Karl Sharro







Whatever happened to ambition? Architecture and the culture of low expectations.


As the distinctive profile of The Shard continues to rise over London Bridge, it’s worth contemplating what this latest addition to London’s skyline signifies. The Shard, an elegant tapering glass skyscraper designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, is set to become the tallest building in London when completed in a few months time. At 300 meters tall, it’s well outside the international record-breaking club of skyscrapers dominated by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai which stands at a staggering at 828 meters. Regardless of its relatively modest size, it is an example of the quality of architecture that London deserves but doesn’t get much of. Why is this energetic city that attracts creative talent from all over the world deprived of highly-ambitious works of architecture?

The question certainly extends beyond the lack of iconic skyscrapers. Most Londoners still live in Victorian terraced houses, while the less fortunate have to make do with dilapidated post-war social housing that leaves much to be desired. House completions have declined to record low levels, and the phrase ‘new build’ has become synonymous with mediocrity and low quality of construction. For most people, the idea of building their own home is prohibitively risky and expensive. Within a century, British housing went from being the object of universal admiration, such as in Hermann Muthesius’ Das englische Haus, to a historical relic.

It is ironic that this decline has happened during a period when London became a global architectural centre. Many talented and innovative international architects have set up offices in London, while British practices grew to become global leaders in the field. British architecture schools attract the best students from all over the world and many new ideas in architecture and urbanism originate in the UK. Yet, most British architects and UK-based practices are doing their best work abroad and many have not yet built any significant projects in the UK. In the last five years, the RIBA Stirling Prize was awarded three times to projects outside the UK.

So how is it that we find ourselves in this curious situation? It is all too easy to blame the planning system, as many architects often do, for stifling the development of architecture in Britain. But to do so would miss the point that the lack of ambitious architecture has many cultural, political and economic reasons behind it. Although the planning system is rigid and restrictive, it does reflect the broader cultural mindset when it comes to experimentation, innovation and risk-taking. The planning system is not itself the barrier to the development of ambitious architecture, but the tool through which cultural and political biases that stifle development are expressed.

The Green Belt is a good example of this. Green Belts were established in 1955 as a way of containing the growth of cities and protecting the countryside. Despite all the protests about ‘concreting over the countryside’, the Green Belt has actually doubled in size since it was established. In fact, because of the dense patterns of development in Britain, only 10% of its total area is developed, one of the lowest ratios in Europe. Given the increasing demand for housing in the UK, especially in the South, the availability of land should be seen as an opportunity. Instead, the Green Belt has become a legal instrument to create an artificial scarcity in land available for development.

Development policies across the UK seem to be formulated in a way that increases this level of artificial scarcity. For example, the policy of prioritising development on brownfield land (land that had been previously developed) is being promoted through various national and regional strategies. This policy increases the cost, risks and viability of development with the consequence of less and less housing being built. But such policies are not the product of technical decisions by planning bodies; they are a manifestation of a cultural mindset that sees development in itself as problematic.

This is particularly sensitive when it comes to building on greenfield land. Greenfield developments are seen by many as tantamount to environmental vandalism, violating nature and increasing the impact of human ‘footprint’. But this outlook is both naive and backward-looking. Naive because it makes misguided assumptions about what is ‘natural’, and backwards because it rejects the idea that humans can shape their physical environment in a positive manner.

The definition of what is natural is particularly problematic. For example, the bulk of the increase of Green Belt land has come through the re-classification of derelict agricultural land. Over the past few decades the increase in productivity of agricultural land thanks to the Green Revolution has meant that we need less land to produce larger amounts of food. Conservation bodies have been able to buy large areas of this land at very cheap prices as it is neither agriculturally productive nor open for development.

But to claim that this land is ‘natural’ is simplistic. This is land that has been used for agricultural for thousands of years and has been fundamentally altered by humans over this long period. In that sense, using it for agriculture or other forms of development are not fundamentally different. The real distinction is what social meaning and value we attribute to this land, and today we seem to be saying that we would value it more as derelict land than one that is redeveloped for human habitation. The result is that millions of people are locked out of decent housing while the Green Belt continues to expand.

This misguided deference towards nature is echoed through our attitude to heritage, further complicating the context in which architecture is produced. The question of heritage is now being addressed primarily through conservation, an expression of how we seem to value the past over the present. Development in London for example is governed by a series of ‘strategic views’ that cut across the capital, most of which are centred on St. Paul’s Cathedral, with the aim of preserving ‘historic’ views.  The absurdity of this strategy lies in the fact that most such views in London are accidental, unlike a city like Paris where its avenues were designed to visually connect important landmarks.

But the real problem lies in the fact that the strategy doesn’t seem to recognise that contemporary additions to London’s skyline could be valuable in their own right. Much like building on greenfield land, if we believed that what we are building now is valuable we wouldn’t feel so precious about building there. After all, people have done that for centuries. The irony is that Sir Christopher Wren’s design of St Paul’s Cathedral was criticised at the time because it was seen as too dissimilar from existing churches. Similarly, when the much-loved Victorian terraced houses were being built there were many objections against them on similar grounds to the protests we hear against development today. Thankfully, those protests didn’t succeed in both instances. It seems that our predecessors had much more self-confidence than we have today.

And this is the central question we must address when it comes to the lack of ambitious architecture in the UK today: the failure of nerve and the lack of self-confidence and imagination to shape our physical environment in bold and innovative ways. This failure of nerve manifests in too much deference to nature, to the past and an institutional mindset that is excessively risk-averse and fearful of change. Of course it would be a blanket generalisation to claim that this means a complete absence of innovation and ambition in architecture today. There are superb and inspirational examples of architecture being built today, but they are possible only because of the determination of the creative minds behind them and have to negotiate lengthy and complicated processes.

As I’m writing those words, the facilities for the London 2012 Olympics are quickly nearing completion. After a decade in which we caught glimpses of what the creative talents in London are capable off, the Olympics would have been a great opportunity to showcase the best of this talent. Instead, we went down the risk-averse route and opted for ‘budget’ Olympics. The question of ‘legacy’ came to prevail at the expense of staging great games with impressive facilities. But it’s worth contemplating what legacy actually means. Had Christopher Wren’s generation followed the same line of thinking we would have probably ended up with a modest cathedral that would have been in stark contrast to the impressive St Paul’s that tourists flock to today. Doesn’t the legacy of our generation deserve to be conceived with an equal amount of ambition?


Karl Sharro 2010


First published in Issue 1, Volume XVI of Clare Market Review.