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"Sky Gateway" Could Be Closed to High Rises

June 8, 2007

by Lucy Bullivant

Preservationists in Great Britain are backing stronger planning powers that would affect the look—and height—of London’s future buildings. In March, the government released its White Paper on Heritage, which called for creating development buffer zones around 27 World Heritage sites, including the Tower of London and the Houses of Parliament. It followed closely on the heels of calls from UNESCO to prevent skyscraper construction near heritage sites that are at risk from rising sea levels and other effects of climate change.

Sky Gateway
Image: Courtesy English Heritage
English Heritage’s interpretation of Rafael Viñoly’s looming Walkie-Talkie.
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Among the towers that could be affected by an exclusion zone is Rafael Viñoly’s so-called “Walkie-Talkie,” a 630-foot-tall skyscraper that Land Securities seeks to develop near the Tower of London. English Heritage renewed claims last week that the bulbous building—which it describes as “an oppressive and overwhelming form”—will spoil what it calls the city’s best patch of skyline, a “Sky Gateway” that stretches 3.5 miles east from the Tower of London to Canary Wharf. Though the Walkie-Talkie was granted planning approval in September, soon after it became subject to an inquiry assessing what the government terms “the appropriateness of a very, very tall building.”

Ken Livingstone, London’s mayor, has no objections to the tower’s height. But the White Paper proposals, which could become law this year, create a dilemma for him. Livingstone promotes skyscraper construction as a tool for encouraging urban revitalization. Indeed, other legislation currently making its way through Parliament would expand his power to intervene and promote buildings that he personally favors.

One such project could be a $3 billion redevelopment of the Victoria Station transit hub. Land Securities tapped KPF to design two 50-story towers as part of a cluster of new buildings there. The Westminster City Council expressed concern that they will obstruct views of the Houses of Parliament. Although Livingstone asked the developer to consider reducing the towers’ height, he remains committed to the project.

Land Securities submitted designs for Victoria Station, without height reductions, for planning permission this spring. The fate of Viñoly’s Walkie-Talkie, meanwhile, is expected to be decided in July. It remains to be seen how proposals to expand the buffer zone around heritage sites will impact either scheme.

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