London doesn't need more skyscrapers

London doesn't need more skyscrapers

In a warren of rooms inside a 400-year-old townhouse on the Essex-Suffolk border, a counter-revolution against the most dramatic rebuilding of the London skyline in decades is gathering strength.

Eschewing computer power for sharp pencils and tracing paper, father and son architect team Quinlan and Francis Terry are drafting classically inspired designs for some of the capital's most prominent sites in a fightback against plans for hundreds of new skyscrapers.

Working from offices wallpapered with copies of the Times from 1957 in the picturesque historic town of Dedham, they are the antithesis of their modernist rivals in central London studios. But their latest scheme confirms them as a spearhead of a growing movement for an alternative urbanism.

As part of a bid for one of the most sought-after and prominent "super-prime" sites in the capital, they have drafted a gigantic apartment "groundscraper" on the site of the army's Hyde Park barracks in the style of the Paris city blocks planned by Georges Eugène Haussmann in the 19th century. It could be the sign of things to come. David Cameron last month appointed Quinlan Terry to a government panel advising on new housing design standards and awarded him a CBE.

With its stone facade and mansard roof, the traditional proposal for the site, which the Ministry of Defence is considering selling off, is the latest gambit in a broadening campaign against schemes for clusters of towers on prime land, maximising profits at the expense, critics argue, of human-scale streets and public spaces.

The counter-movement's key players include Prince Charles, who earlier this year made a speech backing a new wave of traditional architecture to help solve London's housing problems; Paul Murrain, an urbanist and until recently an architecture adviser to Charles; and Nicholas Boys Smith – a former adviser to the chancellor, George Osborne – who has set up a lobby group against the direction development is taking under the banner Create Streets.
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About 250 towers of more than 20 storeys are being planned in London according to research by the New London Architecture centre, sparking unfavourable comparisons with the unchecked development of Dubai and Shanghai.

Critics have identified plans for 18,000 new homes around Battersea power station, which include schemes by Frank Gehry and Norman Foster, as key examples of the trend.

Developers say they are building high to maximise the number of homes that can be built in an increasingly crowded city facing a housing shortage, and modernist architects believe the traditional styles used by the Terrys and favoured by Charles are inappropriate for a 21st-century global city.

"I think we have the hearts of ordinary people on our side every time, but not the politicians or the architects," said Quinlan Terry.

"That is sad because we have right on our side. Steel and glass don't produce useful buildings that last more than 25 years. We are trying to create density in a grain rather than with a tower of 20 storeys and space all around it. If you look at Rome, Paris and Milan you have that dense urban grain."

There are signs the movement is gaining support from political leaders. Create Streets has lobbied the Treasury, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Greater London authority, and earlier this year it worked with Francis Terry and the local community to propose an alternative plan to build hundreds of homes on the site of Royal Mail's central London sorting office at Mount Pleasant.

Instead of the series of apartment blocks rising to 15 storeys, designed by leading modernist architects including Wilkinson Eyre and Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, Francis Terry drafted plans for eight-storey classical terraces around a "circus" open space.

The London mayor, Boris Johnson, granted planning consent for the modernist scheme, but asked for the "beautiful" alternative plans to be submitted as well.

The Terrys' Hyde Park barracks proposal has echoes of Charles's 2011 successful intervention over plans to build housing on Chelsea barracks, when he torpedoed Richard Rogers' plans by writing to the prime minister of Qatar, whose royal family owns the site. He rubbished the modernist scheme, promoted Quinlan Terry's classical alternative and the owners sacked their architect.

Arguably even more sensitive, the decision by a consortium of bidders said to include Chinese and Gulf investors to select Quinlan and Francis Terry on the Hyde Park site, is likely to be seen as an attempt to avoid similar royal disapproval. In the summer, the consortium leader, Bruce Rippon, said the scheme would be "something which would make future kings and queens be proud".

The Ministry of Defence is likely to invite bids for the site which is expected to fetch about £650m.

A report by Create Streets said most people are happier, less stressed, are less likely to be victims of crime in conventional streets rather than large multi-storey buildings.

It said they also find it easier to bring up children and to behave more sociably with their neighbours and that the value of property on conventionally designed streets goes up faster than large multi-storey buildings, and that the lifetime costs of large buildings are higher and they tend to be pulled down earlier.

Boys Smith said Britain was in danger of returning to some of the worst excesses of 1960s planning.

"London's population is rising fast but our response, a second generation of multistorey tower blocks, many for social housing, is not the right one," he said.

"Most people, most of the time, don't want to live in big blocks. We are concerned that in the long term the flaws in these large multistorey buildings will make themselves very apparent."

Create Streets is advocating popular and timeless architecture instead and says that while traditional and classical styles are not always the solution, they are often most popular with local communities.

Prince Charles has spoken of his desire to see more mansion blocks, between five and eight storeys and told architects in a speech last year: "There is enormous potential in taking the mid-rise housing block and adapting it to tackle the demands of 21st-century population growth."

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