Tate Modern Switch House: a New Perspective on London

High rise developments are often exclusive private spaces, as attested by the current glut of luxury flats, hotels and offices rising across Inner London. Even recent developments advertising their public space credentials have come up short, with for example the Shard’s fantastic views costing £25 entry fee, or the Walkie-Talkie’s ‘skygarden’ amounting to an expensive restaurant and some pot plants.

It’s wonderfully refreshing therefore that London’s newest tower is dedicated to public space. Tate Modern’s Switch House extension includes free galleries, spaces for contemplation and discussion, and one of the most spectacular 360 degree viewing locations in London. It all adds up to a big improvement to what was already a very successful gallery.

The Switch House exterior sits right next to brightly coloured flats and office developments. Architects Herzog and de Meuron have opted for a bold angular form that holds its own in this contested space, while still complementing the original Bankside power station through the use of a brickwork lattice.

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The gallery floors are spacious, with the exhibits focusing less on blockbuster artists, and more on international voices, sculpture and performance. For example the Living Cities gallery features works from the Middle East and Africa. The winding nature of the tower staircases also creates many intimate and relaxing spaces, which contrasts nicely with the busier open galleries next to the turbine hall.

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The viewing gallery presents a superb panorama over the City, St Paul’s, East and South London. It’s an amazing perspective, and quite unique compared to other skyline views, particularly with Bankside tower looming just in front, and no glass barriers present. Thew view westwards is more obscured from developments around Blackfriars, but is still fascinating.

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Here’s how the the new tower links with the existing galleries in the internal plan. There’s even a bridge across the turbine hall. High-res versions of these photos are on flickr.

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London’s High Rise Debate

Last week New London Architecture, centre for built-environment debate and communication, launched a new exhibition on London high rises and high buildings policy. As well as including many spectacular models of present and future buildings, the exhibition presents results from NLA research into London’s current generation of high building proposals.  The most eye-catching finding is that there are over 230 towers of 20 storeys or more proposed or under construction in London, potentially resulting in a dramatic change in London’s urban environment. A high profile campaign has been launched by the Guardian and Architects’ Journal calling for for more discussion and a ‘Skyline Commission’ to assess the impacts of these many developments. The NLA exhibition itself takes a more neutral tone in the debate, and highlights are summarised below.

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NLA “London’s Growing Up” Exhibition, with Leadenhall Building Model

It’s clear from the NLA map below that the majority of proposals are strongly clustered spatially, with many adjacent to existing high rise districts of Canary Wharf and in the City around Bishopsgate and Liverpool Street. There are however many new clusters set to be created, principally Vauxhall-Nine Elms; Waterloo; Blackfriars Bridge; City Road (Islington); Aldgate; Stratford and North Greenwich. Demand for high rises is a result of acute pressures for more housing, and the prioritising of development at public transport nodes, such as Canary Wharf, Vauxhall and Blackfriars. In heritage terms a number of these clusters are controversial, particularly those along the South Bank that affect London’s river views, and those proposals in the vicinity of the world heritage sites of Westminster and the Tower of London.

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NLA Insight Study map of current high building proposals

The main critique from campaigners is that there is a lack of vision from planners regarding high buildings policy, and that current developments are being driven by schemes for luxury residential flats along the river that maximise developer profits. The map above lends support to this view, particularly along the South Bank and at Vauxhall. There are already many medium rise luxury flat developments along the Thames of often limited design quality, and its debatable whether the current batch of taller developments will be any better. Policy restrictions in London are strongly geared towards protecting views of St Pauls Cathedral, effectively preventing new schemes in West Central London. Protection elsewhere is more limited and dependent on borough level interpretations of policy. Westminster has prioritised conservation and prevented new high rises (except at the Paddington Station development) while neighbouring boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark are more inclined to accept proposals, and use the much needed revenue for further housing development.

As well as covering the current planning debate, the exhibition includes many beautiful architectural models of existing and future high building proposals. There are some really unique designs, such as the fountain pen-shaped ‘Pinnacle’ that is back under development in the main City of London cluster.

Overall the exhibition is well worth a visit, and whether you are a fan or a critic of high buildings in London, there is clearly a need for greater awareness and discussion of current changes and what they will mean for the urban environment. There is also a need for more public access to open models and visualisations of how new buildings will appear and change London’s physical structure. Andy Hudson-Smith (@digitalurban) argued for this a few years back in CASA’s Virtual London project, and it appears that trends are currently moving in this direction.

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High Rise Hangover

Swept up in the wave of the mid-2000’s property boom, planning authorities signed-off a series of new high rise developments in London- bigger and bolder than any in the city’s history. It is only now that the cumulative effects of these decisions are emerging on the London skyline. Faced with the bleak picture of our current economic climate, these buildings could be seen as the height of speculative folly- rampant capitalism gone awry in the kind of short-term money grabbing that led to the current economic crisis. Or maybe, to take a more optimistic view, are these instead symbols of confidence in London’s ability to ride-out the storm?

London is overall a low density city compared to say New York or Tokyo, or even Paris. The UK’s first experiments with high-rises began post-WWII, with cheap Corbusier tower imitations built to solve massive housing shortages. These towers were often aesthetically dull, difficult to live in (even dangerous), and conflicted with traditional street networks. Even those few high rise projects of good quality (like the Barbican) divided opinion with their aggressive style. Hence the traditional dislike of high-rise building in Britain.

This attitude began to change with the commercial success of Canary Wharf in the late 1990’s, and the popularity of 30 St Mary Axe by Foster & Partners, nicknamed the Gherkin. High-rise developers now actively promote skyscraper nicknames to make their multi-million investments seem more friendly and part of the city’s furniture.

By far the tallest of the current crop of London skyscrapers is London Bridge Tower, or the ‘Shard’, which is now nearing completion. At a height of over 300 metres it’s not tall by international standards, but for London it’s a giant, 120 metres taller than the Gherkin. It sits outside of the main high-rise City cluster on the Southbank and, like Canary Wharf tower before it, could form the centre-piece of a new cluster. It’s certainly awe-inspiring, creating a Manhattan-like vertiginous feeling when you get up close. The tapered spire-like form limits the visual impact of the massive structure, and it sits not unattractively amongst the jumble of buildings south of the river.

Yet despite the Shard being an engineering marvel, you have to question whether this is an appropriate direction for the future of London. In scale terms it dwarfs anything on the London skyline, sitting incongruously with historic sights such as Tower Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral. Despite architect Renzo Piano’s claims that he was inspired by London’s historic spires and ship masts, the structure appears sleekly anonymous and corporate, transferable to any world city, Dubai-on-Thames. There’s more than a hint of Bladerunner about the design, like we’ve decided sci-fi dystopia is the way-to-go for London. Perhaps this is a honest expression the social inequalities we’ve created, argues Jonathan Jones.

Time will tell how the public judge the Shard (or whatever alternative moniker catches on- the Spike? the Prick?). Soberingly it’s probably the best of the current breed of new skyscrapers in London. Continuing the theme of sci-fi kitsch, the worst new building in the UK, as voted in the 2010 carbuncle cup, is the Strata Tower at Elephant and Castle.

The Strata has an aggressive plastic-looking form, topped with three wind turbines. These turbines will reportedly supply 8% of the building’s electricity needs- a poor return for such a visually intrusive feature. High density development can bring sustainability benefits, but the embedded energy from the construction of thousands of tonnes of steel, concrete and glass nullifies the green credentials of any skyscraper, and the Strata tower’s turbines are surely the worst kind of greenwashing. Developers have dubbed Strata Tower the ‘Razor’, though I find the alternative moniker of ‘Sauron’s Tower’ better captures the building’s design and symbolism. Tolkien fans will note however that Sauron had a good deal more style than the Strata, and preferred geothermal power.

The real tragedy of Strata it that it’s supposed to be the catalyst for the regeneration of Elephant and Castle, a deprived district, notoriously badly designed with oppressive road intersections and 1960’s mass housing. Plans for major regeneration have been in place for many years, but there is currently little evidence on the ground. At present the debate is focussing on tranforming the traffic interchange, with TfL blocking more radical plans due to reduced vehicle flow impacts.

Not to be outdone by these Inner London imitators, the money-machine of the City has it’s own ambitious plans to win London’s race to the top/bottom. This includes a rather elegant fountain-pen shaped tower dubbed the Pinnacle, similar in height to the Shard, and also what I believe will go down as the biggest mistake in the current generation of London skyscrapers- 20 Fenchurch Street Tower. This ‘unique’ design gets bigger as it rises, thus providing larger floor-plates to maximise rents, and creating what will likely be a highly overbearing form at street level. Worst of all is the view from the Thames, where the building presents a bulging outline and inward looking face, in a remarkable resemblance to a sore thumb. In profile it looks like a hoodie. The Sore Thumb is now back under construction and is coming Londoners’ way in 2014.

Can we learn anything then from London’s new skyscraper bestiary? Our age of iconic architectural bling seems to have entered a new phase of attention-grabbing arrogance, with playful techno-futuristic aesthetics used as a marketing tool for investors and to soften the edges of raw soulless capitalism. For every interesting design there are several ungainly mistakes, and planners don’t seem to know the difference. Or alternatively authorities have decided that development trumps aesthetic or environmental concerns (worryingly this mode of thinking is the basis for proposed reforms to the planning system- more in a later post). The eccentric architectural laboratory of London continues with the modernist relics of the 2oth century now paired with our own 21st century futuristic fad, except this time the buildings are three times taller.  If we imposed a blanket-ban on all structures higher than 100 metres then coming generations would probably thank us.