not just glass. Its exterior is also Steel – at Sunset, I have seen from Primrose Hill, the building turn Rose Pink. It is sleek, elegant & beautiful – for a Skyscraper. In time, it may be listed. KPF Architects, and its developer Heron International, should be congratulated.

I do however believe it has been an opportunity missed for architects, some of whom are world class. Within the cluster sits the magnificent Lloyds Building. Around it, a mish mash of glass 200-300 metres high in all sorts of weird & wonderful shapes.

The Walkie Talkie, The Leadenhall (designed to allow a view of St Pauls Cathedral from a pub somewhere), 22 Bishopsgate – tallest building in London, Bishopsgate Tower, The Scapel, The Willis Tower, Can of Ham (70 St Mary Axe) & The Shard all made of – glass. Not one of those 8 buildings (+ the Swiss Re Tower) built within 5 years of each other are made with anything other than lots of windows. What a wasted opportunity.

The Shard, although glass, is an exception. The brilliant architect Renzo Piano along with the late, great Irvine Sellar transformed an area of London crying out for help. Its engineering & build is a University Degree in itself.

Mr Piano’s first London project Central St Giles Circus is not written about much yet with its colour and design is just stunning. Hopefully in time, it will be listed.

Back to the football grounds – Wembley Stadium, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur all developed £1billion office buildings that happen to have a football pitch in the middle of them – what a waste of nearly £3 billion. West Ham moved from an atmospheric tinderbox to the least suitable football stadium on the planet – the Olympic Stadium.

Only Chelsea dared push the boundaries and challenge probably one of the greatest footballing architects, Sir Archibald Leitch with a proposed design for a new Stamford Bridge which would have blown any other stadium in the country away, designed by Herzog & Meuron. Sadly, after a few bouts of novichok poisoning by his fellow countrymen, Mr Abramovich is spending less time in the UK and pulled the project. A real shame. It would have been his best signing.

Good Architecture – Last year, In Paddington, Derwent London completed The Brunel Building – a nod to Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s engineering genius. Real thought went into this building. Whilst Paddington is not the City of London – the architects Fletcher Priest have created something that will stand the test of time.

We are at the start of a new decade. We have the buildings above Crossrail to be developed, potentially HS2 redevelopment of Euston Station, maybe a new Boris Island Airport or at best finally some sort of Heathrow/Gatwick masterplan (Heathrow Terminal 1 is currently abandoned) – there is an opportunity for young architects to recreate London better than the last 20 years.

We hope it is taken.