Friday, 15 January 2010
Dodging bullets with tall buildings
Tall buildings policies are generally thought of as restrictive - the guiding impulse being to protect views and historic character, as in London - but the paradox is that anything restrictive is also permissive. If tall buildings are proscribed in certain places, then the implication is that they're permissible, in principle at least, elsewhere and the law of unintended consequences means that you might actually encourage them in places where you haven't banned them. This was our concern last year when Bath looked at a tall buildings policy - in our view, nothing other than a blanket proscription is tolerable in first-rank historic cities such as Bath and Oxford, and by ring-fencing the city centre you might prompt canny developers to scent an opportunity on the periphery. Today's news that Northern Ireland environment minister Edwin Poots is to implement a fresh tall buildings policy for Belfast demonstrates that such policies are not always driven by the best interests of conservation: Poots is quoted as saying that "People are looking to maximise land use. Tall buildings are acceptable but not in all locations." The objective of the exercise, in other words, is more to identify where you may build them than to state where you may not. The result can be visually very messy indeed. Take London, for example, where the policy is directed solely at protecting specified viewing corridors, principally those to St Paul's from outlying eminences such as Parliament Hill and King Henry's Mound in Richmond Park. This leads to some very odd results, with tall buildings permitted in the centre of London as long as they sit outside - sometimes inches outside - the protected viewing corridor. The reductio ad absurdum of the policy is that some buildings, such as the so-called Cheese Grater, are morphed to avoid impinging on the corridor: its moniker derives from the fact that it's heavily chamfered, almost like a comic-book hero sucking in his midriff to avoid a bullet. Less absurd, perhaps, to adopt a cordon sanitaire such as that in Paris; it would work well in London, were the possibility not scuppered by the politics of competition between the City of London and Canary Wharf.