OPINION: Fyson on ... the trend for tall buildings and urban alienation

Deputy prime minister John Prescott has offered an unconvincing justification for the permission that he has granted for the "shard of glass" super-tower development at London Bridge.

Prescott should know that the terms "new" and "bold" turned out to be poor cover for a lot of monstrous blots on the townscape. He is unwise to use them again now. The wow factor that he praised at a Prince's Foundation conference last week can give rise as readily to horror as to delight when the visual spin of the architect's drawings turns into concrete reality on the ground. Dreaming up more improbable shapes for the mega-structures that profitable development seems to require does not make them better neighbours for the smaller-scale, more gently evolved cityscape they will overshadow. The hostility from English Heritage is understandable in this context and does not reflect badly on the skill and ingenuity of the architects involved.

The sheer energy to be expended in the construction of London Bridge Tower must raise doubts about the wisdom of calling this development sustainable.

Prescott threatens to devalue a word that he uses much more appropriately in connection with community planning. The new community of 10,000 homes just announced for Barking Reach will be a prime opportunity to allow planners to create the type of fine-grained, ground-based, mixed-use, energy-efficient, public transport orientated, green space nurturing urban environment that is at last becoming fashionable.

Prescott told Prince Charles that he approves of this new urbanism. But building 300m towers, however dramatic and even beautiful they promise to be, coarsens the urban fabric and renders that detailed, close-to-the-people ideal impossible to achieve. If a harsher, higher city fabric is to become the norm, people who are able to choose will look elsewhere for the community sensitivity that they value, and the social division between city-centre life and the rest will be driven even deeper. No architect or urban designer has yet shown how these two modern paradigms can be reconciled. The Southwark tower may be less the elegant point of a shard than the thin end of a wedge.


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