Greenery-clad office tower gets go-ahead in London despite fears over protected views

Off With Its ... Plants!

Greenery-clad office tower gets go-ahead in London despite fears over protected views

The just-approved 50 Fenchurch development will add a touch of green to the London skyline. (DBox/Eric Parry Architects/Courtesy the City of London Corporation)

A proposed 36-story London office tower with “extensive vertical urban greening” has been given a full blessing to proceed by the City of London Corporation’s Planning and Transportation Committee.

Like other major projects in London, planning approval for the Eric Parry Architects-designed skyscraper at 50 Fenchurch Street has not been without controversy. In recent months, a number of heritage activists, joined by British charity Historic Royal Palaces, have voiced strong objections to the nearly 500-foot-tall high-rise over the fact that it could obstruct protected views of the nearby Tower of London. Along with five other sites, Historic Royal Palaces manages the Tower of London, an 11th-century castle with a rather dark history situated along the Thames. It was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1988 and has long been one of the city’s most popular tourist draws.

Although criticism around 50 Fenchurch’s view-blocking properties is not without merit, the building is a remarkable one that, per city officials, will be the first structure in London “to incorporate greening on such a large scale.” The planning office explained that “bespoke metal planters” supporting climbing plants on south, north and east elevations will help the building, which will also include a lush roof terrace on its 10th floor, to “mitigate air and noise pollution, combat the heat island effect, improve biodiversity, and help rainwater run-off management.” The vegetated facade will render the surrounding area “healthier and more attractive for workers, residents and visitors,” added city planners.

What’s more, the city concluded that 50 Fenchurch would not, despite claims of the opposite, block views of the Tower of London. As reported by the Architects’ Journal, officials noted that the project doesn’t risk disrupting the Tower of London’s “skyline or erode the visual separation between the upper parts of the White Tower and the emerging cluster of tall buildings in the background.” Officials, however, acknowledged that the proposed skyscraper would diminish views and reduce sunlight at the rooftop garden belonging to 120 Fenchurch, a neighboring development also designed by Eric Parry Architects.

When complete, 50 Fenchurch will entail over 645,000 square feet of office space, 8,600 square feet of retail on its ground level, publicly accessible public gardens, and a large number of bicycle parking spaces. It will also be the new home to the Clothworkers Company, a nearly 500-year-old London livery company whose headquarters and ornate, 1950s-era meeting hall is currently located at the site. Two historic buildings, a church tower and accompanying crypt, will also see “improvements” as part of the development.

“The design journey of this urban proposition has been one of the most remarkable alignments between commerce, culture and the public realm that I have experienced,” said Parry in a statement. “The proposal will unite more than 800 years of the City of London’s history with its future in a development that will dramatically improve the experience of the city for all.”

Other reactions to 50 Fenchurch, however, have been less celebratory in tone. Historic Palaces of London, which also rallied against Parry’s much-taller 1 Undershaft—or “Trellis Tower”—project for the same reasons during a three-year planning battle that concluded with approval in November 2019, referred to the architect’s newest addition to the London skyline as “highly intrusive.”

tower of london
Blocked views of the Tower of London, a World Heritage Site associated with jewels and beheadings, has been a pressing concern in recent years. (Tammy Young Heck/Flickr)

“This proposal is one more indication of the way things are going and it’s alarming that the views enjoyed by generations of Londoners will be destroyed,” architectural historian and TV host Dan Cruickshank lamented to The Times.

Building Design also quoted architect and longtime skyline activist Barbara Weiss as saying: “It is very depressing that, more and more, London’s unique World Heritage Sites are being encroached upon by large buildings that are completely foreign to these settings.”

London’s increasingly vertical orientation has caused alarm among many skyline-focused heritage activists who are attempting to protect the city’s increasingly vulnerable protected sight-lines from being tarnished by lanky, view-diminishing new construction. As the Daily Mail detailed, there are 13 protected views in London, all of them listed as part of a skyline heritage program established in 1938. A bulk of these protected views are of St. Paul’s Cathedral and have been largely left unblemished—save for the Shard, which planning officials gave a pass—due to the fact that “the symbol of the cathedral was so important during the Second World War.”