Protecting the view: how St Paul's Cathedral has been shaping the rest of London for centuries

Because the world will end if you can't see it from Richmond. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mark Fosh

As well as all your standard planning rules – not accidentally constructing a huge mirror that sets fire to cars if there’s the wrong sort of sun, etc. – London has another unusual consideration for would-be skyscraper builders: you have to ensure you don’t ruin the view of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Some of this concerns the area immediately surrounding it in the City of London, referred to as “St Paul’s Heights”, established in 1937. Within this area, the City’s planning department aims to preserve the existing views of St Paul’s, although there are quite a few buildings that already infringe it – either because they predate the current iteration of planning policy or because, like the new Blackfriars station, they’re not in the City so it couldn’t do anything about it.

No tall things please, we're British. Image: City of London.

But the effect of the cathedral on planning spreads way past the borders of the City: several viewing corridors exist to keep St Paul’s visible from other parts of London. The longest, and oldest, runs all the way to King Henry VIII’s Mount in Richmond – far enough way they’ve had to set up a telescope to enable you to see it as much more than a tiny dome-shaped blur. The view of the cathedral is also protected from Parliament and Primrose Hills, although the growth of the skyline around in over the last century means it barely stands out anyway.

The view from Primrose Hill. Find St Paul’s, win a pound. (N.B. You will not win a pound.) Image: Wikimedia Commons/Diliff.

In recent years, there’s been huge pressure to relax some of these rules given the increasing demand for ludicrously shaped tall buildings in London –  when Ken Livingstone was mayor, he decreased the size of the viewing cones from 440m to 210m – and the sky has, as yet, failed to fall in. Even if you do care about views, the argument could be made that a skyscraper can be as interesting to look at as a cathedral.

The various protected views of London. Image: OpenStreetMap.

While London is notable for having so much planning policy dictated by a single building (although views of parliament and the Tower of London are also protected), it’s certainly not the only city to operate this kind of policy. Quite a few places in the UK have laws that restrict building heights or otherwise protect views around their cathedrals – simply because, like St Paul's, they had been the tallest building in the area for centuries.

In the US, Portland, Oregon has a Scenic Resources Protection Plan to manage development, partly inspired by a popular view of the local mountain being ballsed up by the pointy KOIN Center building.

A spectacularly sarcastic section of a planning report. Image: portlandoregon.gov.uk.

While this sort of thing might carry a general sense of worthiness, it is not necessarily without cost. San Francisco’s extremely restrictive planning laws are in part about preserving key views in the city – but they also mean hardly anyone can afford to live there, as demand has massively outstripped the ability to build enough new homes, high density housing being difficult because of the height restrictions.

If nothing else, perhaps there should be an exemption on constructing tall stuff in these areas if there’s a hilariously spiteful reason to do so. The impressive Art Deco Kavanagh building in Buenos Aires was commissioned in 1934 by Corina Kavanagh, an Irish millionaire. According to local legend she’d tried to marry into a local aristocratic family, but the match was rejected because she wasn’t from noble enough stock. In revenge, she bought the land between the family’s mansion, and the fancy local church that they’d paid for, and blocked their favourite view with her new skyscraper.

If there is a lesson here, it’s that if you really want to protect the view of St Paul’s Cathedral, you should have to marry it.

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The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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