Over the past 30 years the development of tall buildings has transformed the cityscapes of major English cities. While now firmly part of London’s iconic skyline, the cluster of office and residential towers that make up Canary Wharf were non-existent 30 years ago. Other tower clusters have grown up in elsewhere in London, such as in Croydon. In Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds, high rise residential and office quarters are being built and since 1999, 73 buildings over 100 metres tall have been or are being built across these cities. Yet the high-rise developments often provoke criticism.
Moreover, individual high-rise buildings are sometimes not well regarded. For example, 20 Fenchurch Street (The 'Walkie-Talkie', The Shard and Strata, Elephant and Castle) have all been criticised, partly due to their individual design and partly because they are perceived as out of keeping with existing architecture. This is not restricted to the capital: Manchester’s Beetham Tower is not universally liked.
Figure 1: Number of buildings over 100m completed (or under construction) in selected UK cities
But this criticism is nothing new. After the Second World War, British cities engaged in an energetic campaign of building residential tower blocks and public spaces. Using innovative materials and methods, such as concrete and prefabrication, engaging ingenious architects and designers, such as Sir Frederick Gibberd, Erno Goldfinger and Sir Denys Lasdun. Many of these buildings had a mixed reception initially. Despite this they have become part of the national heritage.
For example, Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower (Kensington and Chelsea) has been granted Grade II status, despite the unpopularity of design, which inspired JG Ballard’s novel High Rise. Sheffield’s Park Hill Estate was granted listed status in 1997. Some buildings, such as the London headquarters of the Royal College of Physicians or Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral have been considered since construction a triumph of the modernist movement.
In 2040, will time have been as kind to the current crop of high rise schemes? The British Property Federation lists criteria for assessing the success of an urban space and the historical merit of a building. These include whether a building is of a scale that people can relate to, has interesting architectural features, associations with the past, a manifestation of an area’s reinvention and whether it adds to a sense of place.
Applying these criteria, it looks likely that by 2040 the new buildings of the 1990s and 2000s will become accepted, indeed iconic, parts of the identity of our cities. One Canada Square, for instance, is synonymous with Canary Wharf and emblematic not just of the conversion and revitalisation of part of London but the shifting financial district of London. Renzo Piano’s Shard, once described as a slash across the face of London, has already been adopted in most stylised images of London’s skyline and by 2040 could be iconic in representing the revitalisation of London Bridge and Southwark.
It may seem extreme to suggest that some of these buildings will in turn be listed by 2040. But it can happen: the Lloyds Building, designed by Richard Rogers and completed in 1986, was listed in 2011 after just 25 years. At that rate Rogers’ other iconic city building, 122 Leadenhall Street, will be due a listing in 2039. We’re not sure what grade it will deserve.