The politics of design: architecture, tall buildings and the skyline of central London



After 2000 a handful of very tall buildings were approved in central London, a circumstance that challenged well-established planning practices in that part of the city. Their promotion by Ken Livingstone, the mayor, but opposition to them by conservation groups, seemed to signal a fierce campaign ahead; in fact, it was all over in an instant. This article examines how this debate was framed to dismiss the arguments and concerns of those who oppose tall buildings. To make tall buildings acceptable, London's mayor drew on the merits associated with iconic architecture and high-profile architects. Under Livingstone's incumbency tall buildings were affirmed by the expertise and clout of global architects who provided legitimacy for mayoral ambitions to reach for the sky. Stressing the significance of high-quality design and iconic architecture helped to wear down deep-rooted antagonism and to channel the debate to improving the aesthetic qualities of London, a goal that enjoys wide consensus.


After the revolt against the lumpish high rises of the 1970s, in most European cities both architectural and public sentiment determined that nothing else should be allowed to break through a strict but unstated height limit. Then, equally suddenly, the received wisdom was turned on its head. Building tall became an obsession for architects not just in Asia and America, but in Europe too. (Sudjic 2005c, 360–1)

The shift related above is reflected in cities across Europe. In each city that experienced this change, a number of tall buildings were recently completed: Barcelona, Munich, Cologne, Malmö, Bonn, Nuremberg and The Hague are a few such examples. In other cities, such as Moscow, Madrid, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Manchester and Birmingham, tall buildings were approved or are under construction. Tall buildings have become ‘sine qua non of place in the global hierarchy of cities’ (Zukin 1992, 203) and the ‘only visible symptom of world city formation’ (Taylor et al. 2002, 233). Construction of tall buildings often involves global architects (dubbed ‘starchitects’) and iconic architecture, both having gained importance in recent decades (Sklair 2005). Property firms acknowledge the aura associated with global architects in promoting developments; political leaders likewise appreciate the instrumental role of architecture as an expressive means of urban re-imaging.

In London a dramatic change is expected to transform its skyline; by 2015 the city should have 18–20 skyscrapers, many of them in central London (Guardian 2006; Teather 2006). This change is largely attributable to the activism of London's mayor (McNeill 2002a 2002b). Shortly after assuming office as London's first elected mayor in mid-2000, Ken Livingstone announced his backing for the development of tall buildings in the capital, including the City and its surrounding boroughs. Initial concerns stirred debate between Livingstone, pro-development boroughs (e.g. Corporation of London, Tower Hamlets and Croydon), and leading conservation bodies, namely English Heritage and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) (McNeill 2002a). But after a brief campaign the opposition dwindled; this generates the question why? In this article I suggest that examining how the debate was framed is crucial for understanding why tall buildings were eventually approved. The campaign orchestrated by Livingstone expressed a strategy that made use of the artistic and aesthetic values associated with iconic architecture and global architects. In the linkage of global city status with spectacular tall buildings, high-quality design was repeatedly stressed to make such developments acceptable and appreciable. Global architects who were commissioned to design tall buildings participated in Livingstone's campaign, shoring up the legitimacy of tall buildings as symbols of global power. Architectural authority and eye-catching designs were skilfully used to appease opponents of tall buildings. As spectacular architecture became a desired element in many cities, it was placed high on the development agenda. The debate was no longer about whether tall buildings were needed; arguments instead encompassed issues such as location, design merits and architectural qualities. Framing the debate around these issues defused deep-rooted antagonism and lasting perceptions.

City leaders, architecture and urban design

Making visually aesthetic cities is not novel, nor is the connection between political leaders and monumental architecture (Kostof 1991). Still, during the past couple of decades, urban design has gained importance in the planning agenda of many cities. The shift of approach from urban managerialism to urban entrepreneurialism (Harvey 1989) has made city governments more responsive to business needs and more aware of intensifying competition between cities. They have to come to recognize that spectacular and innovative architecture designed by star architects may positively contribute to the exposure of their cities. Such is the case in declining industrial cities such as Bilbao or cities which have aimed to improve their global standing such as Sydney and Kuala Lumpur. Designed by the American architect Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao has become a cultural icon, re-imaging the entire city and creating tourism (Evans 2003; Plaza 2000). Petronas Towers were meant to put Kuala Lumpur on the world map and make it a world city (Morshidi 1997 2001; Bunnell 1999). In many cases entrepreneurial and long-serving mayors have played a key role in shaping cities: Pasqual Maragall in Barcelona, Francesco Rutelli in Rome and Frank Sartor in Sydney are a few examples (McNeill 2001 2003; Punter 2005).

Impressive architecture and renowned architects have become essential elements of the postmodern city (Olds 2001; Gospodini 2002; McNeill 2002a 2005; Evans 2003; Sklair 2005 2006). Architecture has acquired a life of its own, and the development of standard tall buildings, such as simple rectangular boxes, is no longer enough. Architecture exemplifies the globalization of the urban form: ‘it is certainly the search for architectural icons that drives the process in globalizing cities’ (Sklair 2005, 498). In a world of abundant attractions, the best architectural designs are considered prerequisite for the production of instantly recognizable distinctiveness, since ‘projecting the “image of being global” is as important as “being global” in the competitive global economy’ (Marshall 2003, 23). As images become differentiating mediums, prestigious and distinctive landmarks turn into cutting-edge locations for global capital.

Global architects (a group of maybe 30 names; Sudjic 2005c, 318) play an essential part. They have become influential figures and their works are highly desired in every city around the globe that seeks to pull together an assemblage of distinguished edifices:

Every ambitious city wants an architect to do for them what they think Jorn Utzon's Opera House did for Sydney and Frank Gehry and the Guggenheim did for Bilbao. (Sudjic 2005c, 318)

Internationally renowned architects are vital because, as suggested by the deputy mayor of Bilbao, ‘good architecture is not enough anymore: to seduce we need names’ (quoted in Gonzalez 2006, 12). In this context tall buildings have won a leading position: ‘many national and civic leaders have chosen intervention in the skyline as an important part of “scripting” a world city status’ (McNeill 2002a, 325). In Shanghai, top architects with an international reputation from Britain, Italy, Japan and France were contacted for the planning of a new business district of tall buildings. The lack of local experience in global architectural practices was deemed irrelevant by the Chinese organizers since the foreign teams were supposed to supply the ‘shock of the new’, associated with high Modernism (Olds 1997 2001). Similarly, Cesar Pelli was commissioned to design a new symbol for Kuala Lumpur (Petronas Towers) and the global architectural practice of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) designed Burj Dubai, which on completion will be the world's tallest skyscraper.

Obviously, whether to develop large-scale and spectacular projects is a highly contentious matter. Those in favour of them highlight expected economic benefits and potential social opportunities as supportive factors. Decision-makers use these arguments to legitimize controversial developments, particularly those that are large-scale and conspicuous. By and large, justifications focus on economic grounds, namely the promotion of growth. Cities that compete to host mega-events such as the Olympic Games and world fairs assert that huge spending on spectacular projects such as sport stadiums and infrastructure facilities is worthwhile because of their positive economic impact on cities in the long run. Social aspects are often highlighted too. Providing social housing and revitalizing deprived neighbourhoods are proclaimed crucial for creating equality, and accordingly justify excessive density rights. Impressive tall buildings are also supported by an appeal to the grander ambitions of local and national leaders. For local planners and politicians in Shanghai, an appropriate method to express the achievements of the reform era was the development of impressive skyscrapers. Skyscrapers were attractive because of the association of towers with modernization, and the recognition that Shanghai is the most international of all Chinese cities (Olds 1997; Marshall 2003). This is probably the case with the recent surge in extravagant skyscrapers in Dubai, which aims at widening its global exposure. But European cities remain suspicious of tall buildings:

Europe doesn't much like skyscrapers. There, tall buildings – a quintessential American architecture form – are generally regarded in a negative light, suspicious products of rapacious corporate speculators bent on destroying the fabric of life and cultural heritage of old European cities. (Dupré 1996, 111)

The overall built form of the historic core and particular landmarks within it were considered historical assets. Preserving the recognized and human-scale fabric of the historic city has been the main argument for opposition to tall buildings. The completion of an extra-tall building in the 1970s (Maine-Montparnasse, 210 metres tall) sparked fierce criticism and resentment toward high-rise buildings in Paris. This tower, which is situated close to the historical core, became a dominant element in the city's silhouette, dwarfing many historic Parisian landmarks (Sutcliffe 1993). The outcry led to a ban on buildings of more than eight stories in the city centre. The recent link of tall buildings with global standing and with iconic architecture has made them more acceptable in some European cities. Newly completed tall buildings designed by star architects may become urban icons. Turning Torso (Malmö: architect Santiago Calatrava), Torre Agbar (Barcelona: architect Jean Nouvel), and the Gherkin (London: architect Norman Foster) are possible candidates for identification with the skylines of their respective cities.

Bringing tall buildings to central London

I have no intentions to recreate Manhattan here; I want London to flourish as London – a unique exciting and truly global city . . . London must continue to grow and maintain its global pre-eminence in Europe. London must continue to reach for the skies. (Mayor of London 2001, 3–4)

Until the 1960s London maintained a relatively low skyline because of the tight restrictive environment that aspired to preserve the visual dominance of its historic buildings such as St Paul's Cathedral and the Houses of Parliament. The development of several, albeit isolated, tall buildings in the 1960s and 1970s in London's West End (Centre Point and Euston Tower) and within the City (Britannic House and NatWest Tower) somewhat changed London's skyline. Further change occurred in the 1980s when the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher encouraged greater private involvement in urban development. The start of the Canary Wharf project in London's Docklands and the completion of its first major tall building there in 1991, One Canada Square (50 stories, 237 metres high) opened a new era of tall-building development on London's perimeter. Still, tall buildings were largely missing from central London.

Under the recent administrative rearrangement of London (the Greater London Authority Act, passed by Parliament in 1999), the mayor's role in the course of London's future development is crucial, as most of the executive powers are vested in him or her. The mayor has statutory capabilities to reshape urban development as he or she is responsible for the city's spatial development strategy (expressed in London Plan, released in 2004). Among other stipulations, this Act requires local planning authorities to consult the mayor on proposals for tall buildings (thresholds for tall buildings vary according to location). Ken Livingstone, London's first elected mayor, changed from a hard-line Labour Party member (‘Red Ken’) and opponent of unrestricted capitalism into a keen sponsor of tall buildings, the ultimate symbols of capitalism. His aim was to reshape London's skyline, in particular its core, which is most closely associated with global-city functions. Notwithstanding his potential powers, the mayor has few resources to implement them as he or she is heavily reliant on central government for funding (Sweeting 2003). The lack of financial resources has made Livingstone actively court the business sector and adopt a strong pro-business attitude (Syrett 2006). Such an attitude allows him to realize his own programme, overcoming the lack of financial power; it helps gain independence in relation to central government (Thornley et al. 2005). In this complex situation tall buildings present clear benefits for Livingstone. They carry potential benefits for planning for example, social housing can be provided as a result of the award of planning permission for tall buildings (Ross 2001; McNeill 2002b). In addition, many of Britain's influential property firms and choice boroughs1 are behind the development of tall buildings.

Livingstone's arguments for pursuing the development of tall buildings rest on the need to provide top-quality office space to keep London at the apex of the world-city hierarchy (McNeill 2002a 2002b; Gordon 2004). For Livingstone, unless London gets more top-quality office space in tall buildings, it risks losing its position as the predominant financial centre in Europe. Competition from Frankfurt as Europe's financial centre and the need for state-of-the-art office space has posed a major threat to London (McNeill 2002a). Livingstone drew on the case of Swiss Re to demonstrate his concerns. Swiss Re, one of the world's leading reinsurance companies, hinted that unless it was allowed to build a distinctive circular tower on the site of the old Baltic Exchange (within the City), it would take itself, its jobs and its huge investment in the British economy back to mainland Europe (Sudjic 2001a). In July 2000, just two months after assuming office, Livingstone urged that its development (30 St Mary Axe known as ‘the Gherkin’) not be subjected to public inquiry. In his letter to the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, he indicated that ‘Any undue delay in the planning process could jeopardize Swiss Re's presence in London’ (SAVE Britain's Heritage 2003). The Deputy Prime Minister was highly supportive of tall buildings and when he had to make a decision on controversial plans he inclined to give his approval. This was the case with Heron Tower, Shard London Bridge and Vauxhall Tower.

London Plan, the strategic plan for London, firmly endorses the development of tall buildings. This plan offers a dual rationale for their development. First, land is scarce in central London and the need to maximize the opportunities presented by the few remaining development sites justifies the construction of tall buildings. It is no longer possible to provide sufficiently large buildings in the City in the form of low-rise large-scale buildings (groundscrapers). Second, tall buildings are connected to global stature: to maintain its global position and meet the needs of certain tenants, London has to consign a portion of its office space to prestigious tall buildings (Mayor of London 2004a). For this purpose, London Plan calls for the development of ten to fifteen tall buildings in the City and elsewhere in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Critique of Livingstone's strategy

Livingstone's tall-building strategy drew fire from their ‘natural’ opponents, namely conservation groups such as English Heritage and SAVE Britain's Heritage, and even from the Prince of Wales. Prince Charles launched an attack on the inflated egos of the architects and the heads of corporations that built them (Worsley 2001). A parliamentary sub-committee which examined the need for tall buildings disagreed with Livingstone's assumptions, arguing that there was ‘no evidence that any company had left London or refused to come to London because of a shortage of tall buildings’ and ‘tall buildings are more about power, prestige, status, and aesthetics’ (House of Commons 2002, 5, 26). In turn, Livingstone used harsh rhetoric against the opponents of tall buildings whom he could attack. He claimed that their chief critic, English Heritage, was the biggest threat to London's future since the Luftwaffe, denouncing it as ‘the Taliban of British architecture’ (Sudjic 2001a 2001b). He believed that English Heritage was standing in the way of his campaign to revitalize London (Sudjic 2005a). When the Deputy Prime Minister granted permission for Heron Tower, a controversial tall building in the City, a plan that English Heritage attempted to stop, Livingstone felt triumphant:

This shows that English Heritage are out of touch. Their arguments about London's skyline have been completely defeated. English Heritage should not be allowed to undermine the economic confidence of the city by calling in every tower proposal there is. (Mayor of London 2002a)

The debate on tall buildings came under the close scrutiny of the media, and major newspapers reported regularly on the issue. Journalists and commentators in leading newspapers were highly critical of Livingstone's fixation on tall buildings. Deyan Sudjic, architecture critic of the Observer and author of The Edifice Complex, a book that charts the relations between power and architecture, concluded,

London is going to be the nearest Europe comes to Shanghai. Footloose international finance, a mayor intoxicated by high-rise architecture, and a developer-friendly planning system have unleashed a wave of developments that are bigger, and brasher, than anything the city has yet seen. (Sudjic 2005a)

Writing for the Guardian and the Sunday Times, Simon Jenkins criticized Livingstone, but also the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who had the power to grant or overturn planning permission:

They [very tall buildings] have been unleashed by that most lethal political phenomenon, a socialist enthralled by capitalism, in London's case Prescott and the city's mayor, Ken Livingstone. (Jenkins 2005)

The architects of tall buildings came under fire too:

They [architects] are adept at using an artist's license to flatter power. They must, because their art is expensive and prominent. It is on public exhibition for generations to come. It also needs to obliterate what went before. Tower builders claim the entire city for their canvass. They demand the right to over-paint Canaletto. (Jenkins 2005)

Expecting opposition, the proponents of tall buildings recruited leading consulting firms that would provide professional support. These firms explored various aspects of tall buildings; not surprisingly, all supported the need for them. A property firm (Development Securities PLC) recruited a group of researchers from the LSE Cities Programme. This group studied five cases (Berlin, Frankfurt, New York, Paris and London) and provided a review of the development of urban design guidelines for tall buildings. The key problem of existing tall buildings in London, according to this report, was their poor architectural quality: well-designed buildings were required. This report suggested that the previously cautious attitude to tall buildings in London was due to haphazard and negative attitudes prompted by the dismal high-rises of the 1960s: ‘London's skyline is “messy” and unstructured, offering few positive ‘role models’ when it comes to tall buildings’ (Development Securities plc 2002, 6). An international design consultancy (DEGW) prepared a report for the Greater London Authority that supported the need for tall buildings in London, stressing the role of high-quality design as an important indicator of new tall buildings (DEGW 2002). Another consultancy firm (Faber Maunsell) prepared a report commissioned by the Corporation of London. This document, which focused on sustainability, argued that high-quality design had the potential of improving sustainability (Corporation of London 2002).

Criticism by conservation groups and the media did not stop Livingstone. The parliamentary sub-committee on tall buildings, though not convinced that tall buildings were essential for the future of London as a global financial centre, concluded: ‘if they [tall buildings] are to enhance the skyline it is important that they are well-designed’ (House of Commons 2002, 5). This last conclusion was wholeheartedly embraced by Livingstone and the supporters of tall buildings.

Putting architecture in focus

Good design is central to all objectives of this plan [London Plan]. It is a tool for helping to accommodate London's growth within its boundaries. Particularly given its strong growth, very high standards of design are needed to make London a better city to live in and one which is more attractive and green. There is a strong link between good design and the attraction to economic investors to help create a prosperous city. (Mayor of London 2004a, 173)

As in Sydney, where the mayoral objective was to elevate architecture and design from the mediocre to the iconic (Punter 2005), Livingstone decided to focus on architectural quality. He also indicated that he would support a criteria-based approach to the assessment of tall buildings in which quality design rather than height should be the key criterion by which planning applications were to be judged (Mayor of London 2001).

To solidify the role of architecture in his development agenda, Livingstone set up an Architecture and Urbanism Unit in April 2001, appointing an internationally acclaimed architectural authority, the London-based Lord Richard Rogers, as his chief advisor on architecture and urbanism. The timing was by no means accidental. The appointment was made at the height of the preparation of the London Plan and at a time when several plans for tall buildings were in the pipeline. Lord Rogers is a highly distinguished architect with numerous London designs (e.g. Lloyd's of London, Millennium Dome and Terminal 5 Heathrow) as well as worldwide (e.g. Centre Pompidou and Madrid Barajas Airport); he is also the chairman of the government's task force for the revitalization of English cities and towns.2 In June 2006 Livingstone announced plans for a new architecture and urban design unit (Design for London). This new unit merges staff from different units that engage in design enhancing the importance of city-wide design. In Livingstone's view this unit will support the delivery of world-class architecture across London's built environment; his declared goal is to make London a world leader in sustainable urban planning, design and architecture (Mayor of London 2006a).

As Livingstone's advisor, Rogers accentuated the role of design in the city-building process. He criticized the present method of planning because ‘Many of the delivery bodies operate first and foremost as land dealers and surveyors concerned with numbers and management, not design’ (Rogers 2005). He eagerly defended the importance of design and high-quality architecture for London, suggesting that for this purpose the mayor's powers had to be expanded:

Unless the mayor is empowered, and given a greater say in this multitude of poorly coordinated quangos, we shall never produce a sustainable policy or design to compare to the best abroad. And if we don't get the design of cities and neighbourhoods right then all our work on crime, education, health, jobs and social exclusion will be undermined. (Rogers 2005)

The discussion was framed in terms of architecture partially to appease those who opposed tall buildings or those who were sceptical about their need. The aforementioned parliamentary sub-committee identified design as one of the key subjects it wished to examine. Concerns were raised about whether the present movement to erect new tall buildings was in danger of repeating the mistakes of the 1960s. Renzo Piano, a distinguished architect and the designer of London's tallest approved building, Shard London Bridge, agreed that the 1960s loomed over contemporary architects:

The problem is that architects who want to build skyward are paying for the sins of their fathers. The generation of architects and builders who spent the postwar years filling the craters left by the Luftwaffe bequeathed London a dispiriting pile of ugly concrete high-rise boxes. (Wallace 2003)

Livingstone praised a recent design by Richard Rogers Partnership (Leadenhall Building).3 In this case, design was used to offset the impact of tall buildings on the historic city:

The building will be nonetheless fall comfortably within the standard ‘world class’ architecture and any perceived harm to the historic environment will be more than overcome by its ability to delight the eye. The building's easily recognisable shape will allow recognition from long distance static views and London panoramas. (Mayor of London 2004b, 10)

With a strong-minded mayor, powerful property interests and a government that endorsed boroughs’ decisions to grant planning permission, the opponents of tall buildings stood little chance of stopping the development of tall buildings. Once they realized that their campaign was largely ineffective, as they could not stop the erection of those buildings, they too adopted a strategy that stressed the role of high-quality design. In 2003 English Heritage and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) published the Guidance on Tall Buildings. In this document the issue of design had a top priority:

Proposals for tall buildings should not be supported unless it can be demonstrated through the submission of fully worked-up proposals that they are of the highest architectural quality. (English Heritage 2003)

Instead of denunciation of tall buildings in central London, these groups made constructive comments for proposed tall buildings.

Conservation groups focused on aesthetic considerations in their campaign against tall buildings; Livingstone and his team used similar arguments to justify the development of tall buildings. As heritage and architecture watchdogs, they were able to make design issues of decisive importance; on the other hand, the design-oriented approach provided a convenient escape route once other efforts were exhausted. Design was stressed subsequent to public inquiries that endorsed the plans for two controversial tall buildings, Heron Tower and Shard London Bridge. After these public inquiries, opponents realized that it was difficult to resist tall buildings which conformed to strict design criteria. CABE awarded its support to many controversial tall buildings; only English Heritage maintained almost across-the-board objection to tall buildings in central London. Even after design amendments to proposed plans were made, English Heritage persisted in its objection to tall buildings; this made English Heritage one of Livingstone's most bitter adversaries.

Global architects and the development of tall buildings

In an interview with the International Herald Tribune, Livingstone convincingly argued that ‘companies will choose London only if they can occupy signature buildings designed by architects like Foster’ (Bowley 2005). In his study of Norman Foster, McNeill (2005) suggested that his designs became brand names with their signature ‘Foster look’. Designed by the architectural practice Norman Foster & Partners, 30 St Mary Axe (also known as Swiss Re Tower or the Gherkin) became almost instantly an urban icon (Lane 2004). Opened in 2004, it is already regarded by many as the most recognizable symbol of the contemporary City of London. As Charles Jencks remarked, ‘this rocket [the Gherkin] inspires such a kind of cosmic awe that makes Christianity [represented by St Paul's Cathedral] look a bit like yesterday's faith’ (Jencks 2005, 13–14).

Even Simon Jenkins, a harsh critic of the tall-buildings mania, acknowledged the iconic features of the Gherkin, listing its credentials to date:

It won the 2004 Stirling prize [the highest award of the Royal Institute of British Architects]. It scores as most visited on London's Open House list [buildings normally closed to the public that are opened for the weekend], and was acclaimed by Condé Nast Traveller as one of the ‘seven wonders of the modern world’. It has been on the cover of Newsweek, the Olympic bid and Time Out's London guide. The Gherkin features in Match Point, Bridget Jones and Basic Instinct II, supplanting the Post Office tower in London's visual image. (Jenkins 2006)

Undoubtedly, the Gherkin sets a precedent for future tall buildings in the City of London in terms of creating highly memorable architectural statements and at the same time providing top-quality office space. The ability to create a modern icon for central London which is atypical in respect of its well-known icons (e.g. St Paul's Cathedral and the Tower of London) in such a short period substantiated Livingstone's idea of enhancing London's skyline by developing eye-catching iconic tall buildings. The architects of the newest buildings approved for the City are eager to copy Foster's success. In their marketing efforts nicknames have been attached to buildings; Bishopsgate Tower designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) is known as ‘Helter-Skelter’, Leadenhall Building by Richard Rogers Partnership is the ‘Cheese Grater’, and 20 Fenchurch Street by Rafael Viñoly Architects is the ‘Walkie Talkie’. Beyond their unique architecture, such nicknames assign distinguishable and memorable identities.

Sudjic (2005b) argues that even the opponents of tall buildings recognize the role of such architects:

Rather than trying to stop big new developments, CABE has concentrated on ensuring that architects it approves of get to build them. As well as Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas and other architectural celebrities have benefited from this policy. CABE's view, echoing that of the City planners and Ken Livingstone, appears to be to allow the market to let rip, provided St Paul's is untouched, and that developers use famous architects. (Sudjic 2005b)

Another acclaimed architect, Renzo Piano, is making his mark on London's skyline. Rising to 305 metres on the south bank of the Thames, Shard London Bridge will be the most extravagant tower to be erected in London in the near future. Decision-makers in the hosting borough (Southwark) view this tower as a chance to generate additional spillover benefits. For that reason extreme height and striking design are of significance. When the application was approved by Southwark council, Livingstone explained his support:

With the continued involvement of the current architectural practice [Renzo Piano Building Workshop] the proposal will deliver architectural quality and status of what should be a singular building of outstanding design and integrity and of strategic importance to London. (Mayor of London 2002b)

In spite of the mayor's extremely keen support, the government called in the application and it went for a public inquiry. On the eve of the inquiry the chief executive of English Heritage said,

This is the wrong location for the tallest building in Europe. This colossal building is crammed onto a tiny site and looms oppressively over the surrounding area. (Weaver 2003)

This decision to call in Shard London Bridge for public inquiry was made soon after the Deputy Prime Minister gave his support to another controversial tall building, Heron Tower, and Livingstone was almost certain that the later decision was a waste of time and of public money.4 To provide legitimacy for his support for the project, Livingstone placed Richard Rogers in the van. Rogers praised the design of his former associate (Rogers and Piano are the architects of Centre Pompidou in Paris), suggesting that:

It would provide for a dramatic landmark structure with a distinctive profile and presence, which would add positively to the London skyline and the image of London as a World City through the provision of an iconic and emblematic building of outstanding design quality. (Mayor of London 2003, 26)

Architectural quality played a role in the decision of the Deputy Prime Minister to grant permission for this project:

[t]he proposed tower is of the highest architectural quality. Had this not been the case, the Secretary of State might have reached a different decision, but he considers that the quality of the design of this particular building is a very strong argument in its favour. (ODPM 2003)

So attractive was the design that even an official in English Heritage intimated that they had nothing against Piano's design itself: ‘we feel a bit conflicted opposing something so wonderful’ (Wallace 2003). This statement by the strongest opponent of tall buildings exemplifies how star architects and outstanding designs have been instrumental in silencing critics and defeating long-lasting resentment to tall buildings. Grander architecture seems to be a powerful token in the battle over urban development skilfully used by urban boosters.


This article explored the use of design aspects in the debate on the development of tall buildings in central London. Consensus prevailed in the pursuit of high-quality design, unifying all who did not wish to repeat previous mistakes, particularly the disastrous architecture of the 1960s. That tasteless era, almost unanimously criticized, was contrasted to the spectacular and promising design of the twenty-first century. Since his election as London's mayor, Ken Livingstone has shown remarkable persistence in his crusade to reshape London's skyline. His support of tall buildings abolished his anti-capitalist image and perhaps redefined him as a pro-development mayor. Expecting strong opposition, he chose to draw attention to design and architecture as the lingua franca of the tall-building discourse. Unlike the outcry and powerful criticism heard in many European cities, Londoners seem to accept the development of tall buildings. A survey conducted on behalf of English Heritage in 2001 found that the British public was certainly not opposed to tall buildings per se but would not support unlimited expansion; more particularly, London residents were more likely than people living elsewhere to support the construction of more very tall buildings (English Heritage 2001).5

To lessen the opposition of conservation groups and those interested in preserving the historic built form and to create a distinct skyline, architectural quality has become a predominant factor in determining the future of tall buildings. This strategy is partly facilitated by the fact that proposed tall buildings are of impressive designs. Foster, Rogers and Piano made Livingstone's mission easier because their work is associated with iconic architecture, an asset considered precious for every city. Global architects and iconic design were used to relegate long-lasting opposition to tall buildings. By taking big-name architects and stressing the role of design, it was possible to ensure that tall buildings were justifiable by virtue of their conventional raison d’être, but also because of their aesthetic qualities. Today architects are not just artists engaged in design per se, they also engage in promoting and even shaping urban planning policies. In this context, the appointment of Richard Rogers as Livingstone's chief advisor on architecture and urbanism is rather unique. By and large, global architects are freelancers who offer their expertise to clients worldwide; as such they do not assume public duties. From his position as the mayor's advisor, Rogers suggested that it is time to reposition the status of design:

While we continue to treat architecture as a marginalised ‘add-on’, quantity will always prevail over quality, mammon over imagination. To construct cities around the belief that urban design and the public realm can be considered once land deals, planning policy and economic viability have been settled, is to submit our cities to a form of vandalism from which few will recover. (Rogers 2005)

Perhaps, this latest call by Rogers is shared by other leading architects; yet none has assumed a position so influential as Rogers’. Although it is rather naïve to think that this view is to be adopted, practices of the past couple of years indicate that architecture and design may hold more power in the development of cities. In a highly competitive world, striking architecture provides not just recognizable identities but also artistic and aesthetic legitimacy. This justification helps to play down antagonism toward large-scale developments such as tall buildings which have the potential of altering the familiar skyline of cities. According to this scenario, architecture and design may occupy a more powerful position in dictating future urban growth.


  • 1

    Competition has been especially fierce between the Corporation of London and the Borough of Tower Hamlets. Massive office development in the Docklands and the relocation of firms challenge the unrivalled ascendancy of the City of London. For instance, between mid-2001 and 2005 gross office completions in the City reached 764 000 m2, whereas 924 000 m2 were added in Tower Hamlets (Mayor of London 2006b).

  • 2

    The Guardian called him the design tsar for London (Muir 2006).

  • 3

    Recently Richard Rogers has been taking a back seat on design and Graham Stirk is emerging as the key tall building designer in his practice.

  • 4

    Livingstone cited that the public inquiry into the Heron Tower scheme caused around 18 months delay in granting permission and cost approximately £11 million (Mayor of London 2002c).

  • 5

    In a poll conducted for the London Architecture Biennale in 2006, London's newest tall building, the Gherkin, was voted the city's best new building by the general public. On the other hand, it was nominated as one of the five ugliest buildings in London by viewers of the BBC, who placed it fourth out of the five choices they were given (BBC London News 2006).