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Prescott Towers, the height of architectural imbecility


When members of parliament arrive at work one day next year they will get a shock. Looming over their view up-river will be a stupendous 50-storey tower of luxury flats. It will be higher than the NatWest Tower and the highest residential tower in Europe. Last month it was personally approved by the deputy prime minister, John Prescott, in defiance of all planning advice, local and national. He seems to have gone mad. MPs will be outraged but it will be too late. Prescott tower, as it should be called, will have slipped through every net.

Similar towers are being built or proposed along the Thames from Greenwich to Deptford to Bermondsey. One will crowd the Tate Modern, another rise over Waterloo station, another slice the South Bank next to the Festival Hall, and more will dominate Vauxhall, Chelsea Harbour, Battersea and Kew Gardens.

The ever-narrowing Thames will seem like a torrent in a canyon of high-rise. “Landmark towers” are also proposed in a ring across north London, from Bishopsgate to Islington to Queen’s Park. These are not stumps but giants, from 20 to 40 storeys high.

Others are now proposed across Britain. Leeds is seeing two 30-storey “kissing towers”. Manchester has a 47-storey Beetham Tower, Newcastle a mooted 50-storey tower. Others are planned for Birmingham, Brighton and possibly Liverpool. The craze for a single totem of modernity is manic. It was in like spirit that Chicago built the Sears Tower, highest in the world, to show the city was somehow “more manly” than New York. Malaysia’s giant Petronas Centre in Kuala Lumpur was meant as a slap in the face of the West, yet it is now being out-towered by Shanghai, Pusan, Dubai and other tinpot civic dictatorships desperate for a year in the record book.

None of these structures carries civic significance. They are not town halls or museums or strategically placed features. They are merely speculative developments in random very high buildings (known as VHBs). They 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. Both are on their backs and purring as property men tickle their bellies. The Vauxhall tower turned Prescott’s head when its developer, Broadway Malyan, offered him a few flats on the cheap to tenants of his choice — known in the game as “affordables”. They will not be affordable for long.

Why London should want to play this game is a mystery. It has nothing to do with economics. There are hundreds of acres awaiting cheaper high-density, low-rise building. VHBs tend to be expensive to maintain and hard to let. A third of the residential towers in Canary Wharf are unsold or are left empty as bank collateral. Even the “Siefert” towers that dotted the London skyline in the 1970s were mostly flogged cut-price to government departments, hardly an economic necessity.

Today’s towers will either stand empty as vacant assets, like Centre Point, or be filled by new “parastatals”, banks and consultancies dependent on government contracts. It was not skyscrapers that made London the financial and (no less important) tourism goldmine that it is. It was the lack of them, the civilised, unthreatening scale of London’s streets and neighbourhoods.

The towers are aesthetically banal. They strike with one club, a quirky shape (box, step, pyramid, phallus, wedge, shard) of uniformly bleak glass and steel. Their windy footings and servicing zones crush all humanity out of their surroundings. There is not one that does not. The residential towers are like fortified camps, defying all comers. The blocks by Lord Foster and Lord Rogers in Battersea might be creatures from Mars, so hostile are they to their neighbourhoods.

The chief sponsor of this so-called “f***-you” planning is Livingstone himself. High buildings policy is one of the few powers he has vested in him. Early in his reign he visited New York and returned with a bad case of “Manhattan syndrome”, a belief that skyscrapers are the key to a mayor’s virility. With his office in what he himself calls “the testicle” he craved erect phalluses all round him. Developers with fad architects in tow promptly beat a path to his door.

Height controls collapsed. Because Canary Wharf had breached the 600ft rule, everywhere could. The cluster policy was set aside in favour of “landmarks”, more or less wherever a developer wanted one. Sight lines from Hampstead, Richmond or Waterloo Bridge were forgotten. Only St Paul’s retained a modicum of dignity from the rule book. The socialist Livingstone had fought for humane planning in Covent Garden and Coin Street. The Blairite Livingstone fights against it at Spitalfields and Bishopsgate.

The public still tends to the view that the loss of the familiar in cities, however sad, somehow “cannot be stopped”. The result of the collapse of VHB control shows this is naive. Planning does make a difference. Others argue that if towers are beautiful (which all are to their creators) it should trump planning, as if a concern with settings, views and neighbourhoods were nothing to do with architecture. Yet we would not put the “gherkin” in the middle of Hyde Park or next to Big Ben because it is “original”. We retain a lingering sense of public aesthetic.

In his new book, The Edifice Complex, Deyan Sudjic charts the incestuous relations between power and architecture, the role mega-buildings play in “unchaining the ego” of their patrons. Not for nothing is architecture the one art that flourishes under dictatorship. Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Saddam Hussein were all enthusiasts for building, magnetised by its offer of immortality. They saw in architecture what Sudjic calls the “instinct to control, categorise, shape life as it will be lived in space”. In a street a person knows he or she is a Londoner. In a VHB we are ants, impotent and lost in anywhere.

To find the centre of power in any society, watch where the architects cluster. They are adept at using an artist’s licence 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 overpaint Canaletto.

Town planning supposedly controls this. It was once a profession at which Britain excelled. It evened out the peaks and troughs of building cycles. It helped cities evolve rather than self-destruct under political or commercial pressure. Planning is democracy talking to architecture. Above all London’s planning had a concern for the context of buildings, how new ones fitted alongside old. These concerns are familiar in Paris, Rome, even in American cities.

London’s planning has lost its way, swept aside in the same tide of greed as did such damage to its skyline in the 1970s. The tide is not motivated by some new vision of the city — it has none — but by a simple desire to make money wherever permitted. But its abuse of opposition is visceral. It accuses those, including less grand architects, struggling to honour London’s character, of living in the Stone Age or seeking a “pastiche city”. Nothing is more Stone Age than these megaliths. Nothing is more pastiche than these Mies van der Rohe/Philip Johnson lookalikes.

Their presumption is on spectacular display at the New London Architecture show at the Building Centre. Visitors are invited to view London not as citizens do, from street level, but as architects do, from the heavenly clouds above. A model of the metropolis is at floor level, so the new towers seem diminutive. Virtually every one of the 200 buildings craves “icon” status, a term idealised by the writer Charles Jencks, whose The Iconic Building has the gherkin as a moon rocket on the cover. This is architecture as “musique concrete”, an art detached from context or audience.

I believe Britons will deplore the towers about to pepper-pot their cities, as they deplored the same rash a quarter century ago. They congregate in streets and patently love them. Today’s leading architects simply cannot design streets. They are like artists who cannot draw and composers who “don’t do tunes”. They do towers but not the spaces in between. They really want to live on the moon. Prescott is there with them.