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Editorial: Intensification of all types is transforming London

Both inside and outside London’s historic areas, densification and intensification are much in evidence

Massimiliano Fuksas once remarked, when curating the Venice Architecture Biennale, that intensity was more important than density: ‘Intensita non densita’, in his ringing phrase. With this year’s Biennale about to open, Venice will once again be the focus for an intensity of activity which is quite unrelated to its shrinking permanent population. The Cordiere and the Giardini will throb with thousands of architects for whom the Biennale is the equivalent of Makkah (which also features in this issue). Today, intensity is largely regarded as a good idea; mixed-use is the order of the day, especially in Asia, with all that Modernist zoning regarded with world-weary disdain. We don’t have to worry about the intensity of the 19th-century industrialising city, where the mix of people, factories and pollution produced the nightmare amalgam which spawned Modernist ideas about town planning: if you couldn’t abandon the city in favour of garden cities, then the least you could do was zone it so that messy overlaps were eliminated in favour of tidy-minded areas of prescribed and proscribed use. 

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SimpsonHaugh have also designed residential blocks next to the Battersea Power Station conversion. Photograph by Karen Fuchs

In cities like London, the introduction of rigid zoning was doomed to failure, since it was predicated on a continuing role as a manufacturing city which was ending even as the zoning laws kicked in. The valuable exceptions were where a change of use was permitted because there was little demand for existing buildings. That is why areas like Mayfair, originally built as residential accommodation, experienced decades of use change to offices, as did other areas in central London such as Soho and Covent Garden. Having transferred to commercial use, the idea of them reverting to residential as leases fell in has become unacceptable to politicians and planners, despite the acute shortage of housing in London as a whole. They are more worried about a shortage of workspace than homes, even though, in another example of intensification, the population of London has swollen by two million to 8.6 million in the last three decades. Even in the City of London central business district, the explosion of office towers has been accompanied by more residential development, and new offices almost invariably have some mixed-use elements, including public or quasi-public accommodation: ‘public rooms’ or restaurants or viewing galleries. 

Outside these historic areas, densification and intensification are much in evidence. The Nine Elms area on the south side of the Thames, between Chelsea and Vauxhall Bridges, has seen a rash of residential towers, the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station as a mixed-use complex, the creation of the new Kieran Timberlake US embassy in London, and a roll call of international architects (Viñoly, Gehry, Foster, Rogers Stirk Harbour, KPF, Wilkinson Eyre, Grimshaw) at work. A planned extension to the Underground system will help service this new urban zone. Finding space in the middle of a world financial centre has proved perfectly possible, and planning policies have altered to suit the new mood. 

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The SimpsonHaugh One Blackfriars tower is an essay in double-skin facade design. The curved outer skin comprises more than 5,000 glass panels, most of which were bent into shape as they were installed. The inner facade comprises coloured panels varying from earthy colours at lower levels to silvery shades at the top. The tower has become an instant riverside landmark. Photograph by Simon Kennedy

Nowhere is this more the case than in the borough of Southwark, which until quite recently was well-known for its political opposition to development in general, and tall buildings in particular. That all changed with a decision to approve the Renzo Piano ‘Shard’ development next to London Bridge rail and Underground station. The almost-overnight change of policy meant that other parts of the borough close to the Thames could suddenly be considered suitable for tall buildings and new levels of density and intensity; apart from the riverside strip which includes Tate Modern, recently extended by Herzog & de Meuron, the concept of the ‘South Bank’ is extending east beyond Tower Bridge to include the emerging mixed-use quarter at Canada Water where more than 3,000 homes and 20,000 jobs are envisaged in a redundant dockland location. 

The image of the SimpsonHaugh One Blackfriars tower might be captioned ‘Double Intensity’. In the foreground sits the beautifully detailed SimpsonHaugh One Blackfriars residential tower nearing completion in Southwark. At 50 storeys and 170m, it is one of Europe’s tallest apartment buildings, comprising 274 homes; included on the site are a hotel and a retail/leisure block. In the background is the South Bank Tower, where engineers AKT II, working with KPF, found they could add 11 storeys to an existing 30-storey structure to create a residential tower replacing former offices. Intensification is the name of the game.

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SimpsonHaug’s One Blackfriars location and site plan

 

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Subsidiary buildings comprise a 161-bedroom hotel and a block including swimming pools, gym, spa and restaurants

 

This piece is featured in the AR’s May 2018 issue on Intensity – click here to purchase a copy.