London's design evolution: a balance of skyscrapers, public space, history

London is certainly in the public eye with the Olympic Games around the corner. How has it evolved as a city--and can its success be judged by the designs of its skyscrapers and parks?

Flying into Heathrow Airport last week, I enjoyed observing London from above, ogling the mix of landmarks such as Buckingham Palace and the London Eye, the sprawling greenery of Hyde Park, the Thames River snaking alongside the Houses of Parliament. With much attention on the U.K.'s elegant capital city as the London Olympics take place in late July, the design of the British metropolis likely will be criticized and praised, or at least analyzed, in the media and by visitors to the Games. The spotlight will not only be on the athletes competing for the gold, but also on London--and how it is evolving as a leading global center for commerce and culture in the 21st century.

Two new articles in the June 30-July 6 print issue of The Economist look at the two very visible barometers of urban development in London: its skyline and it public spaces. Read separately, "Tower Power"  and "Between the Buildings" are both intriguing essays, but read together they become an interesting profile of the city--and offer design observations that can apply to analyses of other cities, too.

The first piece focuses on how London's silhouette has morphed dramatically in the last 50 years and how this relates to building booms around the globe. Generally, ambitious tall buildings are planned when a city's economy is going well, but are ironically completed when that same economy falters. Consider the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings in New York, which were completed in the early 1930s, after the great stock market crash of 1929. The same is true in London. On July 5, for instance, The Shard, as it's known, will open its doors and become the tallest building in Europe (at 1,017 feet), not too long after the 2008 financial meltdown.

Fascinatingly, there's a reason why London's newest skyscrapers, from Norman Foster's "Gherkin" to the forthcoming "Walkie Talkie" and "Cheesegrater" (an alternative nickname for The Shard), have such curious shapes and nicknames to match. The city is highly regulated in terms of its design, so new tall structures can't block views of the city's classic buildings. However, it seems to me that the quirky silhouettes--the Walkie-Talkie has middle floors that are thinner than those at its top, for instance, to allow views of older buildings nearby-- and silly metaphors are becoming a distinctive cultural aspect that's unique to London.

The Economist predicts that these edifices will still be pleasing to the eye in decades to come, and yet symbolic of the early 2010s. "They fit an international modernist aesthetic...they are the vision of globalization: vast, impersonal, and straining hard not to be brash."

London's public spaces, too, are often designed to balance a sense of rich tradition and yet nod to the needs and aspirations of 21st century citizens. In the second essay on London's design in its current issue, The Economist singles out Granary Square, located in front of the new Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, praising it for details such as "ancient brick [that] contrasts thrillingly with soaring glass." Filled with plants and trees, seats, eating establishments, it's a welcoming area.

Just as skyscrapers are planned during economic booms, so too are parks--with the intention of attracting tourists and keeping a city's economy booming, The Economist observes. Beautifully designed public spaces can also reap benefits for businesses nearby, as is the case of Monmouth Street in Covent Garden, notable for its charming brick pavement and frequently visited cafes and shops.

Some observers point out that successful public spaces in London are the result of privatization: Granary Square, for instance, is owned by a real estate developer. In such cases, they're driven primarily by profit, and not, critics argue, likely by community spirit.

Sure, in the cases of both skylines and public spaces, developers may seem like the main "designers" of teeming metropolises like London. But it seems that the deeper design influence is that of history--both architectural and financial.

Image: Wojtek Gurak/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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