by Jen Turner
In a 2007 Area article Igal Charney explains the politics surrounding debates over the building of structures in London. Challenging the well-established planning practices in central London, a handful of very tall buildings were approved in the area after 2000. Although conservation groups had their concerns, Charney reports how these were quickly dismissed by then London Mayor Ken Livingstone in an acknowledgement of the merits associated with iconic architecture and high-profile architects. Stressing the significance of high-quality design and iconic architecture helped to wear down deep-rooted antagonism and to channel the debate to improving the aesthetic qualities of London, a goal that enjoys wide consensus.
However, these tall buildings have come to be seen as much more than simply aesthetic additions to the skyline. In many cases, they have become sites for political protest. Last week, six Greenpeace activists were arrested after climbing to the top of London’s Shard . The women were later arrested on suspicion of aggravated trespass after their ascent on Thursday 11 July in protest against Arctic oil drilling.
The women evaded security guards to begin their climb in the early morning. Finally, upon reaching the summit of skyscraper after 16 hours of climbing, two of them unfurled a blue flag with Save the Arctic written on it. They said the protest was intended to put Shell and other oil companies in the spotlight and they live streamed the stunt. As the protesters reached the summit, Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven said: “It is an honour to stand here at the foot of Europe’s highest building and witness this remarkable achievement by these women.
The actions of last week are emblematic of a wider discourse surrounding the significance of these sites of vertical magnitude as landscapes of power. On August 7 1974, a young Frenchman named Philippe Petit stepped out on a wire illegally rigged between the twin towers of the World Trade Center – New York’s tallest buildings – and danced about on the tight-rope for over an hour to fulfil a long-standing desire to ‘conquer’ these tall buildings. More than this, no one can disregard the significance of the September 11 2001 attacks, which saw these buildings destroyed with terrorist motive. Activities such as these, from the seemingly innocuous conquering of a building, to the horrific targeting of 9/11 illustrate the importance of tall buildings as aesthetic pleasures, but also landscapes of power.
Igal Charney (2007) The politics of design: architecture, tall buildings and the skyline of central London Area 39 2 195-205.