London’s skyscraper boom: soon Foster’s “gherkin” will be dwarfed.

They say that London is taking over from New York as the world’s pre-eminent financial centre. Glance at the skyline of cranes and girders, and you’d almost believe that. And if there’s one thing a pre-eminent financial centre loves, it’s talk of new skyscrapers.

As the economic graph goes zinging upwards, so do the plans of ambitious developers and their ever-eager architects. Nobody can ignore a skyscraper. Which is why a public inquiry has recently taken place into designs for one commonly described as looking like a giant walkie-talkie. Just how desirable are these things and where should we put them?

We Brits aren’t natural tower-erectors, cathedrals apart. We build them with bad grace. Until Norman Foster and his then sidekick Ken Shuttleworth produced the unexpectedly lovable 590-foot “Gherkin” at the heart of the City of London in 2004, we were bumping along in the wake of the Americans. They, obviously, knew how to build tall, from Manhattan to Chicago. In contrast we produced amateurish, lumpen, ill-proportioned things. Manhattan had the Empire State and the Chrysler buildings by the start of the 1930s: in contrast we weren’t allowed to build taller than 100 feet in London until the end of the 1950s, on the principle that firemen’s ladders wouldn’t go any higher. It didn’t help that London is built on squishy clay rather than the solid bedrock of Manhattan.

When we finally got going, London’s 350-foot Shell Centre of 1961 was a traditionalist stone-clad throwback while the Millbank Tower of 1963 showed the way to the sleek-skinned glass future. Even that was only 387 feet high. We didn’t get our first true skyscraper – the 600-foot NatWest Tower, now Tower 42 – until the close of the 1970s. We just didn’t have the knack.

Small wonder we took a breather for a decade after that. Skyscraper service resumed with the stainless-steel obelisk of Cesar Pelli’s 771-foot Canary Wharf tower of 1991. And when the IRA blew up the old Baltic Exchange in the City, thus providing a convenient excuse to build a new tower, Foster stepped up to the mark. His first attempt was a graceless superscraper like a giant stick of celery. That was thrown out. But his second was the Gherkin. And that works well because it understands it is part of a larger urban composition.

For towers to work in a great city, they can’t be plonked down just anywhere. In Paris, they were so traumatised by the arrival of the ghastly 689-foot Tour Montparnasse at the start of the 1970s – stuck out awkwardly to one side of the centre – that they forthwith corralled all new towers in the western La Defense business district, an antecedent to our Canary Wharf. Better, perhaps, to have allowed a second small cluster of towers at Montparnasse to cloak the thing somewhat. Because with skyscrapers, one-off buildings really don’t work too well. They need a companionable huddle. And this – despite all our make-do-and-mending down the years – is what we have in the City of London.

Go to Parliament Hill, or Alexandra Palace, and take in those glorious vistas across the whole of London. There is the cluster of towers developing in the City, the Gherkin stuck like a marker pin right in the middle of everything. And there, out east, is the less satisfactory cluster of Canary Wharf. They’ve really packed ’em in down there. The towers are too close, too similar, too regimented. In contrast the City benefits from having a radial medieval street pattern. Take a look at its towers closer in, from Waterloo Bridge. They execute a stately dance. It’s a glorious sight, plainly a world-class capital. But it is, of course, about to change again.

They’ve just started to build Richard Rogers’ Leadenhall Tower, a.k.a the “cheesegrater”. This tall narrow wedge of a building, very close to the Gherkin, will comfortably outstrip both it and Tower 42, rising to 737 feet. It will be finished by 2010. But two others will be taller: the Heron Tower will come close to 800 feet while pride of place in the City cluster will go to the spiralling 945- foot Bishopsgate tower, hopefully dubbed the Pinnacle.

Both of these are by American architects KPF, which could be described as a class-commercial outfit. KPF does not have anything like the international standing or the originality of a Rem Koolhaas or a Zaha Hadid or a Norman Foster, but then again – they know how to build towers. It’s what they do. They have another pair – this time slimmer residential ones, respectively 525 and 470 feet – planned for the gargantuan Victoria Transport Interchange development, perilously close both to Buckingham Palace and the Palace of Westminster. Oo-er, cue heritage hand-wringing. But hang on – building those means they will get rid of the hatefully banal 330-foot existing Portland House of 1962: a reminder of just how very bad indeed we used to be at building skyscrapers, one of the worst blots on the London skyline. I’d rather have two good taller, slimmer towers than one stumpy ‘orrible one. On the basis of the crude consultation models I’ve seen so far, it’s too early to make a judgement on the merits of the emerging Victoria mini-cluster of skyscrapers. We need to see the detail.

We’re transfixed by height – how about Renzo Piano’s proposed “Shard” at London Bridge, for instance? If it is built, the Shard will finally breach the 1,000-foot barrier in London. But the arguments about such buildings are nearly always stupid arguments because they are about height rather than quality. Never mind how tall it is – is it any good? What is it like at street level?

The view from the people who determine these things in London – which means Mayor Ken Livingstone’s own cluster of architectural advisers, plus the well-meaning but usually rather hopeless bureaucracy known as CABE – the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment – is that tall is good, so long as it is in the right place. So long as the towers don’t get in the way of the complex of “viewing corridors” of the drum and dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. There are plans to narrow those corridors. Then there is English Heritage, the conservation quango headed by the vainglorious Simon Thurley, which has a prickly relationship with CABE and tends to resist the new wave of ‘scrapers, usually fruitlessly.

What’s exercising English Heritage at the moment is the public inquiry for the “walkie talkie” tower proposal by Uruguayan-American architect Rafael Vinoly on Fenchurch Street for one of London’s most active commercial developers, Land Securities – the firm behind the Victoria proposals. It will impinge on views of the Tower of London. But that’s not the point – so does the Gherkin, which from some angles seems to erupt like a space rocket from the Tower itself. The point is not whether you will be able to see it, it’s – will you want to?

Vinoly has letters of support from Foster, Rogers, Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel and others. They stick together, top architects. Just as well he didn’t ask me, because I reckon it’s a stinker. It’s a tower which gets wider towards the top, its façade curling forwards alarmingly. Since all these towers have nicknames, they should call it The Hunchback. It may well have a marvellous conservatory-like viewing gallery on top, for those fortunate enough to be invited up there. But compared to the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater, the Pinnacle, the Shard, even the old Tower 42 – all of which have the sense to slim down on the upper levels – it is perverse. It looks slightly better if you turn the picture upside-down, but not much. Remember, Rafael: just because something is structurally possible, doesn’t mean that you have to do it.

The Hunchback is scarcely elegant, then, but it gets one thing right. It is not trying to be top dog in London. Its height -if not its shape – is appropriate for its position. It would be on the edge of the stately dance, a peasant gazing enviously at the more graceful moves of the gentlefolk in the centre of the floor.

The world’s best skyscraper cities tell us that the ensemble is what matters, not the individual building. Close up, the Empire State is horribly crude. From afar, Manhattan is magic. When Canaletto painted (and carefully doctored) his views of London with all its spires, it was the overall composition that mattered. Nothing has changed. We need a new Canaletto to appreciate the possibilities of our new wave of tower-building.

© Hugh Pearman. A fuller version of the article first published in The Sunday Times, March 18 2007, as: “Can London’s skyline grow up gracefully?”