Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Jerry Hicks, Goldrush (TAB 17)

  Thank you for your invitation to submit memoranda concerning Tall Buildings. I'm submitting the following comments to meet your rather tight deadline, and would be most grateful if you can refer to the enclosed photographs and diagram and include them with any publication of my response. They clarify critical visual aspects of the questions you ask, and they make an essential compliment to my written comments.


  Without wishing to be pedantic it may be helpful to remember that tall means: "higher than average or higher than surrounding objects." Tall buildings must, therefore, relate to environmental context and the enclosed photographs offer extreme examples: In Florence one can easily identify three tall buildings because they rise majestically above a restrained average height of about four/six storeys. For centuries people have found this an attractive and inspiring example of well displayed, high quality tall buildings. The inset photograph of Dusseldorf shows how difficult it is to identify "tall buildings" in many modern cities where the average height has steadily risen. Countless buildings in New York or Singapore were tall when erected and would dwarf the great European "landmarks". They now appear merely average amongst much higher recent buildings. In the UK we must deliberate carefully before we change our context any further and rob our fine tall buildings of part of their distinction.


  Historic tall buildings rose high above their surroundings for a number of complex reasons which included:

  2.1  Fortified defence against invaders. Height made unauthorised entry into castles very difficult and offered diverse advantages to those repelling invasion. Ingenious defences produced complex architectural enrichment which has been continuously imitated as decoration.

  2.2  Prestigious, elevated design of outstanding quality which instilled awe and respect for church and rulers. Both internally and externally miraculous domes and vaults soared above a wondrous community which marvelled at carvings, frescoes and stained glass. Architecture was truly the mother of the arts.

  2.3  Places of entertainment, slightly lower in this hierarchy of high rise; buildings which stretch from the Coleseum in Rome, through Opera Houses and Music Halls to cinemas Wembly Stadium and the Dome!

  2.4  When standing alone in the landscape or in the centre of a city these monumental buildings were designed to be a visual climax. A beautiful building attracts admiration. An exceptionally tall building attracts exceptions attention. A tall and beautiful building attracts exceptional admiration. There are many exceptions to these broad generalisations, but it seems fair to say that the successful tradition of a tall building providing a distinguished climax depends largely on the height being unchallenged by surrounding buildings and on the architectural quality being outstanding. Large cities have many centres with outstanding tall buildings. Social change has complicated hierarchical tradition; but the principle of exceptional height reserved for exceptional visual emphasis should not be lightly discarded—especially where existing tall buildings have served this purpose for generations. To challenge St Paul's Cathedral, Big Ben, Nelson's Column, Windsor Castle, Clifton Suspension Bridge, Blackpool Tower, countless cathedrals and cherished tall listed buildings around the country by erecting high rise structures alongside them, would diminish them and diminish our inherited culture. Furthermore, we should beware of destroying established views of these great landmarks with large, baldy placed buildings.


  3.1  The invention of reinforced concrete made it possible in a very short time to greatly increase the height of buildings. Where there was no existing hierarchy of heights it seemed at first there were no constraints; but experience has raised serious problems.

  3.2  The new technology which swept aside height limitations of stone vaulting coincided with iconoclastic revolutions in painting and architecture. The outcome was a universal grid. Corbusier extrapolated from the richly decorated Parthenon an austere, rectilinear approach to architecture, which excluded pitched roofs and curves—but offered unlimited storeys. Mondrian's paintings moved exclusively to coloured rectangles. Refugees from Germany's Bauhaus School of Design fled with these new principles to America where huge rectilinear tower blocks proliferated in new cities laid out as grids. Some of New York's towers culminated in distinctive summits but this concession to design quality has generally been abandoned.

  3.3  Painting soon broke free of the grid; but architecture has clung to a cheap, simplistic building method where the only distinction is increased height. Recently tentative departures from the universal grid have made an appearance in avant-garde designs.

  3.4  I will not detail the extreme absurdities of the elite clerisy which subjugated moderating alternatives. This has been done with devastating effect by Tom Wolfe in "From Bauhaus to Our House". New York has many admirers, and matters of taste are minefields for rational discussion; but many of the social problems in America are associated with high rise living. Chicago has recently turned to Jane Jacobs' "The Death and Life of the Great American Cities" a pioneering work on what would now be called sustainable regeneration. Tower blocks have been demolished!

  3.5  The evidence of concrete towers in the UK speaks for itself. "The planning mistakes of the '60s" have created a permanently deprived underclass—many living in the enforced isolation of "tall buildings" where crime and squalor thrive. Desperate attempts to improve the superficial appearance of tower blocks by painting them in different colours has little effect on the demoralised inhabitants. They are victims of a social disaster.

  3.6  High rise towers used to accommodate office quarters create deserted ghettos after working hours. As a major ingredient of the urban landscape they provide a bleak appearance. Excessive ground floor parking with offensive ventilation grills at pedestrian level serves to encourage the enormous growth in commuters generated by zoning policies.


  4.2  The disastrous post war dispersal of people into zones has at last been challenged successfully. The Urban White Paper seeks to reduce the excessive need for motorised journeys by a return to high density, mixed use, urban regeneration. The related Rogers Report makes it clear that the land required around a high rise block could alternatively accommodate a medium rise mixed use enclosure that would achieve the same density. (see enclosed diagram). This approach also contributes to compact urban life styles which are beginning to reduce the pressure by volume house builders who wish to develop green-field sites.

  4.2  It is significant that there is a growing market for those who wish to return to city living in converted old buildings which retain the character we have lost in much modern design. There is a place for tall buildings if they have architectural distinction and are used sparingly. Birmingham has consciously turned its back on the high rise, road dominated developments of the '60s; the award winning Brindley Place features one distinctive tall building amongst a mixed-use, medium rise sequence of developments around pedestrian spaces and alongside regenerated canals. Bristol's cluster of high rise offices are immediately adjacent to the mediaeval city and have pedestrian elevated walkways and drab concrete design which are loathed by most Bristolians. Whilst the suburban village of Clifton continues to attract a diverse social mix to the high density Georgian squares and terraces. The only high rise building (apart from the Suspension Bridge!) is the local church.


  5.1  Tall buildings (higher than the average) are not an essential means of achieving high density. There are better, more sustainable ways.

  5.2  High rise office quarters have already generated too many out of town commuters and they create urban ghettos after working hours.

  5.3  Some tall historical buildings are beautiful because of their very selective use and the rich diversity of their form and decoration reflecting special functions. These characteristics should be the essential requirements of tall buildings designed as a visual climax in future.

  5.4  Strict constraints are needed to limit tall buildings, protect important views and avoid depressing clusters of monofunctional deprived homes, standardised work places and excessive parking.

  5.5  Many cities are still perpetuating the mistakes of the '60s with tall buildings that resemble countless, very ordinary small buildings piled one on top of the other and euphemistically called "landmarks". They are unsustainable in their service demands and may even become terrorist targets. They have misused technology to bring unprecedented squalor to our cities.

  5.6  The public have endured much manipulative "consultation"—which should now be replaced by well informed participation in "planning for real". The "experts" are fighting a retreating battle to defend their Emperor's Clothes; but the tower blocks have had a more than adequate trial. By their fruits ye shall judge them.

  5.7  We await, from Government, an Urban Renaissance policy.

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Prepared 22 January 2002