Looking Down On London
As the planning applications go in for over 200 new buildings of over 20 storeys each, 75% of which will be aimed at rich overseas buyers, there’s a campaign mounting to stop London’s skyline from being ruined. The buildings are being approved without any public debate or consultation. There’s no oversight and vision from the city’s leaders, and the get-rich-quick towers do not answer the city’s housing needs, but respond to a bubble of international investment.
Westminster’s UNESCO World Heritage status is now threatened by the towers, which are of mediocre architectural quality and badly sited. Many show no consideration for scale and setting, make no contribution to public realm or street-level experience and are designed without concern for their effect and impact. This is what’s happening right now under London’s bumbling Tory Mayor, Boris Johnson.
London has always been a low-level city without an ‘Old Quarter’. In the 1980s Canary Wharf in the East End was specifically designed to become the new financial district on cleared waste ground, much of which had suffered war damage. The new building boom is not driven by business but by overseas buyers looking to hide money in safe havens.
One of the city’s unique features has been the ability for residents to see the river because of low-level waterside development. Now the Thames is fast becoming a corridor of concrete. Buildings like The Shard, which looks acceptable from five miles away, appear monolithic and inhospitable at their bases.
But does anyone care about a view?
When I was growing up, the sight lines of the Tower of London were protected. The Tower is low-set, because London rose around it, and Tower Green preserved a unique view in that no tall building could be seen from it – so what you saw from within was essentially the same as what had been seen in the time of Henry VIII. That view was lost in the 1980’s when the blank glass box Tower 42 (oh, the romance of that name) split the sky above the green.
Of course London cannot be preserved in aspic, but no zones for tall buildings have been established and sites are simply being sold off. Two such sites are in my neighbourhood. Both have very low buildings on them. Both have now been sold for skyscrapers.
Where To Look Down On London Without Going To The Shard
1. Primrose Hill/ Hampstead Heath
They’re free, they’re open-air, and both have spectacular views
2. The Heights – St George’s Hotel
Oddly overlooked, and right next to the BBC, this 1970’s throwback hotel has a butt-ugly bar with an amazing view across the West End, and the most disorganised service you’ll find outside of Cornwall. Go now before they finish refurbishing it into a boutique hotel.
3. The National Gallery
It feels like you’re sitting backstage in London here, seeing the rear of Nelson’s Column and the tops of buildings you don’t normally spot.
4. Tate Modern
Their top floor gallery is free and has superb views of the river and St Paul’s Cathedral.
5. Paramount at Centre Point
Its London views are every bit as good as the Shard’s and it’s more central, even though you have to climb over the rubble around Crossrail to reach it. No longer a members’ bar, it’s reasonably priced for the view, unless you book a table on the narrow viewing platform above.
6. The Monument
If you’re prepared to brave those stairs – and it’s not a climb for claustrophobes – you’ll be rewarded with an excellent view of the city, from the place where the Great Fire began.
7. Blackfriars Station
For the price of a tube ticket you can stand on the station with the best view of the Thames. It’s not high but you get the sweeping panorama of the city from either platform
8. General Wolfe’s Statue
Near the Observatory in Greenwich Park you’ll find this pioneer of Canada overlooking the city from a South-Eastern viewpoint – still spectacular and free.
9. Alexandra Palace
Ally Pally is a historic venue in Alexandra Park located between Muswell Hill and Wood Green. It’s awkward to get to, which keeps away the crowds, and has great views.
10. Telegraph Hill
Telegraph Hill in unlovely Lewisham is said to be the point from which Wellington’s victory at Waterloo was signalled to London in 1823, and has great views across the city.