Race to the sky: Is London's tall tower addiction ruining its skyline?

Story highlights

  • Over 430 tall buildings are currently in the works for London
  • Developers say these buildings will help ease London's housing crisis
  • But is London building skywards out of necessity, or a self-destructive competitiveness?

(CNN)"I don't know what London's coming to," said the English actor, singer and playwright Noel Coward in 1931 as the city's first skyscrapers began to rise.

"The higher the buildings, the lower the morals."
    How times have changed.
    If inter-war Britain had a distrust of soaring towers like the art deco Senate House that shot up in Coward's day, London's modern city planners are in the midst of a passionate love affair.
    Already home to a myriad of iconic skyscrapers -- from the Shard to the affectionately nicknamed Gherkin -- more than 430 new tall buildings (those 20 stories and over) are currently in various stages of planning for London, according to research by independent forum New London Architecture and property consultants GL Hearn.
    London's skyline seen from Greenwich Park.
    But is this rampant development necessary?
    Critics of the surgery being performed on London's skyline argue that the tall towers of tomorrow are empty, superfluous eyesores driving up property prices.
    However, those backing London's race to the top feel the city needs to build big to safeguard its reputation as a global power.

    Inferiority complex?

    For modern cities, building huge skyscrapers has become a competition, according to London-based architect Barbara Weiss.
    "Around the world, everybody is building taller and taller," Weiss tells CNN. "Cities like Dubai use tall buildings to create a new identity for themselves."
    Weiss -- the founder of the Skyline Campaign, a pressure group of experts that argues that "the skyline of London is out of control" -- claims the practice of cities using tall buildings to assert their power "has caught on like wildfire."
    For growing economies, particularly, tall buildings can send a bold message to the world. These buildings are often eye-catching and architecturally impressive.
    In 2008 - at the height of the global recession - China started building the Shanghai Tower. That China had the means to build the now second tallest tower in the world (it stands at 2,070 feet) symbolized a shift in global power dynamics. China is now one of the world's biggest economies.
    Could London's skyline morph into Dubai's futuristic cityscape -- seen here shrouded by early morning fog?
    In 2010, Dubai asserted its economic might with the Burj Khalifa, which soars 2,720 feet into the sky and is the world's tallest building.
    That monument to success, however, is soon to be overshadowed by the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia -- planned by American architect Adrian Smith to reach 3,280 feet - or one kilometer tall - when completed in 2020.
    Moscow, not to be left behind, has unveiled three buildings over 984 feet tall -- the benchmark for a "super-tall" tower, according to the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat -- since 2012.

    Vertical cities

    London's addition to this race to the top was The Shard.
    Completed in 2013, the gleaming tower on London's South Bank is 1,016 ft tall, making it the tallest building in western Europe.
    Billed as a "vertical city", the Shard is home to the UK headquarters of Tiffany & Co, upmarket restaurants such as Aqua Shard and Oblix, as well as 10 exclusive apartments.
    These apartments remain unoccupied, suggesting the market for homes in luxury high-rises might be more limited than expected.
    The Shard's PR team told CNN "no decisions had been taken on the future of the apartments".
    However, whilst the Shard has been -- mostly -- a success story, not all buildings share its elegant architecture, or ability to engage with the city of London.

    A photo posted by Kaoru Yoshida (@kaoloon8144) on

    Stand before the 50-story St George Wharf Tower, in Vauxhall, at night and there isn't much to see.
    The lights inside the UK's tallest residential tower are largely not on because 60% of the luxury apartments here have been sold to foreign investors who have little intention to reside -- full-time, at least -- in their investments, according to a recent investigation by the Guardian newspaper.
    Many in the British press have also not been slow to point out that apartments such as these, costing up to £5.1 million ($6.7 million), can drive up house prices in the surrounding area, to the detriment to local residents.
    And the nondescript St George Wharf, dumped on the banks of the Thames, hasn't won much praise for its aesthetics, either.
    "London skyscrapers (outside commercial areas) are entirely to do with greed and international investment and are often under occupied," says Peter Wynne Rees, former City of London City Planning Officer. "Building up doesn't increase density, actually it offers lower density, but a more attractive investment.
    "There is no point in constructing a skyscraper unless you've lost all your space and have to build upwards."

    A lack of space

    Geographically, Greater London is a huge city covering 1,572 square kilometers.
    So have developers really run out of space -- do they need to build up, rather than out?
    According to Wynne Rees, Britain has "bad planning (systems)."
    Part of the problem is the Metropolitan Green Belt -- a ring of protected countryside around London created in the mid-19th century to prevent urban sprawl. Most of this land is located within a 10 minute walk of an existing train station - making it attractive for potential commuting towns.
    Some see this land as prime real estate that developers can't access.
    Ian Gordon, Emeritus Professor of Human Geography at the London School of Economics (LSE), argues that green belt land needs to be released and developed alongside brown field land -- former industrial sites -- within the city.
    With over 430 more tall buildings in the works, Londoners must decide if they want skyscrapers neighbouring their homes.
    "Brown field sites are not being unlocked fast enough. There's a speculative motive to hang on to the land as it becomes more valuable," Gordon tells CNN.
    "The only way we can make housing affordable is by securing a continuing release of enough land to resolve excess demand, so all prices are stabilized."
    Wynne Rees, meanwhile, calls the green belt a "red herring" -- arguing that the houses built there would be low density and would not aid London's housing crisis.
    "At some point we have to ask how big we want London to be?" Wynne Rees questions. "The green belt is very useful to London".
    Many Brits living in the counties surrounding London are concerned at proposals to unlock this countryside for development.
    The Campaign to Protect Rural England argues "when we lose open green belt land ... we lose land that has its own identity and plays its own role in England's heritage."
    Conservation areas also complicate the development process. The City of London alone is home to 26 conservation areas -- sites deemed worthy of preservation due to historic or architectural interest -- which were mostly established after the Second World War.
    Accessing planning permission in these areas is difficult, and architectural design within them is highly scrutinized.
    With housing hard to come by, is it a surprise that more and more Londoners are turning to unconventional living situations?
    While former Mayor of London Boris Johnson did release some public land for development, he also came under criticism for prioritizing foreign investment over housing for Londoners.
    "The previous mayor and his assistants thought that it was good for London to attract foreign investment at any cost," says Weiss. "Building towers is a lazy way of dealing with investment, there must be other ways."

    The Eastern cluster

    With much of historic and outer London off limits, the eastern side of the City of London -- where most heritage buildings were bombed out during the first half of the 20th century -- remains a rare option for developers.
    Consequently, this is where the majority of London's tallest buildings -- The Leadenhall Building (737 ft), Heron Tower (755 ft) and the Gherkin (591 ft) -- are found.
    Wynne Rees, who is fervently against tall buildings in non-commercial areas, says "there are some parts of London where we need to build vertically, that's why there is the cluster of tall buildings in the City of London, one of which I was responsible for."
    The City of London's Eastern cluster features quirky skyscrapers such as the Gherkin (R) and the 'Walkie Talkie' (C front).
    The City of London is confined to a single square mile and is home to a vibrant financial sector -- there is no space for developers to build outwards.
    Chris Hayward, the City of London's chairman of planning and transportation, says that tall buildings in the economic heart of London also provide the British capital with soft power on the world stage.
    "There is, inevitably, a symbolic strength in a city with tall buildings. Building upwards demonstrates economic success and growth success."
    The Eastern Cluster towers, says Hayward, are "successful": driving commerce, fueling the UK economy and boasting occupancy rates for offices in the City of London to 97%.
    Other architects and planners, however, have criticized the design of the Cluster's towers.
    Hayward disagrees.
    "The buildings are all designed by different architects, but the City of London has its own design team in-house who guide everything and make sure we have a cohesive picture."


    Skyscrapers might be self-conscious declarations of power and prosperity, but when executed with architectural grace, and in the right location, they can win Londoners' hearts.
    The Shard and the Gherkin -- an unpopular building when proposed -- now regularly top polls as Londoners' favorite buildings.
    That, however, doesn't mean tall towers should be littered unthinkingly throughout the city.
    A recent study conducted by Ipsos MORI for the Skyline Campaign concluded that the majority of Londoners are concerned about the city's race to the sky.
    Weiss warns: "More and more Londoners are finding they don't want big glass skyscrapers at the end of their street."