Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat
 

 City of London Walking Tour
Conference Technical Tour
June 13, 2013
Daniel Safarik, CTBUH Editor

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LONDON - To truly gain an understanding of how to reconcile “Height and Heritage,” the theme of this year’s CTBUH International Conference, one of the best options was to accompany the man whose job it is to do just exactly that. Peter Wynne Rees has been the chief planner for the City of London for 28 years. If one has the privilege of joining him for a few brief hours, his experience comes rolling out in a regalia of inside stories, one-liners and minutiae that solidify the visitor’s understanding of the richness of the Square Mile, and the challenges that come with guiding new construction in a lucrative, yet charming place.
City of London skyline with The Leadenhall Building (center) and 20 Fenchurch (right) under construction

On a blustery June morning, Rees took his charges through several hundred years of London history, through alleys and pubs frequented by Dickens, and through the remnants of Roman gladiatorial amphitheaters, illustrating the critical role that the coordinated chaos of the streets plays in a city’s vitality, all the while underscoring why tall buildings must succeed at street level in order to reinforce that vitality.

Echoing a theme he had hit upon in his address to the Conference, Rees defined the prime product of the City – the possibility of chance occurrences and shared gossip that could lead to vital business insights – which under his guidance, is to remain inviolate, regardless of how tall or dense development becomes.

“The City, being right in the heart of London, has the opportunity to be both the party and the workplace,” he said. “We are both the ‘compost’ and the ‘beehive’ here, and the honey is the gossip: the result of the bees rubbing up against things accidentally.”

In Rees’ telling, this means that even nominally excellent pieces of architecture can fail urbanistically.

“Buildings are almost irrelevant; people will find a place to work if they want to be in a place badly enough,” Rees said. “If there are places to gossip and bump into each other, then you will find an office nearby to do your business.” He noted the impending move of media outlets such as Bloomberg and advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi into the City as examples of gossip’s magnetism.

Even though Richard Rogers’ Lloyd’s of London building is now a Grade I-listed historic building, and justifiably so, Rees finds fault with the way the building “floats in space” above the ground and creates awkward spaces around itself, he said.

“This building really broke the mold, and I think it’s a wonderful piece of architecture,” Rees said. “But as a planner, I have problems with it. It doesn’t meet the ground. You have these horrible spaces underneath the building. I do like a building that looks at its site, and somehow talks to the place where it is built.”
Lloyd's Building
Yet, he pointed out, this being the City, an urbanistically hostile Grade I-listed building from the 20th century does not crush the vitality, so long as it is directly adjoined by a Grade II-listed public market from the 19th century, Leadenhall Market, where conviviality can carry on.
Leadenhall Market, Photo by DAVID ILIFF
Rees’ operating theory is that monocultures in cities– most relevantly, in business and design – are as destructive to an ecosystem’s vitality as they are in nature and agriculture.
The planner’s antipathy toward the banking industry -- or at least the idea that the City was in recent decades becoming a monoculture thereof -- was on raw display during the tour. Rees chronicled his experience with Barclays Bank, which built a 19-story, postmodern, barrel-vaulted complex just yards from St. Michael’s church. Rees felt the project was overscaled for the site. Barclays had threatened to leave the City for Canary Wharf if it did not get its way, so Rees’ recommendation against project approval was overruled by the councilors in office at the time. Barclays moved into its building in 1992, and slowly decamped for Canary Wharf anyway, department by department, over the next few decades.

“So we got the building, and we haven’t got Barclays Bank,” Rees said. “I am pleased that we haven’t got Barclays Bank, but I am not pleased we do have the building.”
Former Barclays Bank Building
If Barclays got his heaviest criticism, Rees’ highest praise was reserved for a strikingly contemporary, if not particularly tall office building, Grimshaw’s 25 Gresham Street (Lloyd’s Banking Group), which sits back from the street behind a medieval church yard. The trees of the yard were retained and appear to be growing up into the building, which has two cantilevered leaves on either side of an atrium. Though its curving profile looks nothing like the stone livery halls that dominate the area, it does look as if it belongs there - which is exactly the point.

“Now that is building in its context,” Rees said. “That is a building that understands its site. That is what I am trying to achieve. I am not trying to tell an architect what material to use or what style to work in. I am saying, ‘Make this building work with its site, in your way.’ And when that happens, it’s magic. That’s what gives me pleasure.”
25 Gresham Street, Photo by Steve Cadman
Rees maintained that he does not have a favorite building, and whether he “likes” a building, as a planner, is beside the point. The question that must be resolved is: Does the building work from the perspective of urbanity?

In good planning, skepticism pays off. Rees is skeptical that a city can rise like a Phoenix, instantaneously, without a solid foundation of commercial culture and civic life beneath. Building a menagerie of towers does not a city make, no matter how exciting the architecture is, Rees said. He likened good architecture to “the icing on the cake…but first you must have the cake.”
Peter Rees (middle) finished the tour with a view of St. Paul's Cathedral
Wending through the City for three hours confirms this argument, though it also confirms the uniqueness of the district.

“If you are going to have a vibrant place, why not also have good architecture to bolt on as well?” Rees said. “The fact that we now have tourists who come to London to photograph modern office towers tells you we have been doing something right for the past 25 years.”