This week saw the topping out of 122 Leadenhall by RSH+P. Last year saw the topping out of 25 Fenchurch Street by Rafael Vinoly. Both are due for completion in 2014 and it is now possible to see both at their full height and so, inevitably, comparisons are to be made.
This also coincides with the regular check-up by representatives of UNESCO - a group of fierce aunts who run their fingers over every surface checking for dust and tutting loudly - and the (hollow) threat of abandoning our sophisticated planning and conservation policies for one of preservation.
To most commentators it seems that the most productive argument is not whether there should be more tall buildings (this seems inevitable), but that we should look at their qualities and characteristics more critically.
The system of planning, consultation with EH, CABE and the GLA means that there is a deep and wide set of assessments and opinions both statutory and advisory to be balanced. But to be effective these need to be rigorously followed through. I was privileged to be part of that CABE process for both buildings nearly a decade ago (tall buildings take a long time).
Both buildings are spectacular. However, in my view, Leadenhall best fits the criteria of ‘a proper skyscraper’. It is lofty. The ground floor will be an extraordinary public space. It is ordered, organized, precise. It is thrilling.
Fenchurch Street is also tall but is it lofty and thrilling? The earlier designs presented to CABE were quite different to what has been approved. The building was taller and therefore appeared slender. At its base the fins came to the ground, reinforcing the expression of elegance. The fins were intended to be a defining feature of the building, they were to vary in width and ‘wrap’ over the building, as a frame. The southern elevation subtly stepped forward at each floor, making it appear as though the floors had been stacked slightly out of alignment, which caused the building to appear to be leaning. The fins are now barely visible, the southern elevation is smoothed out (see below). Throughout the process, including the public inquiry, CABE maintained that the quality of the detailed design, particularly the fins, should be upheld. Re-reading the early letters this appears to be a prerequisite for success. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20110118095356/http://www.cabe.org.uk/design-review/20-fenchurch-street-1
Of course, this is what often happens to projects as they develop; some times the details are fine tuned, unfortunately in some cases, they are worn away or simply erased.
The space at the top of Fenchurch Street will be extraordinary. The longer views, particularly from the south of the River, will enhance the image of the cluster of tall buildings. Looking at what was there before and what might have been (see images of the context below left), it is a strong addition to the City.
But it has lost something that seemed important. It has become less elegant, less interesting and less engaging. The detail matters hugely and to be truly lofty and thrilling it needed all these things to work together. I’m not convinced that they do.