On April 16th Kevin McCloud will chair a public debate at RIBA on skyscrapers entitled – “Are Tall Buildings Blighting Our Skyline?”
Amtico, via our Twitterfeed, has asked us for our views. We don’t, as yet, get involved in too many skyscrapers – the tallest project I have been involved in is the 15 storey Tseung Kwan O hospital in Hong Kong – but hey, everyone is entitled to their opinion.
One thing that I took away from my two years in Hong Kong was the amount of space in the Territory. I had expected to find an urban jungle, tightly packed and densely populated. Whilst this was true, it was very far from the whole story. Most of Hong Kong (this was 1997-1999) was green countryside, interspersed with areas of dense population. The skyscrapers make it on to the postcards but Hong Kong is full of open space, hills and beaches. Would it be better to have less green space but lower level buildings?
I also spent two years living in Barcelona. Barcelona is a great place to live as well as a very beautiful city. There are some tall buildings but not that many, yet. However there is a whole district, the Eixample, that was planned in 1859 on a grid layout with octagonal buildings. These elegant buildings are eight storeys high built around a central courtyard. The density of population within this area is 36,000/km2. Islington, the most densely populated London borough has a density of 14,000/km2.
My point is that to concentrate just on the building is to miss the point. There are plenty of boring skyscrapers in Hong Kong just as there are plenty of boring low level buildings in the UK. The quality of design does not correlate with the height. This is not meant to be a justification for dull skyscrapers, I’d quite happily introduce higher aesthetic standards for all projects and would tolerate subjectivity from planners if it meant that they could express an opinion rather than be restricted by rules. I find the Burj Khalifa amazing but so too the Casa Serra; the Royal Crescent in Bath is great but so too is the US Mission to the UN
Good design is very important but it’s not the only criteria.
Quality of life is also very important. To me this relates to the environment within the building and without. I don’t hold with the argument that it is not possible to have a good quality of life within a tall building whilst I do think it is possible to destroy the environment through over development. What’s more I think that there are benefits that come with density – more shops, more local facilities, more theatres and museums. The balance of development versus green space needs to be borne in mind in any discussion about tall buildings. I’d support a general increase in density and tall buildings as part of that increase but not as simply trophy hunting ego structures.