In the next Architecture Foundation Supporters column, Edgar Gonzalez (Brisac Gonzalez) explores the polarizing nature of designing a second generation of tall buildings.


In the last six years our practice has been commissioned to design several tall buildings in the capital. With the opportunity, we have begun to imagine second generation tall buildings in London. 

Despite the excruciating times where nothing seems to matter but Brexit, the tall building topic still gives rise to lively debate. The annual Tall Buildings Survey is always standing room only.  Pre-planning public exhibitions of tall building proposals draw large and vociferous crowds.  I have been invited to the homes of stakeholders where trepidations for the building type have been passionately voiced. In design review boards a tall building proposal will always be lambasted.

Few people seem to want tall buildings.  Once service charges go through the roof, the forecast is of a Thames high rise rust belt. Yet, more and more are coming. Tall buildings come with baggage: To Simon Jenkins they are mere ‘nest eggs for laundered money’. They are only for the wealthy. And then there’s the visual impact. Stand on any zone one bridge and look around. Many architects scoff at tall buildings until they are asked to design one. A developer once told me that he would prefer to build lower and denser as long as the public realm nonsense is eliminated. A prominent architect has suggested without a blush that the alternative to tall buildings is a uniform urban fabric of twelve storeys. A Leon Krier-like fabric on steroids would be oppressive. This would result in a Haussmannian boulevard condition times two. In very crude urban terms this would be a cluster fuck!

Second generation tall buildings need to be less formally exuberant than their predecessors. Greater attention should be given to textured surfaces and how they react to different times of the day, in daylight and shadow etc. Perhaps far away townscape views and the building’s appearance from above (in a context model) should be less important, especially in emerging clusters, than say closer views between the gaps of existing buildings. A greater contextual ambition would also help. Southwark’s Colin Wilson once said ‘Make it distinct not bonkers.’

The most notorious first generation tall building is 20 Fenchurch Street.  In NYC, 432 Park Avenue by the same architect is ironically a good second generation tall building reference. Tall and slender never hurts, see San Gimignano. The socioeconomic matters have been put aside here in the same way that we set aside the political when admiring the works of Terragni and Libera. The Viñoly buildings were designed at roughly the same time and delivered within six months of one another. The dexterity demonstrated by his office is remarkable. This is beyond the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. It is as if two of the most significant buildings completed in 1958, the Seagram Building and the Price Tower were designed by one office instead of two. 

The Seagram is another good model. Its form is rigorously simple with refined façade details. It has an exemplary outdoor space. The lobby is extremely generous and the lift cores are beautiful. Perhaps most importantly is the view from the lobby. The surrounding context is literally appropriated. See Ezra Stoller’s black and white photo and you will get the picture. The image not only captures the generous outdoor space and hovering canopy, but shows how Mckim Mead and White’s Racquet and Tennis club is strategically framed into the exit sequence.

These suggestions are neither radical nor exhaustive and they will no doubt improve less tall buildings as well.


Edgar Gonzalez (Brisac Gonzalez)


Brisac Gonzalez are Supporters of The Architecture Foundation.