New London tower to ‘block out solar system’

High hopes: One Undershaft (the highest building) dominates the City © Eric Parry Architects

It’s as tall as The Shard. Its design has been praised. It will create essential office space. But does London really need the 310m One Undershaft tower?

To avoid plane crashes, buildings in central London cannot rise above 305 metres. This is the exact height of The Shard, the tallest building in Europe. But not for much longer: across the River Thames, in the high-rise City of London, a new tower is set to equal its record.

1 Undershaft, as it is known, is not built yet – but its design was revealed last week. Its elegant rectangular shape has drawn compliments.

Others, though, warn that London is getting too crowded. The last thing it needs is another massive skyscraper to ruin our views. ‘The building will block out the entire solar system,’ complained one insider.

Strolling through the City a decade ago, you would not have found many buildings taller than St Paul’s Cathedral. Today, there are dozens. London’s importance as a global financial hub has caused a construction boom, and architects have been trying to outdo each other with ever bigger and crazier designs.

Size matters, but so does location. Most towers are in the City, London’s financial centre, where office space is badly needed. However, architects working here face all kinds of rules: as well as the height limit, historical buildings cannot be touched, and blocking the views of certain important monuments – such as St Paul’s – is forbidden.

As a result, developers are starting to look elsewhere in the capital. Skyscrapers have been built in Vauxhall and London Bridge, and areas like Paddington are next in line. Once one tower goes up, others tend to follow. The result: London’s skyline is changing, and fast.

Boris Johnson, the city’s mayor since 2008, encourages this. He has approved a wide range of construction projects, and rejected suggestions that we need stricter planning laws. Although Johnson is stepping down in 2016, the boom looks like it will continue: more than 200 new high-rise buildings are currently planned for the capital. Should we be excited?

The sky's the limit

Some, such as Johnson, argue that skyscrapers are a sign of economic success – we need the space they create, because people want to live and work in London. And they can benefit locals: developers often invest in infrastructure around the building, and create public viewing platforms or open-air gardens on their upper floors.

We do need more offices and housing, admit critics. But are huge towers the only answer? They make London an uglier place – especially the ones that stand alone, outside the City. Can’t we build shorter, wider buildings instead? Anyway, the flats they contain do not really benefit the community, as only the super-rich can afford them. Skyscrapers are fine, in small numbers and in the right locations. But we are getting carried away.

You Decide

  1. What is your favourite building in the world, and why? (It doesn’t have to be a skyscraper.)
  2. Should the next mayor of London try to slow down the skyscraper construction boom?

Activities

  1. Look at photos of the City of London, and design a skyscraper that you think would fit in the area.
  2. Write a letter to Boris Johnson, expressing your views on the planned construction of the One Undershaft building.

Some People Say...

“Skyscrapers are the cathedrals of our age.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What’s wrong with a few tall towers? I barely see them anyway…
True. Most people can’t see the centre of London from their bedroom window. And there are plenty who like a crowded skyline – it gives the impression of a busy, modern metropolis.
So shouldn’t we just let developers get on with building them?
As Boris Johnson and others argue, they have many advantages. But they aren’t perfect. As skyscrapers usually occupy prime locations, the land they stand on is costly, so developers tend to use their space for very expensive offices or apartments. In other words, they serve the rich, and ignore the poor. There are also dangers: they can create wind tunnels, or – in the case of the Walkie Talkie building – focus strong beams of sunlight onto the pavement below, and melt cars! (True story.)

Word Watch

City of London
The ancient centre of London, built by the Romans two thousand years ago. The capital’s financial sector is based here. It’s often just referred to as ‘the City’.
Insider
Someone who’s involved in a project or organisation.
St Paul’s Cathedral
A famous cathedral located in the City of London. Designed by legendary architect Christopher Wren, it was completed in 1708. Until 1962, it was the tallest building in London.
Developers
A developer (short for ‘property developer’) makes money by building and redeveloping houses and other properties.
Planning laws
They control what sorts of buildings can be built and where. In the UK, a developer cannot just decide to put up a new building but must apply for permission from the authorities, and the building’s design must follow certain rules.
More than 200
A March 2015 report by New London Architecture showed that 263 buildings of 20 floors or more were being planned for London.
Infrastructure
The physical structures that a society or organisation needs to work. Includes buildings, roads, power supplies, train stations and more.

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