Watch a filmed conversation between the RIBA President Angela Brady and Renzo Piano.
Last week in front an audience at the RIBA, architect Renzo Piano was interviewed by Razia Iqbal for the BBC World Service (listen to the interview on BBC iPlayer). Through his responses to questions from Iqbal and members of the public, Piano explained the design behind The Shard (now the tallest building in western Europe), his ideas about architecture and the role architects can play in shaping cities for a sustainable future. Public engagement and discussion such as this event is just one way that architects can use to demonstrate the benefits of their design. Supportive clients can be powerful public advocates, as The Shard’s Irvine Sellar has been.
What can tall buildings do for cities like London?
Piano believes ultimately that the relationship between his building and London will prove to be a positive one. Tall buildings are justified if “they give back to the city more than they get from the city” by intensifying the use of city centres and by counteracting the corrosive effects of suburbanisation which create expensive and unsustainable “new peripheries”. It is hoped that this “vertical city” with its variety of uses will generate activity throughout the day and beyond 6pm when most offices close. If Piano is correct, Londoners – in time – will come to consider The Shard a familiar and well-loved part of their city.
Proposals to build tall in London are susceptible to changes in public opinion and legislation, but also crucially, to the attitude of planners, built environment bodies and government officials (elected or otherwise). The Shard has successfully navigated through an inquiry and the scrutiny of CABE. In 1985, the decision of the then environment secretary thwarted attempts to bring Mies van der Rohe’s Mansion House Square scheme to life, despite a long battle waged for planning permission by its client Peter Palumbo. Where now stands a fairly squat No.1 Poultry, could have been the site of a Modernist glass and bronze skyscraper akin to the Seagram Building.
More images of the proposed scheme and its impact on London can be seen on RIBApix
Mies’s tower for London – “confidence in the future”
Mies’s design would have been more than just office space. Below the main 290 feet tall (88 metres) tower and its 18 floors there would have been an underground shopping mall. Much of the ground level of the site consisted of a major consideration for a new public square where it was imaged there would be music festivals, concerts, exhibitions and even flower sellers. Palumbo said in 1981 that official approval of the scheme would be seen as “an act of confidence in the future.” (Palumbo, 1981 p.3)
The tower would have dwarfed most of its neighbours and required the demolition of a prominent, if eclectic, collection of Victorian buildings. The public space element of the scheme would have allowed a better view of grand buildings surrounding the site: George Dance the Elder’s Mansion House, Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens’s Midland Bank, Sir Edwin Cooper ’s National Westminster Bank and the church of St Stephen Walbrook. By the 1980s such a proposal to erase part of London’s urban history and replacement by something of a different scale was opposed. In the end there was no new public space and instead James Stirling designed a building for part of the intended site, more in keeping with the scale of the classical-style stone buildings on Poultry, Walbrook and Cheapside, though in a radically different and rather more exuberant style. In writing about about the potential benefits of Mies’s posthumous project, Palumbo once posed a question about the City of London, which even now would produce conflicting answers from all quarters: “What would it lose if the building was not built?” (Palumbo, 1981 p.3)
The Villa Tugendhat: Mies’s small masterpiece
In the catalogue of Mies’s work, the Mansion House scheme is just a footnote despite its planned floor space (178,488 sq. ft) – but was it a major loss or lucky escape for London? Today a special example of Mies’s built work is being celebrated in a new exhibition at the British Architectural Library, RIBA, London, which will be followed in July by a talk and a student seminar. Capturing some of the early ideas of Modernism and Mies’s skill in detailing and proportion is the Villa Tugendhat in Brno, Czech Republic. The Villa Tugendhat in Context tells the story of the quiet survival of a family home during a turbulent history and of its recent, immaculate two-year restoration.
Exhibition: Villa Tugendhat in Context
19 June – 19 August 2012
Admission is free
Talk: Beyond The Glass Room: The Many Lives of the Villa Tugendhat
3 July 2012, 6.30pm
£8.50/£5.50 (RIBA Members, DoCoMoMo members and students), advance booking is essential
Seminar: Mies van der Rohe and the Villa Tugendhat Student Seminar
3 July 2012, 3pm
Free, but booking is required
- Palumbo, P., The Mansion House Square scheme. London: Number 1 Poultry, 1981