Is tall the new beautiful?

September 11, 2015

Cities are under increasing pressure for space. In order to meet the challenge they are looking skywards but, in doing so, they are easy targets for detractors. They run the risk of becoming known as landmarks to poor taste, opulence or even austerity.

Just last week the infamous London building, the Walkie Talkie, was crowned winner of Building Magazine’s Carbuncle Cup 2015, resulting in an outpouring of vitriol in both the press and social media. At 160m the Walkie Talkie is one of the tallest buildings in London. Frankly, you can’t miss it.

“It should never have been built” said Ike Ijeh in Building Magazine, while some tweeters called it “the most hated building in Britain.” Architects have also come out of the woodwork, so to speak, with the Shell Centre Towers’ designers claiming that they “won’t do a Walkie Talkie” – ostensibly referring to wind problems but, given the building’s recent accolade, more could be read between the lines.

This ‘award’ is only the latest in a long line of PR disasters for the Walkie Talkie – including melting car parts and fallout following the opening of the Sky Garden.

Despite being one of London’s behemoths, however, the Walkie Talkie is actually only the 13th tallest building in the city. While others, like The Shard and Vauxhall Tower, have come through largely unscathed, The Walkie Talkie instantly had to deal with accusations that it was a symbol of pre-crash capitalist excess. For Rowan Moore writing in The Guardian, “the concept perfectly captured the money-worshipping zeitgeist of the pre-crash years: it gets fatter as it rises.”

It is, therefore, not (or at least not only) height that garners unwanted attention. It is concept, philosophy, design. In fact, height in and of itself can be a boon in the PR battle. Buildings like The Shard can trade on their height and reap the benefits – basically, they win at something.

As Will Nicol wrote in his article on the Burj Khalifa for Digital Trends, “It’s easier, after all, to measure the height of a building than to qualify its beauty. There’s just something alluringly simple about a number — a figure that tells you when something is the best at what it does.”

According to research by New London Architecture, there are 263 tall towers in the pipeline across London – 70 of those are already under construction. One of these, the 68-story South Quay Plaza on the Isle of Dogs, is set to be the UK’s tallest residential building after the Mayor of London decided not to oppose it – despite disquiet amongst local neighborhood representatives.

London is not alone among the global cities reaching upwards, however. New York, already famous for its skyline, now boasts the tallest residential building in the western hemisphere. Even without its spire, 432 Park Avenue surpasses the Empire State Building.

Meanwhile, on the Continent, Paris is set to play host to its first (official) new skyscraper for over 40 years after the 180-metre Tour Triangle won planning permission. While the design of this building may be slightly more… controversial than Park Avenue or South Quay – perhaps setting itself up for a foray into carbuncle territory further down the line – it is its height that captures the imagination and the headlines. According to magazine Dezeen, the architects told them: “Paris is cautiously allowing tall buildings back into the city.”

All of these structures have had to deal with opposition at some stage, facing claims that the buildings will overshadow neighborhoods or won’t provide enough green space or infrastructure to cope with the volume of residents they will attract. However, they have all – so far – navigated these treacherous waters with carefully managed PR campaigns and political lobbying.

Furthermore and, interestingly, unlike the Walkie Talkie, all the aforementioned projects are residential. They will be lived in and enjoyed by people who want a piece of the sky-high pie.

As the Walkie Talkie’s developers found, a poorly managed PR campaign for eye-catching buildings can lead to detractors gaining too much traction. Others have navigated the minefield slightly better. With towers becoming a fixture of cities around the world, it will be interesting to see which is next to suffer the carbuncle treatment, and which can successfully marry the dual concepts of pragmatism and aspiration that height brings in spades.