* as points of focus?

* pointers to the spiritual? - or are they

* inappropriate statements of secular power?

LondonSCARE (London and Southwark Churches Action re the Environment) joined the debate on tall buildings at a meeting on Thursday 29 November 2001.

 The meeting was set up before the events September 11th as a Christian contribution to the ongoing debate in London on tall buildings, but took place long enough after the attack on New York to avoid the initial reactions. But it did coincide with the public enquiry over Heron Tower.


The first contribution was from Dr. Gordon Higgott, an architectural historian with English Heritage, and a witness at the enquiry. He gave an illustrated talk on the history of St. Pauls Cathedral's place on the London skyline, which served to earth the debate on tall buildings with specific examples, both sacred and secular.


Higgott saw our treatment of St. Pauls as an indication of how as a nation we treat churches and spiritual/aesthetic values. Old St.Pauls dominated the London skyline and Wren designed the new cathedral with a two storey elevation, so that the upper one would ride above the lower buildings around it. Erosion of this view began when tall warehouses were built along the Thames in the 19th century, and continued throughout the twentieth.


Higgott saw Calatrava's proposed tower of 1996 as a direct challenge to outdo St.Pauls, and Foster's Millennium Tower on the Baltic Exchange site as totally unacceptable - both were scrapped, but Foster's Swiss Re 'gherkin' is now under construction on the Baltic Exchange site.


A postcard view of London today is a night time photograph showing a floodlit St.Pauls on the left and complementary Tower 42 on the right.


Finally Higgott showed slides of how the Heron Tower would affect views of St. Pauls, especially from the north end of Waterloo Bridge with its sweeping view of the Thames and City skyline


Harley Sherlock, a housing architect, then gave an illustrated talk showing that, as far as housing was concerned, tower blocks were unnecessary, and the same density could be achieved with low rise based on the Georgian pattern. With a three storey height limit two thirds of the dwellings could have private gardens, but there was little public open space. Going to four storeys half the dwellings, the family housing, had private gardens, and there could be public open space equivalent to the Georgian squares.


He showed examples of new and converted housing schemes which met this criteria, including Darbourne and Darke's scheme in Wood Lane, and the conversion of the Royal Free Hospital in Islington.


Bringing his thesis up to date he criticised the developers of the Millennium Village in Greenwich for spoiling Ralph Erskine's design; by bringing inappropriate two storey dwellings into the scheme, other blocks had to rise to eight floors to maintain the density.


The Very Revd Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark Cathedral, followed commenting on the two preceding presentations, and introducing some theology. He began by reminding us that many of the issues were surrounded by subjectivity, and that church towers and spires were not necessarily making statements about God. Historically the tower of Southwark Cathedral acted as a landmark guiding travellers from the south to London Bridge; and spires and domes were often monuments to man's pride and the latest technology.


He did not believe that views of St.Pauls should be preserved as this was theologically flawed because of the incarnation. The church should be cheek by jowl with commerce and deep inside the heart of the community, and not dominating the skyline. This was why the canons of the cathedral had founded St. Thomas Hospital.


However in the ensuing discussion it was pointed out that church buildings could also be sacramental and visible outward signs. In any case historic cathedrals are part of our cultural heritage and should be protected in their settings. The meeting ended with a quotation from the Heron Tower enquiry; "St.Pauls needs the sky as music needs silence."


The one conclusion from Reaching for the Sky - Sacred or Secular? is that in London at least towers will continue to be built, and it is likely that St.Pauls setting will continue to be eroded. Not surprisingly each tall building, whether sacred or secular, has mixed motives behind its construction, so it is difficult to answer biblically whether there is a role for tall buildings


That the evening raised more questions than it answered concerning tall buildings was all to the good.







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