James Pallister is journalist and editor specialising in architecture and design. He has written for publications including Architects’ Journal, Architectural Review, Dezeen, the Independent, Vice and Wallpaper.

Towers are part of the draw of urban living and the archetypal buildings of the modern city. But who does high-rise living work for? And will new technologies in tall building construction change the experience of living high?

There is a section of the M11, about thirty miles out of London, where you first get a glimpse of Renzo Piano’s Shard. For modern day Dick Whittingtons, drawn to the city to seek their fortune, it cannot fail to bring a thrill to the belly. Towers are shorthand for the opportunity, the vices, virtues, the spoils and the sorrows that only cities can offer.

At closer quarters, from inside looking out, towers’ power can endure. Round about the sixth or seventh floor strange things can happen. As one gains height from street level, the activity of the pavement is abstracted. Individuals with faces and identifiable gaits become tiny elements that make up the stuff that passes through the capillaries and veins of our city.

The tenth or eleventh floors bring a God-like perspective. Rather than looking outside to see rain or sunshine, one begins to see weather fronts move in over the city. The rhythms of commuting play out below, punctuated with the occasional siren. On clear days you can get a sense of how London is placed within its landscape: from different towers you can see the forests of Epping and Ruislip to the East and West, and the Thames snaking through towards Tilbury and the Thames estuary.

Until recently the growth of high-rise was limited to commercial buildings in Docklands and the City of London

There is now a lot more opportunity for this kind of reverie in London. In the last decade a crop of new high-rise buildings have sprung up. Until recently the growth of high-rise was limited to commercial buildings in Docklands and the City of London. Former City head of planning Peter Rees once compared the churn of buildings in the square mile to a ‘kitchen garden’, which would be harvested and replaced every twenty-five years as technology and business practices evolved.

Beyond its twin business districts, London was fairly low-rise until recently, with occasional local authority housing and suburban office blocks interrupting a cityscape of terraced streets. Even in the city centre, high-rise building was limited to a few areas by a complex mesh of protected viewing corridors and riverside policy protections. In the last few years, with encouragement from City Hall and renewed market interest, new residential towers have proliferated, with clusters appearing on both sides of the Thames, in Elephant and Castle, Vauxhall and Old Street.

New London Architecture research in 2014 identified 236 tall buildings (above 20 storeys) proposed or under construction, of which 80 per cent were residential. The headline figure was updated to 260 in early 2015. 1NLA (2014, 2015) London’s Growing Up!, New London Architecture Insight Study, available at http://newlondonarchitecture.org/docs/tb_b1-1.pdf The research provoked an intense debate and calls for a new policy framework for tall buildings.

As in other areas of London life, the growth of high-rise living in London could be read as a ‘tale of two cities’: luxury towers, often owned by absentee foreign investors, and home to a few owners rattling round an other­wise unoccupied block on the one side, with social tenants on the other, squeezed by benefit changes and crammed into blocks whose maintenance budget is ever under attack.

box_1

The thesis that high-rise living is for a minority is reflected in public preferences. According to Nicholas Boys Smith, of Create Streets, high-rise will always work best for “two sets of people: the rich and childless, and the second home owners”. Boys Smith argues that the gains that come with increased density within towers are offset by the large open spaces that need to be placed around the towers. The majority of the public do not like them, according to Boys Smith: “In all the data the vast majority of people are clear and consistent that they would rather live in low-rise buildings.”

So, will high-rise living always be restricted to the young, free and cosmopolitan on the one hand, and to people with no choice on the other? Or can technology help to make towers a habitat of preference for Londoners?

In the book Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas 2Koolhass R (1994) Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, Monacelli Press. sketches out how New York City’s Manhattan was created by two technologies – the grid and the steel-framed building. Together with the electrical lift and the telephone, these enabled a new type of living, at hitherto untested densities.

In Hackney a willing borough, committed developer and innovative architect have tested out a new building technology: prefabricated timber towers

In London technological development continues apace. In Hackney a willing borough, committed developer and innovative architect have tested out a new building technology: prefabricated timber towers. Waugh Thistleton Architects brought the concept from Austria to the UK and through close partnership with Hackney Council were able to win round a circumspect building control department and prove viability for its nine storey Murray Grove scheme, which became the world’s tallest timber residential tower. Timber frame building has a very fast (and therefore cheaper) construction time, reduces reliance on environmentally problematic construction materials like concrete and steel, and tackles acoustic problems associated with concrete slab blocks. There is now a crop of timber towers going up in London, including Hawkins Brown’s Banyan Wharf.

A more outré development in a response to a crowded skyline comes with industrial designer Shin Kuo’s ‘turn to the future’ proposal. In Kuo’s proposal each unit moves up the tower on a spiral track on a predetermined timeline, giving each resident who lives in the building an equal view. If delivery by drones becomes ubiquitous, we will need to find a design solution to airborne delivery to towers too.

But this kind of technical innovation soon becomes irrelevant if the basics aren’t right. As has been seen with developments in natural ventilation – in the early days of Strata at Elephant and Castle, the ventilation system left some residents’ flats uncomfortably hot; a new technology badly installed is often worse than no technology at all.

box_2

The technology most high-rise residents seem to want is simple: a working, failure-free lift. Demi Sherman, 19, is representative of many for whom obscure tech­nologies or new construction techniques are so far down the hierarchy of needs as to be irre­levant. She lives with her best friend on the fourteenth floor of a tower block in Walthamstow, London. They each have a child aged three. “The lift breaks a lot, all the time. Carrying my baby up the stairs with about ten bags, the buggy, everything, it’s hard. If there was money available, all I’d say is make sure the lift is working. I can’t be walking up fourteen flights of stairs with kids.”

The second ingredient for successful tower living is an on-site concierge or caretaker. Stuart Perrera, 25, a soldier who lives alone in a high-rise block in Walthamstow, says that without adequate security manning the entrances, non-residents can – and do – easily gain access, sleeping and defecating in stairwells.

The third (connected) imperative is for well-maintained common areas. Residents of multi-unit dwellings are more likely to experience crime because there are more communal spaces (hallways, lobbies, stairwells, outdoors) over which there is little clear ownership. Where this is the case, the condition of these areas can easily deteriorate, encouraging anti-social behaviours, something that studies have shown can be kept in check by keeping on top of the cleaning and maintenance. Demi adds to her lift request: “Just make sure that it’s clean and it gets decorated every now and again.”

Tall buildings are not just vertical habitats: they need to form part of the city

Finally, making high-rise work is not just about meeting residents’ needs. As citizens we have a common interest in buildings that are well-designed, paying as much attention to how they meet the street as they do to their impact on the skyline. Tall buildings are not just vertical habitats: they need to form part of the city.

The campaign against the proliferation of high-rise towers that was started last year in the Observer, following the New London Architecture research and exhibition, illustrated a growing perception that developers’ recent enthusiasm for towers is not reflected in public opinion, and may not provide a long-term solution for London’s housing crisis.

That said, even campaigners like Nicolas Boys Smith concede that towers are necessary parts of city living and that there will always be some people who love towers, both living among and in them. And that’s the thing. It’s difficult to resist the attraction of the tall tower, whether they come in the form of a church spire, an office block or a luxury penthouse. It’s probably been this way since the foundation stone at Babel was laid.

This is unlikely to change any time soon, and the numbers of people living and working at height in London are set to increase sharply in coming years. New technologies have enabled us to build taller, and new means of financing and letting properties may help make residential living at height available and attractive to more people.

But from the people who are pioneering high-rise living, whether through choice or necessity, the message is clear: get the basics right. Without lifts that work, well-maintained public areas and ideally a concierge, the charm of living high soon pales.

Notes   [ + ]

1. NLA (2014, 2015) London’s Growing Up!, New London Architecture Insight Study, available at http://newlondonarchitecture.org/docs/tb_b1-1.pdf
2. Koolhass R (1994) Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, Monacelli Press.