London's skyscrapers are a monument to the city's worship of finance

Cash boxes in the sky. Image: Getty.

A new skyscraper is set to join the City of London’s world-famous collection of oddly-designed buildings with novelty names. With 73 storeys, the Trellis will rival the Shard in height, and overshadow its next-door neighbours, the Gherkin, the Walkie-Talkie and the Cheesegrater. If all goes to plan, the tower will rise from the rubble of the existing Aviva building at 1 Undershaft, sometime in the 2020s.

In the aftermath of Brexit – at a time when investors are spooked and the pound has plummeted – the local government of London’s finance district (the City of London Corporation) was on the look out for a good news story. Keen to cast off the shroud of uncertainty and cement London’s status as a global financial hub, the City of London’s planning and transport committee chair, Chris Hayward, boldly proclaimed that “this development shows the high levels of investor confidence in London’s status as a global city following our decision to leave the European Union”.

Yet skyscrapers are not just slick, glassy lures for business and wealth; they tell us something about the character of London itself. St Paul’s Cathedral used to be the dominant landmark of the city, impressing locals and visitors alike with its scale and architectural finesse. Now, skyscrapers are the dominant structures, giving the finance sector an imposing physical presence.

Power building

Just as cathedrals were historically built to represent the power and presence of the church in everyday life, the Trellis is the latest tall building to speak for the dominance of the global financial market as a driving force in Western society. The scale and the grandeur of these distinctive constructions is a tribute to those who deliver the City’s wealth and success – and a symbol of the power they hold.

This power comes from the City of London’s status as one of the largest concentration of banking and financial services industries in the world. The City turns over an estimated $1.9trn worth of foreign exchange each day, accounting for 37 per cent of global capital flows.

It is also a critical site for job creation, with nearly 150,000 people employed by the financial sector and a further 140,000 in legal and accounting professions. In fact, countless jobs throughout the UK depend of the prosperity of its financial sector.

The fable of St Paul and the Cheesegrater. Image: Tim Benedict Pou/Flickr/creative commons.

There is a dark side to these built behemoths, though. For those who pass through the City’s streets, the shadows of these towering structures loom over the tightly knitted network of lanes and alleys, creating a sinister and somewhat claustrophobic feeling. They can intrude into, or even engulf public spaces, blocking out the sun or blocking off access routes.

There have been some attempts made to humanise these buildings. Their strange names and peculiar shapes have become figures of fun and play. They offer viewing platforms, sky-high dining experiences and interactive learning environments, to invoke a sense of identity and ownership.


Human error

But above all else, skyscrapers symbolise the deep entrenchment of market ideology within the very fabric of our society. These buildings mark out a stark geographical boundary of wealth and exclusivity, while their growing numbers reflect the concentration of wealth, not only in a specific area of London, but among a particular class of people. High levels of inequality indicate that this fountain of wealth does not trickle down throughout the rest of society – instead, it swills around the City.

Yet if it seems the architecture in this area of London is an uncritical homage to capitalism, then dig a little deeper: there are cautionary tales hidden in the history of London’s built environment. The failed Pinnacle project is an allegory for the financial market’s instability – and the devastating consequences when it fails.

The Pinnacle was designed to be 62 storeys tall – but it never rose beyond seven. After the global financial crisis hit in 2008, funding dried up, construction was halted, and the Pinnacle became known as the Stump. Only this year have developers been given permission to proceed with a new high-rise design, which will grow alongside the Trellis, to be completed in 2019.

Failed funding structures and overconfident developers are as much a part of the modern financial sector as wealth and job creation. But while old foundations can be used for new buildings, the massive impacts of financial sector failures are more difficult to mend.The Conversation

Alex Simpson is a lecturer in criminology at the University of Brighton.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Space for 8,000 new homes, most of them affordable... Why it's time to demolish Buckingham Palace

Get a lovely new housing estate, there. Image: Getty.

Scene: a council meeting.

Councillor 1: They say it’s going to cost £369m to repair and bring up to modern standards.

Councillor 2: £369m? Lambeth balked at paying just £14m to repair Cressingham Gardens. They said they’d rather knock it down and start again.

Councillor 1: Then we’re agreed? We knock Buckingham Palace down and build new housing there instead.

Obviously this would never happen. For a start, Buckingham Palace is Grade I listed, but… just imagine. Imagine if refurbishment costs were deemed disproportionate and, like many council estates before it, the palace was marked for “regeneration”.

State events transfer to Kensington Palace, St James’s and Windsor. The Crown Estate is persuaded, as good PR, to sell the land at a nominal fee to City Hall or a housing association. What could we build on roughly 21 hectares of land, within walking distance of transport and green space?

The area’s a conservation zone (Westminster Council’s Royal Parks conservation area, to be exact), so modernist towers are out. Pete Redman, a housing policy and research consultant at TradeRisks, calculates that the site could provide “parks, plazas, offices, cafes and 8,000 new dwellings without overlooking the top floor restaurant of the London Hilton Park Lane”.

Now, the Hilton is 100m tall, and we doubt Westminster’s planning committee would go anywhere near that. To get 8,000 homes, you need a density of 380 u/ha (units per hectare), which is pretty high, but still within the range permitted by City Hall, whose density matrix allows up to 405 u/ha (though they’d be one or two bedroom flats at this density) in an area with good public transport links. We can all agree that Buckingham Palace is excellently connected.

So what could the development look like? Lewisham Gateway is achieving a density of 350u/ha with blocks between eight and 25 storeys. On the other hand, Notting Hill Housing’s Micawber Street development manages the same density with mansion blocks and mews houses, no more than seven storeys high. It’s also a relatively small site, and so doesn’t take into account the impact of streets and public space.

Bermondsey Spa might be a better comparison. That achieves a density of 333u/ha over an area slightly larger than Lewisham Gateway (but still one-tenth of the Buckingham Palace site), with no buildings higher than 10 storeys.

The Buck House project seems perfect for the Create Streets model, which advocates terraced streets over multi-storey buildings. Director Nicholas Boys Smith, while not enthusiastic about bulldozing the palace, cites areas of London with existing high densities that we think of as being idyllic neighbourhoods: Pimlico (about 175u/ha) or Ladbroke Grove (about 230u/ha).


“You can get to very high densities with narrow streets and medium rise buildings,” he says. “Pimlico is four to six storeys, though of course the number of units depends on the size of the homes. The point is to develop a masterplan that sets the parameters of what’s acceptable first – how wide the streets are, types of open space, pedestrian only areas – before you get to the homes.”

Boys Smith goes on to talk about the importance of working collaboratively with the community before embarking on a design. In this scenario, there is no existing community – but it should be possible to identify potential future residents. Remember, in our fantasy the Crown Estate has been guilt-tripped into handing over the land for a song, which means it’s feasible for a housing association to develop the area and keep properties genuinely affordable.

Westminster Council estimates it needs an additional 5,600 social rented homes a year to meet demand. It has a waiting list of 5,500 households in immediate need, and knows of another 20,000 which can’t afford market rents. Even if we accepted a density level similar to Ladbroke Grove, that’s 4,830 homes where Buckingham Palace currently stands. A Bermondsey Spa-style density would generate nearly 7,000 homes.

There’s precedent for affordability, too. To take one example, the Peabody Trust is able to build genuinely affordable homes in part because local authorities give it land. In a Peabody development in Kensington and Chelsea, only 25 per cent of homes were sold on the open market. Similarly, 30 per cent of all L&Q’s new starts in 2016 were for commercial sale.

In other words, this development wouldn’t need to be all luxury flats with a few token affordable homes thrown in.

A kindly soul within City Hall did some rough and ready sums based on the figure of 8,000 homes, and reckoned that perhaps 1,500 would have to be sold to cover demolition and construction costs, which would leave around 80 per cent affordable. And putting the development in the hands of a housing association, financed through sales – at, let’s remember, Mayfair prices – should keep rents based on salaries rather than market rates.

Now, if we can just persuade Historic England to ditch that pesky Grade I listing. After all, the Queen actually prefers Windsor Castle…

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