A recent report by the think-tank New London Architecture revealed that there are 200 planning applications pending for towers of 20 storeys or more in London. It is an astonishing figure for a city still seen as essentially low rise – at least in comparison with its US or Asian competitors – and it tells a story of a city that is going through a fundamental change. A city’s towers are the symbols of its idols. A few centuries ago, the UK capital was a city of spires. But London’s 200 new towers are something different. Virtually every one contains “luxury” apartments. This new residential upsurge in London is echoed across the Atlantic in New York – as property in both cities becomes a global reserve currency. New York, once the city of the commercial skyscraper, has become the city of the condo tower and the penthouse. But where does that leave commercial architecture?
The answer, rather counterintuitively, is almost exactly where it was a century or more ago. In New York, the Downtown trend was firmly residential with the once unthinkable phenomenon of historic Wall Street buildings being converted to apartments as the financial sector moved to Midtown. Yet when the developers of the World Trade Center site, Silverstein Properties and the Port Authority, began to rebuild they bucked the trend, going not for the mixed-use urbanism of contemporary orthodoxy but rather for a purely commercial scheme, a cluster of super-tall office towers by a cluster of “starchitects”: Fumihiko Maki, Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and others. The effect is to preserve this part of Downtown as a place of work. But what is less visible is what happens underground. Apart from the massive (and, at $4bn, strikingly expensive) transport interchange, below ground the site will host a huge subterranean retail centre spreading up into the lower floors of the towers.
This is similar to what has been happening in the City of London. Here too, star architects are building big commercial towers increasingly dominated by retail at their bases. Even as much of big finance shifts eastward to Canary Wharf, the City has succeeded in repelling residential development, in constant fear of residents rejecting newer, bigger commercial developments and has managed to keep itself commercial. Yet it is doing that by expanding upwards in a manner that has caused concern. The city planners’ professed desire to “cluster” towers has been smashed by a number of huge buildings that lie distinctly outside the designated zones. The Shard in Southwark and the Walkie Talkie in Fenchurch Street (designed by Renzo Piano and Rafael Viñoly respectively) have destroyed any idea of a coherent skyline.
The suspicion is that big name architects are being brought in to flatter planners and local authorities with their presence yet the results are very far from architectural masterpieces. Instead they reflect a globalising trend of architecture as logo; simplistic shapes that exist to draw attention to themselves rather than as constituents in an urban landscape. London is in danger of becoming closer in its skyline to Doha than to New York, which, as a grid, allows for almost infinite extrusion of the rectangular block in its structural DNA.
Sir David Chipperfield makes the point that part of the problem is scale. The new generation of skyscrapers has been conceived as objects rather than engaged architecture. The Art Deco towers of New York were divided into base, shaft and crown, each vertical stratum of the city the recipient of its own visual language. The base addressed the street, the crown the skyline and almost endlessly extrudable shaft the mid-levels. The object appears complete only from a distance or in a model.
It is, of course, not a problem confined to London. Paris’s once cosmopolitan and socially mixed centre has become a ghetto of extreme wealth very similar to London’s. This in turn, however, has forced the once derided La Défense to reconsider its architecture and a slow, careful reimagining of the public spaces and the commercial architecture that defines them is becoming, for the first time, a genuinely engaging urban realm.
Meanwhile reports that the commercial property market in the United Arab Emirates is recovering (thanks, in part, to investment caused by tensions elsewhere in the region), might strike delight into underemployed western architects but it also demonstrates that there is life yet in other models of development – in ways of defining new centres upon a virtual tabula rasa.
The skyscraper in the desert never made any real sense – it is instead a symbolic gesture in which architecture represents a yet-to-be-fulfilled future of prosperity. The skyscraper is, as Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas once proclaimed, an inherently utopian project. Its continuing dominance of a commercial discourse might be detracting from problems on the streets, from the way in which the city works at ground level but, as the construction of the kilometre-high Kingdom Tower in Saudi Arabia shows, it remains a developer’s dream and towers are going nowhere except up.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture and design critic