Building Big in London

Renzo Piano and Mies van der Rohe and their backers worked to design thoughtful and thought-provoking tall buildings in London. What were the reasons to build so high?

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View of the Shard and London skyline, February 2012

 

 

In front an audiencein 2012 at the RIBA's headquarters, architect Renzo Piano was interviewed by Razia Iqbal for the BBC World Service. Through his responses to questions from Iqbal and members of the public, Piano explained the design behind the Shard (which when completed in 2012 it became the tallest building in western Europe), his ideas about architecture and the role architects can play in shaping cities for a sustainable future. Public engagement and discussion such as this event is just one way that architects can use to demonstrate the benefits of their design. Supportive clients can be powerful public advocates, as the Shard’s Irvine Sellar has been.

Renzo Piano being interviewed at the RIBA

Renzo Piano being interviewed at the RIBA, 2012     

...they give back to the city more than they get from the city.

What can tall buildings do for cities like London?

Piano believes ultimately that the relationship between his building and London will prove to be a positive one. Tall buildings are justified if “ they give back to the city more than they get from the city ” by intensifying the use of city centres and by counteracting the corrosive effects of suburbanisation which create expensive and unsustainable “ new peripheries ”. It is hoped that this “ vertical city ” with its variety of uses will generate activity throughout the day and beyond 6pm when most offices close. If Piano is correct, Londoners – in time – will come to consider the Shard a familiar and well-loved part of their city.

Number One Poultry, City of London. © Janet Hall / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Number One Poultry, City of London.
© Janet Hall / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Proposals to build tall in London are susceptible to changes in public opinion and legislation, but also crucially, to the attitude of planners, built environment bodies and government officials (elected or otherwise). The Shard has successfully navigated through an inquiry and the scrutiny of CABE. In 1985, the decision of the then environment secretary thwarted attempts to bring Mies van der Rohe’s Mansion House Square scheme to life, despite a  long battle  waged for planning permission by its client Peter Palumbo. Where now stands a fairly squat No.1 Poultry, could have been the site of a Modernist glass and bronze skyscraper akin to the Seagram Building.

 

Mies’s tower for London – “confidence in the future”

Mies’s design would have been more than just office space. Below the main 290 feet tall (88 metres) tower and its 18 floors there would have been an underground shopping mall. Much of the ground level of the site consisted of a major consideration for a new public square where it was imaged there would be music festivals, concerts, exhibitions and even flower sellers. Palumbo said in 1981 that official approval of the scheme would be seen as “ an act of confidence in the future ” (Palumbo, 1981 p.3).

What would it lose if the building was not built? 

Mansion House Buildings (latterly known as Mappin & Webb), demolished in 1994. © RIBA Library Books and Periodicals Collection
Mansion House Buildings (latterly known as Mappin & Webb),
demolished in 1994.
© RIBA Library Books and Periodicals Collection

The tower would have dwarfed most of its neighbours and required the demolition of a prominent, if eclectic, collection of Victorian buildings. The public space element of the scheme would have allowed a better view of grand buildings surrounding the site: George Dance the Elder’s Mansion House, Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens’s Midland Bank, Sir Edwin Cooper ’s National Westminster Bank and the church of St Stephen Walbrook. By the 1980s such a proposal to erase part of London’s urban history and replacement by something of a different scale was opposed. In the end there was no new public space and instead James Stirling designed a building for part of the intended site, more in keeping with the scale of the classical-style stone buildings on Poultry, Walbrook and Cheapside, though in a radically different and rather more exuberant style. In writing about about the potential benefits of Mies’s posthumous project, Palumbo once posed a question about the City of London, which even now would produce conflicting answers from all quarters: “ What would it lose if the building was not built? ” (Palumbo, 1981 p.3)

Reference  (available from the British Architectural Library, RIBA)

  • Palumbo, P.,  The Mansion House Square scheme . London: Number 1 Poultry, 1981

 

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