November 2, 2012 6:49 pm

Small plan syndrome

Europe uses history as far too much of an excuse for turning down visionary ideas
Tall buildings illustration©Chris Rice

It’s a shame that Rome doesn’t like tall buildings. It may be true that the forefathers of Ferrari are more famous for their roads than their insulae – multi-storey apartment blocks – but it’s a city in dire need of housing. The last thing it needs is the progress police smacking tape measures against their thighs on a “right to light” protest at the mere sniff of a skyscraper.

Of course progress is subjective. I’m not myopic enough to think that an economy so reliant on its rich jigsaw of historic buildings would want to sacrifice the tourism they generate. But when plans to build the granite-clad 120m Eurosky tower overlooking Rome’s EUR district were unveiled in 2010, mayor Gianni Alemanno had to convince locals to see the light, as it were, by confirming that the Vatican, five miles to the north, would be unimpeded.

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London had exactly the same issue with The Shard: opponents claimed it blocked views of St Paul’s Cathedral. In response, then-mayor Ken Livingstone relaxed “viewing corridors”, laws governing visual pathways to key landmarks, paving the way for London to claim Europe’s “tallest building” crown.

However, on a global chart of tall buildings, London ranks a lowly 59th, according to Emporis.com, the architecture consultancy. While British architects like Sir Terry Farrell gallivant across the Far East helping China sprout skyscrapers like school-kids growing cress, England’s sky-high ambitions may as well be lining up at the Tower of London.

Indeed, Farrell’s 442m pencil-shaped colossus in Shenzhen, southern China is typical of a country embracing future growth. Along with 70 new airports, five of the world’s 10 tallest buildings set for completion next year will also be in China. Cities such as Changzhou, Tianjin, Wuxi and Chongqing will boast high rises well above the Shard’s 310m peak.

It goes without saying that you cannot fly directly to any of these places from London, which, in my view, is increasingly amputated from the world through a lack of aviation capacity and a tax regime effectively designed to alienate wealthy foreign investors. The British government doesn’t understand property: it has yet to work out that prime real estate is a huge export, or that those who buy it could play a key role in Britain’s recovery.

Vertical dwelling is as much about the gregarious embrace of humankind as it is about our hatred of urban sprawl or our increasing thirst for space and natural daylight.

Technology and employment are key drivers. Modern agriculture methods will immensely reduce the numbers of farmers needed to feed China’s 1.3bn population.

I was at a Far Eastern planning seminar recently where experts, referring to Chinese government research, claimed that 300m people would move from rural to urban environments in the next 20 years.

China is planning for this and has realised that sprawl infects the flow of cities, making transport a nightmare for residents and impossible for key workers. Entire districts can be scarred by noise and chaos – a picture anyone familiar with Mumbai will know well.

But let’s not forget the true beauty of cloud living: the social fabric that exists in them. Often bound through the plush exuberance of interiors, startling architecture and the adrenaline rush of looking down on the world, vertical villages attract certain types of individuals. These folk are glued by the community that’s as strong as the village greens many Brits still idealistically cling to. Tall buildings preserve these commendable values but offer us a modern way of engineering them.

Of course in the Middle East – which never had village greens in the first place – it’s no wonder that towers, just as the man-made islands many soar above, have been embraced. Six of the top 10 tallest residential blocks in the world are all in Dubai, says Emporis, with the soaring 828m Burj Khalifa taller than the combined height of its next two completed residential towers.

Converting the UAE’s oil rush into different investment classes makes perfect sense though. And sovereign states clearly avoid the bureaucracy that, for many, blights much of Europe. Other tower hotspots like South Korea, Hong Kong and Malaysia have neither the planning fandango nor the Nimbies to placate. Europe uses history as far too much of an excuse for turning down visionary plans.

Take Istanbul: the crumbling grandeur of its Ottoman architecture is among the most prized in the world. But there are an amazing 31 skyscrapers under construction, according to Emporis, greater than the 15 coming in Moscow.

If that means seeing London’s Park Lane with towers strewn like darts along the periphery of Hyde Park, then great. Only those stuck pulling horse and carts across village greens will be angered by the idea.

John Hitchcox is chairman of the design company Yoo. He is, and has been, involved in the design and branding of high rise projects around the world

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