The City’s former planning chief talked sense at the Wren lecture. Shame he didn’t listen to himself when in office, says Ike Ijeh
Ex-City of London chief planner Peter Rees has always been a gregarious, larger-than-life character with the acerbic wit of a seasoned raconteur and a lively repartee in provocative quips.
This was after all the man who claimed that London’s residential boom is fuelled by “gangster cash”, that the City’s principal appeal is that “it offers the best free sex in the world” and that the capital’s biggest problem is being attached to an “under-performing country.”
But at last night’s third Annual Wren Talk held at Wren’s St Bride’s Church just off Fleet Street, Rees exhibited levels of delusion that would have made Walter Mitty blush. The vast majority of what Rees actually said was true. It’s just that it bears no relation to his impact and influence on London.
Rees opened by focusing on the early career and motivations of Sir Christopher Wren. He talked of Wren’s ambitious, opportunistic nature, his fruitful patronage by the king, his assimilation of baroque ideas from Europe and, most importantly, his inability to implement his masterplan for the rebuilding of the City after the Great Fire of 1666. All acutely observed.
Rees then speculated that the key reason why Wren failed was because he didn’t understand the City, mistakenly thinking that his royal backing and visionary ideas would sway the minds of a fiercely independent oligarchy of merchants and bankers who weren’t remotely interested in grand plans and great vistas but merely sought the reconstruction of their old properties (and thereby their means of expediting trade) in as short a time as possible. Again, all true.
Rees continued: “Wren’s plan would have meant that the City would not have been able to adapt. Yet this is its great strength and it’s what makes it a world city – unlike Paris. The secret to planning in the City is recreating what already works. The City has to grow organically, it should learn from what already exists, this is how you turn places into spaces. When you do this good architecture is the icing on the cake. It’s the places that are important.”
This all sounds wonderful but it is virtually impossible to reconcile with the specific reality of what Rees actually did to the City.
There were some successes to Rees’s reign, the City’s fantastic Streetscene challenge programme has seen the radical enhancement of scores of public spaces across the City and in Broadgate he pioneered a new, enlightened form of corporate architecture that exhibited unprecedented, positive engagement with the public realm.
But how exactly are the Walkie Talkie, the two Heron Towers plus scores of other insensitive Rees-sponsored developments “an organic recreation of what already works in the City”?
Rees said that “if the public spaces work, then it almost doesn’t matter what the architecture is doing”. Theoretically there is some truth in this concept and its acknowledgement is probably how Rees seeks absolution for a conscience that might otherwise be dogged with guilt about the harm its owner has perpetrated.
But the obvious converse application of this mantra, and one pointedly ignored by much of Rees’s career and lecture, is that bad architecture inevitably makes it much harder to make spaces work. This is the case in the dozens of medieval alleyways within the City whose character has been irretrievably diminished by the obtrusion of the Walkie Talkie on to their streetscapes.
And it will soon be the case at Broadgate once Make’s horrific new addition is complete. It is an inconsistency typical of Rees’s City tenure that while he initially promoted Broadgate’s radical inception, he has subsequently championed the comprehensive disembowelment of its celebrated architectural coherence and public realm.
Inevitably, the talk turned to the subject of tall buildings. Rees justifies his 29-year assault on the City’s skyline by claiming that Wren’s churches were the “skyscrapers of his day” and that building taller “has always been an extension of ego. Civilisations,” he continues, “have always competitively marked their territory for centuries.”
The unspoken implication of all this for the City is that building higher than St Paul’s is fine because both it and the surrounding churches have already set the historic, evolutionary precedent of increasing height.
These arguments are familiar but ultimately false. The dome of St Paul’s is actually 37m shorter than the spire of its medieval predecessor and while Wren’s steeples were the soaring towers of their day, in their universally tapering form, singular volume, consistency of materials and clustered formation around the mothership of St Paul’s, they were tall but not multi-storied (a key distinction) and they conformed to the kind of controlled skyline vision that Rees consistently resisted throughout his City tenure.
And this leads on to Rees’s final, breathtaking observations. “Towers are always a last resort in the City but when we had to build them we made sure they were in a cluster and in locations where they did least harm.”
Might this be the same cluster that the Walkie Talkie, Bishopsgate Tower and the Heron are conspicuously located outside of? And if these buildings and other towers are located where they do “least harm” one shudders to think were they might have been built to inflict some real damage.
Even the Cheesegrater, one of the relatively few celebrated skyscrapers within the City, further destabilises the historic view of St Paul’s at the apex of Fleet Street, despite the much-heralded though largely implausible claims about its famous viewing corridor-induced slant.
Rees closes with an impassioned diatribe against the current indiscriminate spread of skyscrapers across the rest of London, lambasting the irresponsibility of developers, both London mayors and local authorities and calling for greater “planning constraints” to control development and deliver more housing within the financial reach of average Londoners.
All this is a classic Reesian mix of sheer hypocrisy and hyperbole. His sympathy for those suffering the brunt of London’s housing crisis might be more plausible had he himself not fiercely resisted any form of residential development within the City of London, a position which he still resolutely maintains today.
Moreover, in calling for more planning constraints to control the development of skyscrapers in the rest of London, he is recommending exactly the kind of coordinated, strategic, skyline vision which he vigorously suppressed in the City. If, as Rees claims, this form of framework, as also alluded to by Wren in his masterplan, stifles the ability of the City to adapt, why then is it appropriate for the rest of London?
Yes, Rees is right when he claims that London’s character is under threat by the wave of skyscrapers proposed for it. But he too must take full responsibility for establishing the toxic precedent of planning irresponsibility in which that threat was allowed to thrive.
The Annual Wren Talk: Rees on Wren is part of the London Festival of Architecture which runs until June 30. www.londonfestivalofarchitecture.org
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