How high?

    21 September 2013

    The Square Mile is turning cubic. The sky above London’s financial district has already been scraped by Tower 42, the Gherkin and the Heron, while next year the Cheesegrater and the Walkie Talkie should be completed. There’s also the temporarily stalled Pinnacle, the yet-to-be-started 100 Bishopsgate and, staring at the City from across the river, the Shard. It’s easy to see why some people are calling the capital a new Manhattan — but is this accurate? How do London and New York compare in their versions of the vertical?

    One man well-placed to answer the question is Rafael Viñoly, architect of not only the Walkie Talkie but also 432 Park Avenue in Manhattan, a residential tower which in 2015 will become New York’s tallest building. How has he found it, having a skyscraper in each camp? ‘Verticality is in Manhattan’s DNA,’ he tells me. ‘Being an island, it was always going to build tall. Whereas London is by tradition a horizontal city. What I’ve been fascinated by is the way its planning process engages much more actively with the idea of urban form.’

    In New York a building’s design is governed by zoning regulations, which dictate height, shape and so on, producing largely formulaic results. London, on the other hand, encourages the unusual. So for Viñoly ‘The idea was “how can you make a vertical building that’s totally site-specific?” Something that wasn’t just an abstract Platonic form you could land in London or Barcelona or anywhere else.’ Hence the ‘widening out at the top’ concept that has given 20 Fenchurch Street its nickname of Walkie Talkie. (Since we spoke, its curved, reflective front is also alleged to have melted the interior of a parked car.)

    Not all architects welcome irreverent monickers (don’t say the word ‘Gherkin’ around Norman Forster, for instance), but Viñoly embraces it. ‘It’s part of the game in London. Every building has a nickname. That doesn’t happen in New York. It reflects a very British quality, a nonchalant aspect to the drama of how London’s skyline is changing. It’s a little bit retro, too — I remember those first walkie-talkies in the 1970s.’

    The man behind the City’s individualistic approach to skyscrapers is its chief planning officer, Peter Rees. ‘Everything is much more standardised in New York,’ he says. ‘Not just the zoning regulations, but even components — they’ll only have three types of door you can use, or two types of urinal or whatever. Over here an architect will design his own.’ Rees also points out that London has been around for 2,000 years. ‘So it has a tradition of throwing different designs together — a Victorian office block next to an Elizabethan hall next to a 20th-century bank next to a Wren church. These new tall buildings are just the next chapter in that story. They fit within it.’ In fact it’s Wren’s most famous church that helped dictate the Cheese-grater’s sloping design: if the sides had been parallel they would have filled too much of the sky behind St Paul’s, as seen from Fleet Street. Even as far away as Richmond Park there is a particular bush which by law has to be kept trimmed to preserve a sightline to the famous dome.

    The Walkie Talkie will be topped by a three-storey ‘Sky Garden’, complete with real trees which are currently being nurtured in the West Country prior to their elevation 38 floors into the sky, where they’ll be watered by a sophisticated ‘misting’ system. The Sky Garden will house a champagne bar, a brasserie and a seafood restaurant, but the public will also be allowed free access simply to enjoy the view.

    ‘That’s a crucial part of the project,’ says Rafael Viñoly. ‘When you ride in the London Eye you’re in a capsule with a few other people. Here, because of the size of the floors at that level of the building, you’ll be able to wander around and view the city with lots of other people. The view will be complemented by the civic nature of the place.’

    In Manhattan, meanwhile, 432 Park Avenue, although a more conventionally shaped skyscraper, will feature a gap every 12 floors allowing the wind to blow through. This will aid the building’s stability, an important factor when you’re nearly 1,400 feet in the air. In case you were interested in the penthouse apartment, by the way, bad luck: the sale has already been agreed. You could try gazumping them, but you’d have to beat $95 million.


    432 Park Avenue, New York

    London and Manhattan might have different approaches to the skyscraper, but according to Peter Rees they have the same reason for building tall in the first place: they’ve run out of land. ‘That’s the only good reason for doing it,’ he says. ‘As opposed to Dubai, who are building tall just because they want to show off. Skyscrapers have traditionally been a sign of a successful city. But it has to be that way round — you can’t make yourself successful by building skyscrapers.’

    David Starkey has called this the ‘bankers’ cock’ theory of tall buildings. London’s genuine need for the Cheesegrater and the Walkie Talkie is shown by the fact that they’re both already half-let, even in a time of economic uncertainty. Back in 1931 the Empire State Building wasn’t so lucky, opening just as the Great Depression took hold; for its first few years it was known as the Empty State Building. (Incidentally, one of the ironies of going vertical to cope with land shortage is that it gives you slightly more land. All the earth excavated to create Manhattan’s skyscrapers is tipped into the Hudson and East Rivers; look at photos of the island over the decades and you’ll see how its southern tip has widened.)

    It goes without saying that New York and London are both fantastic places. Fans of one tend to be fans of the other, hence the acronym ‘Nylon’, expressing the idea that the two cities are almost one and the same. Received wisdom has it that London wins on history, Manhattan on energy. But walking around the Square Mile, where hard hats mingle with pinstripes, you can’t help feeling that even the second quality
    is in greater supply over here. No longer able to contain its life force at ground level, London is reaching for the clouds. The same dynamism that powered its financial dominance 300 years ago is still driving change. Then it was Edward Lloyd’s coffee house on Lombard Street, now it’s a row of skyscrapers a few yards to the east.

    Yet again London is mastering the one trick Manhattan never has: reinvention. You can’t keep a great city — or its skyline — down.