Friday, March 26, 2004

Tall is beautiful

Tower Hamlets council has just approved a rather attractive new tower for the Isle of Dogs.

Inevitably the objections came rolling in, as they always do, from residents and the Canary Wharf group and City Airport (this may have been fair enough: towers in flightpaths tend to cause problems). The undertone to the objections is always basically anti-tower and this is sad.

It took London a ridiculously long time to realise what New York has known for a century: that big cities need big buildings. Hence we have a vast sprawling city where someone in Kensington thinks it would be more practical to get to the moon than Greenwich, and they would be right. The development on the Isle of Dogs in the past four years has been remarkable: the island will soon have everything anyone could possible want within a very small space, it combines futuristic offices, shops and bars with wide open spaces and an abundance of wildlife . So why is there always someone complaining about further development?

Since 9/11 we have come to think of terrorism whenever we look at a tower and this is exacerbated in Canary Wharf where planes flying to and from City Airport make some hairy turns as they use the development to get their bearings. But despite that tragic attack, a tower actually isn't a shining beacon, beckoning to the crazies to steer its way. Your hijacked plane would find it just as simple to crash into the Houses of Parliament if it felt so inclined. Tubes could be targets, so could Leicester Square. You don't beat terrorism by avoiding fearfully high buildings.

The petty objections to towers in London mask a real prejudice: we in Britain feel that towers represent arrogance. For those that thought 9/11 was something America had been asking for and forget the fact that people actually died that day, the twin towers were a symbol of overblown capitalism, ridiculous architectural showing off that was bound to end in tears. The stalinist Senate House in Bloomsbury was London's highest building until the 1980s, which is pathetic when you look at New York's Flatiron and Chrysler buildings. Skyscrapers can be awe-inspiring. In the Isle of Dogs, where the glass reflects the water of the docks around them, they can be beautiful. The first tower of the Canary Wharf estate is infinitely more interesting now it has been joined by tall buddies, making up a proper skyline from vantage points like Greenwich Park and not just looking like a random tooth sticking up out of the wasteland of an old tramp's mouth (good simile? discuss).

High-rise development on the Isle of Dogs will create an inspiring and compact centre for London and in ten years time the place could be amazing. But the council must ensure that the high profits made in the area improve conditions for the island's low-paid residents: the builders, cleaners, security staff (and journalists) that keep the place ticking along. Large swathes of affordable and social housing amongst new swanky developments will eliminate the rich-poor divide that presently carves up the south side of the island. The council and Ken have been good at addressing this, and must not be scared to squeeze as much as possible from the wealthy companies that are coming London's way: it will benefit them too.

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