Design experts clash over 'Walkie Talkie'

Leading architects have sided with the government’s architecture watchdog in green-lighting proposals to build a 160-metre high skyscraper on the edge of the City of London.

The united parties squared off on Tuesday against English Heritage, for the start of a public inquiry into the ‘Walkie Talkie’, which Land Securities wants to build at 20 Fenchurch St.

The property giant won support to go ahead with plans for the 39-storey tower from a range of modernist architects, reported to include Lord Norman Foster & Lord Richard Rogers.

Frank Gehry added his endorsement, telling the inquiry in a written letter that the building would represent a “great addition to the London skyline,” The Financial Times reported.

Similar wording emerged yesterday from CABE, the government’s design watchdog, which said the tower could offer an “extraordinary public space” and “unrivalled views.”

But its proposed location - just right of the city’s Eastern Cluster - threatens London’s streets, conservation areas and historic environments, such as the Tower of London and St Paul’s.

Issuing the warning, Paddy Pugh of English Heritage told the inquiry the tower would be “London’s ugliest and most oppressive” building.

“The harm it would cause to the historic environment outweighs any benefits the additional floor space could bring to London’s economy,” he said.

“Tall buildings can work well in the right place. However, it would be both reckless and short-sighted to consider only the economic benefits they may provide, without taking into account their impact on the quality and significance of the surrounding area.”

In September last year the Corporation of London approved plans for development of the 77,000 sq metre scheme, but the protests convinced the government to call them in.

This week, English Heritage accused the corporation of ignoring the long-term impact of the tower, reiterating its argument that London already has enough floor space in the pipeline.

The verdict stems from work it said it had commissioned from consultants G L Hearn, which found “London’s status as a world financial centre will not be jeopardised” if the plans were dropped.

But watchdog CABE, which is tasked to ensure good design for people’s quality of life, said the “quality” of the building application outweighs the “limited harm to the local conservation areas.”

Its director of architecture Selina Mason explained: “We don't believe that change automatically equals harm.

“Quite the contrary, in a dynamic and changing city like London, a new, high quality building can have a positive effect on views from a conservation area.

“Indeed one of the strengths of the architectural experience in the City comes from the excitement of dramatic contrasts and changes in scale. We believe this design would enhance the experience of a world city, driven by the character and dynamism of a thriving commercial economy.”

It was essential that Rafael Vinoly Architects, designers of the tower, are “retained by the client throughout the process,” however.

”Their continued involvement will play a crucial part in the success of the scheme,” the watchdog said.


8th March 2007

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