Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Corridors of power

On my way yesterday to the Royal Academy to deliver the £25 entry fee for this year’s Summer Show in return for, well, nothing usually, I stop off by London’s City Hall next to Tower Bridge. The view of the city’s financial district from the new building, occupied by mayor Ken Livingstone until the elections in May, at least, is spectacular. An evolving clump of high-rise buildings gaze back from the north side of the river with only the dwarfed Tower of London and Tower Bridge in view to remind the tourists gathered here that the city has a history longer than the 40 years the architecture suggests.

Encouraged by Livingstone, more new huge towers are planned to be built in the city in the coming years, many of them changing this very view from City Hall. The Heron Tower, now being constructed at 110 Bishopsgate, will have 47 floors and 680,000 square feet of office space when it is completed in 2011. Broadgate Tower, straddling the railway lines at Liverpool Street and now almost complete, is 35 storeys high. The Walkie Talkie on Fenchurch Street, planned at 36 floors, is due to be ready in 2010, and so named because its top floors are larger than the lower ones. The Shard at London Bridge will be a whopping 72 floors, making it the tallest in the UK and Europe if it is finished on schedule in 2011. The 48-storey Cheese Grater, named because, well, work it out yourself, is another planned to be ready in 2011. And there are more.
But will they really be ready then, or will they really be built at all? As I drew the skyline from a cafe almost under Tower Bridge, the financial markets contained within the buildings before me were in a state of meltdown, with the FTSE 100 index down by 4% on just that day. Financial uncertainty is in the air. Turbulence in the markets has already delayed the construction of some of these buildings, so how do things look today? And even if they are built, who is going to be moving in to them? It was years before the 50-storey One Canada Square at Canary Wharf was fully occupied and profitable after it had been topped out in 1991.

A strong economy can only help artists hoping to sell their work, and having just had an art consultancy take me on that works primarily with clients in the corporate sector, the arrival of many acres of new wall space that will need filling just a few miles from our front door can be seen as a promising development. London has been transformed in recent years – a walk along the South Bank proves that – and its skyline looked set to change even more in the coming years. How does that vision look today?