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19 July 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 2:51pm

How Sadiq Khan is turning away from Johnsonian vanity projects

By Douglas Murphy

In November 2018, when the architectural practice Foster + Partners first revealed images of The Tulip, I could barely muster a flicker of the outrage it deserved. A towering lift shaft with a bulbous viewing platform at the top, the proposed building was an ingloriously tacky product of one of the world’s most respected architecture firms.

Though The Tulip was inelegant to the point of vulgarity, the London skyline had already experienced a decade of disproportionately bulky, low-quality developments. In the middle of the ongoing Brexit crisis, the building seemed the zenith of Britain’s national shame, a crudely fitting symbol for the feeling that we had got what we deserved.

The building would have taken its place as the latest in a line of pointless London structures; the ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture at the Olympics, or the Emirates Air Line cable car across the Thames, for example. Both of these loss-making attractions were commissioned on the caprice of former mayor Boris Johnson, who cost the taxpayer many millions in the service of his headline-grabbing mania. Now cancelled, The Tulip joins other unbuilt Johnson follies, such as a hubristic attempt to rebuild the Crystal Palace, and the infamous Garden Bridge, the cost of which to the public has now reached over £50m – with absolutely nothing to show for it.

So it’s altogether heartening that mayor Sadiq Khan recently used his powers to withdraw planning permission from the project, previously granted by the City of London in the face of a chorus of objections. And in doing so, he may have turned the corner on the decade-long binge of novelty infrastructure and critical overdevelopment instigated by his predecessor.

There is another reason why Khan’s cancellation is significant. One of the more significant powers that the Mayor of London has is that of assuming the role of planning authority, and any significant development has to pass through their office. The mayor is also able to “call in” a planning application and take it completely out of the hands of the local authorities. Johnson regularly did so. His behaviour as planning authority was infamous, consistently granting permission to developments that local authorities were attempting to reject on the basis of over-development or a lack of affordable housing.

Khan has previously made encouraging noises about leaving behind the Johnsonian culture of vanity projects, and his rejection of The Tulip states, among other things, that it would be “detrimental to the character and composition of the existing tall building cluster, the wider skyline of London and the public space surrounding the site.” This is heavy criticism, and a project so frivolous shouldn’t have been considered favourably by the City of London in the first place.

The story that leads to The Tulip started on the same site in the City of London nearly 20 years before, when Foster + Partners designed 30 St Mary’s Axe. Commonly known as The Gherkin, this was one of the first new commercial towers in the City to be built after the creation of Canary Wharf in the 1990s, which moved much of London’s financial sector to the east.

The completion of The Gherkin in 2003 set two long-lasting precedents. One was a new cluster of office towers around the area devastated by the IRA’s Baltic Exchange and Bishopsgate bombs. The other was the principle of using “iconic” architecture with easily recognisable forms and cutesy names to make large developments more publicly acceptable.

Johnson’s predecessor Ken Livingstone, mayor of London from 2000-2008, along with Peter Rees, the City of London’s chief planning officer from 1985-2014, both encouraged a new wave of skyscraper development in the City, particularly in the area around The Gherkin known as the “Eastern Cluster”.

In typical New Labour fashion, this Faustian pact saw the mayor’s office encouraging developers to build big in the hope that growth in general, and cross-subsidy of affordable housing and public improvements in particular, would trickle down to the benefit of Londoners. Barring a few years of dormancy after the 2008 crash, the Eastern Cluster is now densely packed with towers, and still full of cranes, with more developments underway.

The Tulip, which was commissioned by the current Gherkin owner, Brazilian billionaire Jacob J Safra, would have been the latest addition to the Eastern Cluster. It was going to be built on an empty corner of the plot on which The Gherkin currently sits, and can be seen as an offspring of the original, whose round form, once a prominent icon, is now almost completely obscured by larger and bulkier towers.

Like a classic 20th-century TV tower, the majority of The Tulip was to be made up of lifts. The structure would have almost grazed The Gherkin at its widest part, before a bulb-like form bloomed out from its upper levels. The top floors were intended as a viewing platform (with obligatory glass floor and moving gondolas); housing a restaurant, bar and education facility. In line with rules imposed by the nearby London City Airport, The Tulip would have stood at 304m, close to the maximum possible height and just two metres shy of The Shard. 

Functionally speaking, the building would be little more than a tourist attraction, taking its place among an increasing glut of viewing platforms situated at various points across central London. As an urban object, it was nothing more than a fancy shape attempting to grab attention in what is already a very crowded marketplace of towers. Its audacious ugliness prompted public ire; Historic Royal Palaces called it “alien and distracting”, the Greater London Authority said it had “significant concerns”, Historic England claimed the setting would “be harmed”. Nevertheless, the City of London planning committee granted permission, claiming it “would boost the City’s desire to widen its economy and deliver a 24/7 city.”

In fact, Khan’s actions mark not just a rejection of aesthetic and functional whimsy, but ought to be understood as questioning the value and necessity of “iconic” towers in the first place. The energy expended and carbon released by the construction of a frivolity like The Tulip should really be seen as completely unacceptable in today’s world. The question of how much we should develop, for what purpose, and using which materials are challenges that cannot be shirked. If we take anything from the cancellation of The Tulip, it should be an opportunity to deepen these urgent conversations.

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