From Birmingham to Belfast, the UK's regional centres are striving to get on the map by building tall. But does this craze for mini Manhattans speak of a growing regional confidence or a 'mine's bigger than yours' sense of inadequacy?
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
Look up and take note - Britain's urban landscape is changing. Fast.
Liverpool is the latest city to unveil proposals (pictured above) to build big and build high. The £5.5bn plan for its famous waterfront includes more than 50 high rise buildings, some more than 50 storeys.
In Leeds and Manchester, planners have rubber-stamped proposals for skyscrapers which will be just shy of 200m. Further down the line, a 280-metre observation tower has been mooted for Birmingham.
London's appetite for skyscrapers is well known, but when, three years ago, construction workers topped off Liverpool's 90-metre Beetham Tower, they unwittingly started a trend for regional cities to build high. The tower has since been dwarfed by one in Manchester, of the same name (171m).
For decades the UK has preferred to keep its tall buildings commercial, but only London can sell office space high off the ground at a profitable rate, although vacancies in Centrepoint and the Gherkin show that's not always easy.
But this latest trend is largely residential, despite the memories of the concrete tower blocks some of which are still being demolished. So what's stimulated this dash to build high?
Profits, says Neil Woodhouse of skyscrapersnews.com. A strong housing market in city centres has persuaded developers there is money to be made by investing heavily in new developments.
There is also a rivalry between the regions to have the best buildings and the tallest, he says, and a similar competition between developers.
Brave new world in Manchester
Much of this work is landing in the in-tray of architect Ian Simpson, who says it is only in the last five years that sales values have been high enough to yield profits to cover the huge expense of constructing in city centres, and dense housing makes more money because the land in city centres is so costly.
Planning laws are more relaxed for residential developments and local councils are keen to use them as a catalyst for future development, he says, by bringing much-needed function and people to a neglected area.
"We're trying to give vibrancy to cities and a reason for being there, not just to work and enjoy but to live and be a proper piece of life," says Mr Simpson. It's trying to address the rush to the suburbs, where people who make money tend to disappear to.
"Cities had become ghettos. In Manchester in the 80s there were 24 people living in the city centre, all caretakers. Now there are 20,000."
He says his designs strive for elegance and beauty to avoid the ugly mistakes of the 1960s. Cities cannot freeze in time and the modern can complement the old.
"Tall buildings help to change the perception of the place, from being something full of old Victorian buildings and run-down and dirty to a city that aspires to be a city of the future. Changing the skyline lifts the spirits, makes people feel more ambitious and underlines a council's agenda for change."
But writer Simon Jenkins says rather than self-assurance, the trend for building tall reveals a "desperate lack of self-confidence".
"You see it in Far East cities and now you see it rather sadly in London and various provincial cities as if somehow these monstrous structures were a sign of civic virility.
"They are extremely inefficient buildings, hugely intrusive into the urban landscape and they have the most devastating effect on the surrounding footprint."
He sees no economic benefits for anyone but the developers and believes the recent spate has been driven by the vanity of politicians.
Does Leeds need skyscrapers?
"They're being built as symbols and totem poles, gestures on the part of some politicians that their city is bigger than the next city. Yet they are hugely expensive to construct and they suck vitality out of the surrounding footprint. No-one goes to these places. They go to the old parts of the city instead."
Skyscrapers are always regretted and many from the past lie half-empty, he says. Architects should instead be focusing on brownfield sites and derelict buildings, and improving streets.
The International Council on Monuments and Sites was so concerned by the trend for high-rise in Liverpool and London that it sent a delegation to each city in November and will report back to UNESCO in June.
There are also fears for Bath and Edinburgh, says Susan Denyer, secretary of the ICMOS UK. Ministers responded to her concerns by giving world heritage sites national protection in a white paper on Thursday.
Shadows and wind
The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, which advises ministers on urban design, reissued its 2001 guidance to local authorities in January, because of the spread of high-rises across British cities.
Its director of architecture and design review, Selina Mason, says that when done well, tall buildings can invigorate and regenerate a city centre, like the Beetham Tower in Manchester.
The design of the base of the building, at street level, is crucial. Shadowing and winds need to be designed out and the ground floor should have shops or bars.
"It's really important that we have great thriving streets and people feel safe and comfortable in them so there should be bars and homes that overlook the streets. I think it's possible to find tall buildings that fulfil those requirements."
Delivering these qualities is up to local authorities, she says, but acknowledges there is a danger planning authorities only see short-term gains.
"Our cities are changing remarkably quickly. Get it right and we set ourselves up for the future. Get it wrong and there will be problems ahead."
TALL TOWERS ON THE WAY
1 London London Bridge Tower 306m
2 Manchester Eastgate Tower 188m
3 Leeds Lumiere Tower 171m
4 Liverpool Brunswick Quay 166m
5 Birmingham Arena Square Tower 141m
6 Glasgow Elphinstone Place 134m
7 Brighton New England Square 122m
8 Leicester Westbridge Hotel Tower 117m
9 Belfast Aurora 109m
10 Cardiff Glass Needle Scheme 99m
This comments section is now closed.
I agree with Simon Jenkins: "They are extremely inefficient buildings, hugely intrusive into the urban landscape and they have the most devastating effect on the surrounding footprint." Then again, I am from Milton Keynes originally, which was designed to be flat. Now the city is getting so full, the only way is up. It's such a shame to see parks getting built on and beautiful landscapes disappearing.
Although not in the same league as some of the buildings mentioned in this article... Have a look at the developments at Dalston, London. Despite fierce local opposition a 20 storey residential block is planned to sit on a new slab which will cover the existing railway cutting. The height of the building just keeps increasing as the cost of the slab rises. Significant shadowing issues will make this a new urban wilderness. Oh dear!
Mark James, London
We cannot as a nation be seen as an a people afraid of innovation, of change and of looking to the future of architectural advancement and urban design; instead we must break away from old is best, yes many buildings are stunning and a testament to our great past and quite rightly they should be protected, but that's all they are the past, whoever built them sought to innovate and modernise and so should we, we are not in the past we are in the present and all too soon the world will eclipse us as a world of the future while we languish clinging to the security that is familiarity.
Tom senior, Barnsley
Bizarre that we continue to 'Skyscrapers' as the actual need for office space decreases with more technology, an increase in working from home and an increase in overseas outsourcing!
It all comes down to ego. Men feeling that they have something to prove to their peers. Get over it and realise that we are not America and start putting the money back into areas that could do with financial boosts.
Wayne Miskimmin, Belfast
One only has to see the great US cities, Hong Kong and Singapore to appreciate the inhuman scale of densely packed skyscrapers. The increased wind velocities, bleak concrete-clad open spaces and lack of natural light add to the discomfort and impersonal atmosphere of these places. The UK's largest cities still have some human scale outside an overcrowded centre. However elegant and interesting a new skyscraper may appear in an artist's drawing or computer simulation, this is no reflection of reality. How many skyscrapers are surrounded by green parks? Who bears the cost of the additional impact on the infrastructure (roads, public transport, sewerage, schools and hospitals) of these monoliths? Who will pay for the maintenance of these buildings 10-20 years on, particularly if they are residential?
Are any of these buildings to be hospitals or prisons as this is what we need not offices or cinemas.
JASON MCGUFFIE, bolton uk
I think these buildings are great as long as they aren't concrete blocks and use a variety of building materials. It's just a shame that the only people that really benefit are the wealthy that can afford to live on the top floors and have the amazing views of whatever city they live in!!!
British cities (maybe with the exception of London) are not celebrated like new world cities such as Vancouver, Melbourne, Auckland, Wellington and Sydney. This is largely down to neglect and poor post-war investment and planning. It's about time our cities were given some proper care, love and attention as well as the financial investment. Bring it on.
Phil Beasley, Hull
Funny, Glasgow and Liverpool did this tit-for-tat tall building race in the 1960s, and we ended up with the disaster of the Red Road flats. I wonder if the same problems will happen to these residential behemoths once they start to fray at the edges?
Peter Matthews, Edinburgh
Can we have the heights in feet please? Basic courtesy.
What a great idea! These buildings will simply add to the character of British cities, as many cities have buildings from from different centuries/decades reflecting the style of the time, even a few of the ugly 60's high rise should be kept if only to act as a reminder on how not to deisgn buildings!
Alan Crute, Milton Keynes
These towers are massively inappropriate and will simply stick out like sore thumbs, dwarfing the surrounding building - this is not Manhattan, it's Europe and our architecture should reflect this. The Elphinstone tower in Glasgow is a (unpopular) part of a massive building boom of identical glass monstrosities in the city and across the UK. We should have sustainable growth of city centres and not repeat the boom and bust of the 1960s.
Wouldn't mind if they looked good. The Manchester Eastgate Tower is ugly, lacking in any creativity and a waste of money. Where are the people with vision?
It is attitudes like those of establishment people such as Simon Jenkins that hold this country back. This is a global phenomena Simon. Our cities must change with the times if they are to attract global investment. This is not a repeat of the 1960's, these buildings are being constructed by private enterprise, not the government, and are of a far higher quality.
The link in your article to Niel Woodhouse's website should be skyscrapernews.com - not skyscrapersnews.com :)
In such a small and crowded Island such as ours, up is the only way to prevent the compleate urbanisation of the country. Many of the proposed skyscrapers and more fuel efficent than their low-rise counterparts and it is far easier to add enviromentaly friendly fuel sources such as wind turbines to high-rise buildings. In addition many proposed skyscrapers, The Shard London Bridges are wonderful buildings astheticly and the extra office space that can be created will be neccessery should the UK wish to remain competative on the world stage.
Jack Tindale, Barnsley, UK
The city I live in is shadow of New York and much the worse for it. High rise brings untold parking problems, street congestion and for many buildings, an eyesore that can be seen for miles.
John Turnbull, Abu Dhabi, UAE
Here in Leeds we're looking forward to our new towers with pride and excitement. Maybe we should also be building low-rise high-boredom for storing all the wet blankets!
Bob Peters, Leeds, UK
We are getting higher buildings and they are flattening out the hills of the city, removing it's character and making people feel smaller and insignificant.
High buildings seem to reduce social happiness.
Keep Britain low.
As an ex local authority planning officer now running my own planning consultancy in Liverpool, I am involved in two multi-storey development proposals, one in Liverpool and one in Birkenhead (on both sides of the River Mersey). I believe that tower development is a symbol of long term confidence in a city and a natural reflection of high land values arising from supply and demand. Such development should be generally given free rein subject to quality design and materials, as the natural expression of faith in the economic and social vitality of a town or city. The current multi- storey developments constructed, underway and in the pipeline on Liverpools waterfront have and will further transform its image into a world class city deserving the attention of international investors.
Steve Chapman MRTPI, Liverpool
My husband is from England, and I'm originally from Mexico and have lived in Seattle, Washington and now we are in Michigan. Having lived in various places to include England for two years, I think it's very sad that the UK is following suit with places like America and Asia in building tall modern buildings. These sorts of structures are impersonal, cold, and depressing in my opinion. I used to love walking in most places in England and seeing the older buildings which will always last the test of time in remaining forever beautiful and tasteful structures of an urban area. My advice to people in the UK is please don't ruin a beautiful place with so much charm and personality by adding hideous modern features that will forever ruin the old-world-charm that you can still enjoy. Very depressing. I agree that this seems to be a contest in who is the most virile. Needless to say, where we currently live, I loathe going for walks as there is very little that is uplifting !
or aesthetically pleasing for the eyes and the soul.
Erika Whitton, Auburn Hills, USA
I think that if done well, elegant skyscrapers can only enhance the area. They can be a tool for urban regeneration and create a sense of pride in the city. I am very pleased with the large number of tall buildings that have been approved, and look forward to visiting them in the future.
The United Kingdom has one of the most developed economies in the world and I can see nothing wrong with wanting to build skyscrapers to accomodate this.
Richard Harris, Devon
I work in Manchester, in the tallest office high rise in the city. Over the past five years I have seen the cityscape change shape so much, blending new and old buildings to great effect. However, as I look out of my window I immediately see 17 cranes working on developments, many high rise, if not skyscraper, and doubt whether these structures will improve the city. The city is becoming cramped and dark, with once pleasing vistas and glimpses of great architectural details blocked by huge buildings. I like New York, but find the high rise sections too claustrophibic and dark and am pleased to reach low rise areas - I hope Manchester doesnt become a two tier city, with those able to afford the 'high life' enjoying the light and views and those on the ground cast into the shadows of the structures.
When you consider the price of property in outlying areas and congestion caused by commuters, there clearly is a need for more people to live in the centre of Manchester. They don't, however, need to live in the glass monstrosities designed by Ian Simpson. His buildings blight our city now and I can't imagine they will improve with age.
"when done well, tall buildings can invigorate and regenerate a city centre, like the Beetham Tower in Manchester. The design of the base of the building, at street level, is crucial. Shadowing and winds need to be designed out" Have you tried walking around the base of the building on a windy day?
One positive aspect is the Hilton bar on the 23rd floor, the closest thing Manchester has to a tourist attraction. But why only halfway up? Would a public viewing gallery at the top have been too much to ask? It seems yes, as the top floor will be occupied by Ian Simpson and his millions.
I wish they'd put some more thought into the design of some of these blocks. There are some great skyscrapers (Chrysler Building, Gherkin etc.) but the one we are getting in Sheffield is like a Lego tower built by a three year old! It's no better than horrid 60s & 70s tower blocks!
Rob, Sheffield, UK
I agree to some extent with what Simon Jenkins says. Liverpool - indeed many cities - bear the scars of haphazard construction where there was more emphasis on building rather than balance. I think Liverpool's latest proposal should avoid these pitfalls though. The dockland construction area proposed for the new skyline is already essentially brownfield and ripe for redevelopment, and will be nicely complimented by the comparitively low-rise Liverpool One retail redevelopment of the city centre. This should create a good balance that allows residents and visitors to flow through the city without one area's development overpowering another.
Paul, Liverpool, UK
Skyscrapers? Hardly. I suggest you go take a look at what is happening in the United Arab Emirates. The Arabs know how to build properly. They are building hundreds of towers, with the mighty Burj Dubai likely to top 1000 metres in 2008. It makes the London tower look very lame indeed.
I'd love to live up high, if only for a decent view.
Philip - (level'3), London
By focussing on emotive derisory one-liners, Jenkins says nothing of any substance whatsoever. As Selina Mason correctly points out, the specific qualitative issues of high rise buildings have to do with questions such as the contribution to the skyline or to the immediate public space around them(environmental and functional). It is on this basis that they should be judged and not on whether they're high or not. High rise buildings are part of the nomenclature of the modern city and their place in it is part of how contemporaneity is expressed in its form and identity. Which of course does not imply they shouldn't be responsive to context.
Robert Slinger, Berlin, Germany
The trouble with skylines that consist of a forest of skyscrapers is that cities such as that end up having no distinguishing landmark that set them apart from others. I remember seeing Manhattan from afar a few years back and recognising just three buildings: the WTC towers (because they were far taller than the surrounding buildings) and the Empire State Building (because it is set apart from the other skyscrapers). Any other famous structures were simply amalgamated into an anonymous mass of towers and therefore not a distinguishing feature.
Ian, Marseille, France
One of the things I like about London, the UK, and much of Europe is that when you visit a great city you can see great Architecture and the sky.
Tall buildings lead to major wind tunnels, damper winters and alful shadows.
Height restrictions might be in the best intrest.
Philip Paris, Toronto Canada.
While I agree that in the past, high rise residential buildings were a mistake, I am quite excited by the current changing landscape of Leeds - already we have Bridgewater place, which dominates the skyline, but by 2010, I believe there are over 20 applications for tall buildings (over 20 storeys) in the city centre that have either been approved, or are in the process of being approved.
Leeds is a rich vibrant city, and it is good to see such strides forward being made, it is good to see so much development and it is good that there is so much demand for city living at the moment.
However, a word of warning - I believe that developers are only thinking of their pockets, and on some developments, quality has been compromised. My boyfriend has just moved out of a particular apartment block in Leeds city centre owned by one of the dominant developers of the city, and at the end of his 6 month let (he was the first tenant) it had become obvious that quality had been compromised in the rush to get the buildings completed, and people moved in. Certain defects became apparent, and if we'd have bought that apartment, I believe we would have been disappointed by the poor quality we found.
It is important to push the boundaries, to encourage city living and to build new and beautiful building that complements existing architecture as opposed to shadowing it, but our developers need to be careful not to repeat the same mistakes of the 60's. I know that I personally would be very disappointed if in 2050, bridgewater place, lumiere, the kissing towers, city island and the other leeds developments had all turned into low quality slums for the poor, or worse still knocked down and replaced.
This desire to build the tallest building from scratch seems very foolish to me. There are hundreds of buildings in British cities that could be renovated and remodelled for a fraction of the cost of these follys. Most cities have their own unique and wonderful characters, and adding these modern monstrocities just overshadows them. Make the most of what we have now rather than try to 'modernise' everything to the point of being ridiculous. The world tallest building is not something to be proud of when there are so many other things we could benefit from so much more.
They look class and we don't have earthquakes so we're sorted, I hope they build spme in Preston one day
Red Wallis, Preston, England
Look at the profiles of these buildings. For 8 out of 10, the bottom 100m is entirely straight. There is some attempt to make the top interesting, but for the vast majority of people looking from the ground up, this will be invisible. I suggest that architects need to be more thoughtful, making the lower levels more proportionate to people and the existing surroundings and that they should use lots of texture. Otherwise, welcome back the 60's/ 70's.
Al, Norwich, England
I don't personally like the new wave of tall buildings that are springing up in Birmingham. They don't fit in with the rest of the city, or the feel of it, and just look out of place.
Why must we destroy our cities' historic skylines in order to indulge the burgeoning egos of a few architects and competing city officials? It's just a grown-up version of schoolboys' "Mine's bigger than yours" games, the schoolyard is where it properly belongs.
Jon Green, Cambridge UK
If these new towers are to provide homes, in a central location and a sustainable way, then the benefits will go beyond the developers bank balance. The housing shortage will be eased, filling the demand for 1 and 2 bed appartments. Traffic from out-of-town commuters will also be less. City Offices create the opposite effect, so be warned!
Matthew Gee, Reading, UK