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Skyscrapers and the redrawing of the London skyline: a case of territorialisation through landscape control

Les gratte-ciel et la redéfinition du skyline de Londres: un cas de territorialisation par un contrôle du paysage
Manuel Appert and Christian Montes


In a race for the sky marked by the proliferation of skyscrapers in cities of emerging market economies, the historic European metropolises are faced with intense debates on the relevance and significance of the return of towers. Their skylines are changing, revealing a new local geopolitical order in which developers have gained backing from local authorities. With more than 200 towers planned, London exemplifies this new high-rise governance that manages to overcome often strict legislations. The new London skyline has now become the materialisation of convergent private and public interests that, in turn, translate into a set of territorial markers instrumented by what Sklair identifies as the transnational capitalist class (TCC). Real estate actors with the help of local authorities have taken control of the skyline, redrawing it rather than erasing it. A new ‘glocal’ landscape is emerging where picturesque vistas on iconic historical buildings are protected, serving as the décor for the new skyscrapers. This enables the adoption of a standardised architectural language common to global real estate actors but also a distinction provided by their setting in the London landscape. Our hypothesis is tested through the study of the controversial construction of the Shard and the Pinnacle, two skyscrapers redrawing the skyline of Central London.

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1The metropolises of emerging market economies have engaged in a formidable race for the sky, from Taipei 101 to Burj Khalifa and the Shanghai Tower. In light of this, all dazzling signs of newfound or regained economic and/or political power as well as a globalisation-honed urban marketing approach known as the ‘old’ European metropolises, harnessed to inherited urban modes, face the implications of the return of skyscrapers for their respective urban landscapes. Until now, skyscrapers have never succeeded in gaining a firm foothold in Europe, apart from a few dedicated zones or isolated examples. Today, globalisation and urban marketing strategies of competing cities have redeemed towers (Didelon 2010). London is a particularly emblematic case, as more than 50 towers have already transformed the city skyline since 2000. They have been backed locally by the Greater London Authority on the grounds they help to densify and regenerate the inner parts of the city, as laid out in the 2004 and 2011 London Plans. However, in a largely low-rise city, their height and outlines have sparked controversy, revealing conflicting views on the desired built form of the city. They have become distinctive landscape markers for not only businesses but also politicians (Höweler 2003), often against the wishes of heritage bodies, residents and visitors. As in American cities during the 20th century, office skyscrapers are now corporate identity markers or communication levers for the real estate actors who exploit them (Huxtable 1984, Willis 1995). In 2007, the Greater London Authority implemented new regulations to protect the perspectives and views of historic monuments, but in spite of this, it failed to ease tensions between actors (Appert 2008). Indeed, several viewpoints are crystallising around the impact of towers on the landscape, especially their staging on the skyline.

2Far from being a mere horizon line, the skyline is both the embodiment and the symbol of urban organisations by existing and past actors (Attoe 1981, Kostof 1991, 1992), transposing the local geopolitical order into a three-dimensional (3D) space (Kaika 2010). From this perspective, this paper will further the understanding of London landscape changes by proposing a new interpretative framework drawing from landscape control as a means of territorialisation (Debarbieux 2007).

3This context is indeed one of the instrumentation of both architecture and the urban landscape by actors and accomplices of global capitalism (Fainstein 1994, Cartier 1999, Gospodini 2002, Sklair 2005, Kaika 2010) to attract investment through branding (Hannigan 2003, Klingmann 2007, Vanolo 2008) and to generate surplus value from geographical sites (Sudjic 2005) as well as generate value from the urban landscape as an operator of these processes (Kaika and Thielen 2006, Charney 2007). The paper also draws from new entrepreneurial patterns of governance (Harvey 1989, Cox 1995, Kaika 2010) led by key members of what has been described as the transnational capitalist class [TCC] (Sklair 2001).

4This paper intends to reframe the return of skyscrapers in London through their staging on the skyline. We make the hypothesis that by taking control of the landscape and instrumenting it, the TCC is territorialising, materialising a political-economic program to rebrand London in the global economy. The emerging skyline would then be an indicator of modes of territorialisation of the TCC, a new ‘glocal’ landscape where picturesque vistas on iconic historical buildings are protected, serving as the décor for the new skyscrapers. This enables not only the adoption of a standardised architectural language common to global real estate actors but also a distinction provided by their setting in the London landscape. To test the hypothesis, we will focus on the Shard and the Pinnacle, two skyscrapers currently under construction in Central London.

Skyscrapers and the skyline at stake

Skyscrapers as infrastructures and symbols of capitalism

5Many different types of skyscrapers exist; the office skyscraper, however, is the most emblematic of them all. It provides a solution for the production system of contemporary economies, in which design, production, marketing and management stages are spaced out. As Graham and Marvin (2001) suggest, ‘Contemporary skyscrapers are often designed as nodes in “premium” infrastructure networks’ (op.cit.: 15). Just as airports or telecommunication networks connect the largest cities in the world, skyscrapers are infrastructure hubs that enable metropolises to take hold of the globalised economy by encouraging proximity and interaction. That said, economic rationalities based on functionality or on the maximisation of property values do not seem to correlate positively with the choice of skyscrapers. It is indeed perfectly possible to develop large occupiable spaces by using entire lot areas without necessarily resorting to a high number of floors, as demonstrated by urban intensification through the use of groundscrapers in the City of London. Similarly, it might be possible to consider the opposite relationship in which skyscrapers increase property values. Hiring architects to design a skyscraper for an underused site and gaining planning consent help to increase its value (Spaans et al. 2011) even if the developer has no intention to build in the end.

6Beyond land speculation, towers can also be distinctive signs for the businesses that build and occupy them (Höweler 2003, McNeill 2005). Their characteristics and position on the skyline bestow a certain recognition, prestige and visibility upon their developers or occupants (Huxtable 1984, Höweler 2003, McNeill 2002, 2008). Through their shapes, relative sizes and appearance, they ‘romanticize [economic] power and the urban condition’ (Huxtable 1984: 11). Consequently, image and visibility can be sufficient economic and social advantages for justifying—separately from the local land or technical conditions—the financial investment of construction (Monnet 1998). For local politicians, the symbolic significance of towers goes even further, being associated with the collective representation of economic success and political power (Monnet 1998); although the author was referring to the situation of the United States in the 20th century, the process applies to many other cases, including Europe.

Skyscrapers as a global architectural language

7Globalisation is reflected in the very way in which skyscrapers are built. Indeed, the large firms that commission them tend to entrust their projects to experienced architect-led teams who are likely to be experts in handling the design, production and finishing phases, sometimes within complex regulatory frameworks. Consequently, the spaces thought out for major companies are often standardised, ‘fundamentally abstracted, decontextualized, and dehumanized’ (Olds 2001: 40). Furthermore, the near-absolute domination of large American and British firms conditions architectural styles; such was the case of the international style popularised by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. However, local factors such as town planning codes and cultural representations also influence tower designs (McNeill 2005). More recently, starchitect signature—in other words, an architecture firm's trademark—is also in demand among developers and investors (McNeill 2005). The architect interprets the client's request, takes into account the context and finally develops customised solutions based on the firm's own techniques, know-how and distinguishing features.

8These factors largely explain ‘the tendency for 20th century architectural production to create objects that are more likely to communicate from a distance (between skyscrapers, for example) when they bear specific references to one another, than blend in with their immediate surroundings’ (Debarbieux 2007: 110).

The staging of skyscrapers on the skyline

9Despite their uniqueness, skyscrapers cannot be understood in isolation. Their prominence and outlines lead us to interpret them as an element of a landscape arrangement whose visibility depends on the urban canopy and on the presence of vantage points.

10The fundamental element of urban landscapes that is co-produced by skyscrapers is highlighted in architectural discourse: Skyscrapers enable us to sculpt the skyline (Höweler 2003). Therefore, the scenography of skylines constitutes the very challenge of landscaping in metropolises. More than a mere outline, the skyline is ‘the line where earth and sky meet, physically and spiritually; the urban silhouette, called the “city portrait” or Stadtbild, was a cumulative process’ (Kostof 1992, quoted in Turner 2005: s.p.). The skyline is thus ‘the chief symbol of an urban collective’ (Attoe 1981: 1). Therefore, the skyline (and the skyscrapers within) updates the many views, values and representations of various groups (firms, architects, politicians, communities, etc.) or individuals who find themselves entering a conflict involving territorial construction and identity building. The skyline is a 3D symbol, one with which different groups identify themselves.

11Thus, the contemporary challenges of the globalised metropolitan landscape crystallise around the skyscraper through their contribution to the staging of the city by means of its skyline: ‘Conquering heights, defying gravity but also the political efforts to control skyline form’ (Attoe 1981: xiv). According to Cesar Pelli (of the American architecture firm Cesar Pelli & Associates Architects), true skyscrapers are edifices ‘charged with representational responsibilities to act, by virtue of their towering height, as markers of place, sculptors of the city silhouette and as conveyors of public image’. In this regard, they cannot ‘finish abruptly in the flat top […] but culminate in a celebratory gesture’ (Crilley 1993: 145). Thus, skyscrapers mimic the role of religious and civic edifices that have long marked European cities by their presence. This confirms the political role of skyscrapers in the design and representation of urban space. It would therefore tend to explain the intense objections to towers in European cities where the symbolic significance of historic edifices contributes to a collective memory and therefore a collective identity (Parouty-David 2005).

The contested skylines of the heritage city

12These conflicts revolve around the issue of heritage, which is taking on an increasingly broader meaning in Europe: Originally associated with the private sphere, it eventually reached the public sphere and spread ‘typologically, chronologically and geographically, as well as in terms of the players involved’ (Stein 2005: 3). The specification of the notion of heritage has, in turn, changed society's view of the built heritage (Giovannoni 1931). Now known as urban heritage, it contributes to the fermentation of a collective memory and to the building of an identity, thereby becoming a political challenge. The terms of this heritage-building are rather unique in Great Britain and ‘involves civil society by means of contribution groups’ (Gravari-Barbas and Guichard-Anguis 2003: 40). Bearing a complex dialectic of conservation and destruction, heritage is thus much more likely to generate conflict than cohesion (op cit.: 936).

13In this context, who is rightfully qualified to designate what heritage is? The official European Charter (Krakow in 2000) indicates that it has to do with what a community recognises as valuable and what it identifies itself with, but the charter leaves assessment and heritage protection to experts and procedures to governments. Heritage conservation is then integrated into urban planning and development projects. As the legislation on protected viewing corridors in London attests, the skyline as a landscape becomes an object of heritage-making or heritisation, much to the benefit of a place's image and urban marketing strategy (Stein 2005).

14Finally, between the monumental and narrative staging of the global city, on the one hand, and heritage discourse and protection, on the other hand, the regulation of skylines now poses a challenge by articulating ‘the practical and the ideal, the tangible and the imaginary, space and power’ (Monnet 2000). A contributor to identity-building, it crystallises various challenges, as manipulating symbols also translates into the ability to manipulate the processes of identity establishment. As we will discuss later, control over the landscape can be interpreted as a means of territorialisation by dominant groups and institutions (Debarbieux 2007: 106).

Iconic skyscrapers and the new London skyline

Regulating the London’s skyline

15The regulation of the London skyline is the end result of a long and winding process in response to the proliferation of high-rise developments since the end of the 19th century (Tavernor 2007, Appert 2008). Originally based on the right to light (Building Act of 1894), it soon evolved around the protection of the views of St. Paul’s Cathedral (Markham 2008). The idea was then to preserve the cathedral's silhouette as seen from the Thames by imposing height restrictions on edifices constructed in the immediate surroundings. After World War II (WWII), although it was acknowledged that intensive rebuilding was needed, the towers proposed in Central London ‘fundamentally altered the skyline and the views of St Paul’s Cathedral […] from numerous perspectives’ (Simon 1996: 3). From this period until the election of Ken Livingstone as mayor of London in 2000, the successive acts that were adopted were a reflection of this dilemma. Many high-rise projects were approved or refused amid legislative vagueness, resulting in an accidental skyline (Figure 1). All of this was to change upon the establishment of the Greater London Authority.

Figure 1: The accidental skyline of Central London from the World's End Estate

Figure 1: The accidental skyline of Central London from the World's End Estate

Photo: ©Appert, 2010.

16Indeed, the newly elected mayor of London in 2000 revealed himself to be in favour of tower developments right from the start and launched a consultation as part of the London Plan. Thus, the mayor engaged the services of architect Richard Rogers (he was also chair of the Urban Task Force [UTF]), who became the mayor's chief advisor on architecture and urbanism in 2002. Towers were once again at the heart of discussions, as several reports attest (Urban Task Force 1999, DEGW 2002, House of Commons 2002, Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment [CABE] and English Heritage [EH] 2003). The first three concluded that towers were not necessary for urban densification or for guaranteeing a supply of office space in the metropolis, but towers did play a key role in urban regeneration and in the drawing of a global city's urban landscape. In addition to the mayor's close ties with the business world (Pimlott and Rao 2002, Kleinman 2002), aesthetic and architectural considerations were introduced into the debate in order to justify, at least partly, the performative capacity of towers in a communication strategy centred on the global city status of London (Gordon and Buck 2005).

17When the London Plan (Greater London Authority [GLA] 2004) was being drawn up, Livingstone was strictly opposed to the idea of a widespread height cap on Central London. He went on to elaborate: ‘For London to remain a competitive world city”, London “must respond to the drivers of growth and continue to develop in a dynamic, organic manner, without inappropriate restraints’ (op.cit.: 5). These trends, applied as principles of town planning and development, confirm the transition from a policy of containment to one of non-explicit incentives (see paragraphs 4B.15, 4B.16 and 4B.17 of the London Plan).

The London View Management Framework has not prevented skyline conflicts

18The London Plan later came with a more specific Supplementary Planning Guidance (SPG): the London View Management Framework [LVMF] (Greater London Authority 2007, 2010). The LVMF aimed to clarify the ground rules between various parties (councils, economic players, heritage conservation groups and other societies); it also intended to minimise central government intervention via public inquiries so as to avoid discouraging developers, key players in a negotiated planning system (Imrie et al. 2008, Appert and Drozdz 2010).

19In a very picturesque fashion, the LVMF identifies monuments on the skyline to protect (St Paul's Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace) by cones of views. The Protected Vistas are designed to preserve the silhouettes of monuments on the skyline. The urban canopy located in the vistas, both in front of and beyond the monuments, is caped (Figure 2).

20Despite or because of the LVMF, tower construction in London made a U-turn by the year 2000. Data from Emporis and a survey of planning applications between 2008 and 2011 help to trace the evolution of the tower construction dynamic and provide a clearer spatial picture of the tall-building turn in Greater London. Figure 2 enables one to put into perspective the locations of the new tall buildings and the spatial footprint of the LVMF in Inner London.

Figure 2: Towers and monuments in the context of protected vistas (GLA 2007)

Figure 2: Towers and monuments in the context of protected vistas (GLA 2007)

Source: Based on Appert (2008: 8).

21Although this negotiation system—which has been in place since 2007—finally confers the decision-making role to an elected authority, the complexity related to the increase in the number of consultations between the parties and the intensity of the debate between pro-tower groups and EH often necessitates government intervention in the debate. The latter is extremely heated, and all the more since the system's creation. The London boroughs approved 68 more towers in January 2013, provoking an outcry from EH and, to a lesser extent, the Royal Park Agency and Save Britain’s Heritage. EH has repeatedly turned to the national government to request public inquiries. The latter has inevitably resulted in lengthier regulatory procedures, as they involve an additional period of consultation and reflection (up to 18 months in the early part of the decade). During a consultation procedure, citizens, lobby groups, institutions, city councils and businesses all participate in monitoring and assessing the decision made by local government. The media—such as the Evening Standard, the Guardian and specialized journals—provide an alternative means of discussion where residents, editors of dailies and magazines, architects, associations and heritage protection organisations may express their views. This allows part of the public to be more widely informed, as shown by the New London Architecture Centre exhibition “London’s Growing up” in 2014 (<>).

The return of skyscrapers in London

22Towers are not new to London (Keene 2008); indeed, the presence of very tall structures in the city can be traced back to medieval times. Such structures were built for defence or religious purposes and, more recently, for housing political institutions. These edifices have been a collective symbol representing a certain aspect of urban life, be it religious or political. However, it was only from the late 19th century onwards that tall edifices were built for more banal functions, such as factories, housing or offices, erecting economic functions in the urban silhouette and thereby modifying the hierarchy of the constitutive elements of a skyline so replete with history and heritised as such today (Short 2004).

23According to data compiled by Emporis, the 1960s and 1970s marked a sharp increase (Figure 3) in the number of towers developed, mainly in the form of individual or clustered office buildings in the City of London, Camden and Westminster and as more dispersed housing developments (estates mainly) in Inner and Outer London. A period of economic stagnation, the rejection of modernism and the rise of heritisation precipitated a quasi-freeze on construction until the late 1980s, during which One Canada Square at Canary Wharf in the Docklands was built (Appert 2011).

Figure 3: Towers greater than 100m built in London between 1960 and 2010 (and projections)

Figure 3: Towers greater than 100m built in London between 1960 and 2010 (and projections)

Source: Appert (2011, s.p.).

24Facing competition from within (Canary Wharf), the City of London Corporation planned to switch its strategy to enable the construction of towers inside its boundaries. Towers would increase the provision of office space and would also signal a change of direction in the governance of the City of London, a move towards a more international business-friendly environment (Kaika 2010). The validation of the planning application approval for the Heron Tower in the City of London following public inquiry in 2001 became a determining factor for the recent history of tower developments in London (Day 2002, Tavernor and Gassner 2010). Since the 2000s, nearly 280 planning applications for residential, office or mixed-use buildings of more than 35m have been submitted to the London boroughs. Among these, 112 are over 60m, and 44 reach at least 100m. Although the Heron Tower opened the door to many other similar projects, public inquiry prior to its construction also played a part in rekindling the debate on the relevance of towers in London (Tavernor 2007). On the one hand, the City of London, CABE and the GLA have highlighted the Heron Tower's architectural quality, its background position with respect to protected viewing corridors and its contribution to the supply of office space in the global city (Appert 2008). On the other hand, EH has denounced the tower's intrusion into the views of St. Paul’s Cathedral from Waterloo Bridge. Then there is 30 St. Mary Axe, which, although it has never been the subject of public inquiry, has also marked the debate by serving as an example of iconic architecture for the advocates of modernity and towers, led by Livingstone (McNeill 2002, Tavernor 2007). The tower has since been included in city logos, been featured on the front page of special-interest magazines and dailies, appeared on many book covers, including London High (Wright 2006), and served as a backdrop for many television programs.

The Shard as a new landmark for global London

25The cases of the Shard and Pinnacle are two specific cases on which we would like to focus in order to test our main hypothesis: the skyline as an instrument for territorialisation modes. Empirical data were collected through three campaigns of interviews conducted in 2008–2010. Among the 13 people interviewed were two planning officers at Southwark Council, two at the City of London Corporation and one at the GLA. There were also two architects from major United Kingdom (UK) practices, two leaders of 3D visualisation firms, one member of the Design Council-CABE, two from EH and one from CBRE, the world’s leading property agent. The semi-structured interviews were organised by questions exploring the following areas: the position and place of the interviewee in the governance of the two tower projects, their arguments in the debate and wider views on the relationships among stakeholders, —be they clients, regulators and policy makers. An analysis of the press coverage—including that of dailies (Evening Standard), architecture publications (Building Online) and property magazines (Estate Gazette, PropertyWeek)—of the Shard and Pinnacle towers was also done for 2001 and 2009, while planning applications, townscape and visual impact assessments, and public inquiry documents (Report to the Secretary of State, APP/A5840/V/02/1095887) for the Shard were studied.

26The case of the London Bridge Tower or Shard, unveiled in 2000, has crystallised debate on the city planning process and on the press (Craggs 2007). The planning application for a 0.43ha site in Southwark was approved in 2003 after public inquiry. The Shard replaces the 1970s Southwark Towers, a high-rise building that provided 19,900 sqm of outdated office space. While some arguments confirmed the positions of several stakeholders, others accorded this skyscraper a special and paradigmatic status.

27Towering at 310m, the Shard is now the tallest tower in the European Union and the first real mixed-use tower in London. According to its architect, R. Piano, it is a ‘vertical city blending shops, offices, a hotel, apartments and observation decks’ (Piano 2008: s.p.). The tower, which is now partly opened, is located at London Bridge, an outgrowth of the City of London on the south bank of the River Thames. Its architecture has been modified in accordance with amendment requested by CABE and the Southwark Council as well as EH objections. Broadway Malyan was replaced by Renzo Piano, the tower's height was reduced from 400m to 310m, its opaque outer surface was replaced by transparent glass and its pyramid shape was stretched vertically to make its top as slender and transparent as possible. Piano's idea, which has echoes of church spires, chimneys and ship masts (<>)—with an explicit reference made to Monet on the Renzo Piano website: <>—is to create a new democratic monument for London that is accessible to the public and visible on the skyline. By virtue of the monument’s accessibility, beauty and prominence, Piano finally suggests ‘that Londoners will come to respect (Shard) as they respect St Paul's’.

28The London Borough of Southwark granted Sellar Property planning permission in 2002, praising the project's ‘exceptional architectural qualities’ and its role as a ‘marker of urban regeneration’ by extending ‘the central activity zone across the Thames’, thus spreading world city-type business opportunities closer to highly deprived neighbourhoods to the south (Gray 2003: § 7.4).

29The GLA backed the tower during the planning inquiry in 2003, at a time when the draft of the London Plan was almost completed. Referring to its emerging policies, the mayor assured that the Shard, part of which is being built on the London Bridge train station, would fit in its soon-to-be-implemented opportunity area policy. The tower would enable ‘the sensitive intensification’ (Gray 2003: § 8.14) designed for this part of the Southbank and would maximise the use of public transport (Gray 2003: § 8.37).

30The GLA did concede, however, that the tower would appear in the background of the protected view of St. Paul’s Cathedral from Kenwood House and Parliament Hill as shown in Figure 4, where the Shard is altering the delineation of its silhouette. The GLA also stressed that thanks to its ‘distinctive and significant presence’, the Shard ‘would contrast with the Cathedral in both its form and materials used’ (Gray 2003: § 8.23). The mayor went on to conclude that the Shard would be a truly world-class building, symbolic of London’s role as a world city (Gray 2003: § 8.48). Rogers, who was called upon for his testimony (and support) during the public inquiry, also declared that ‘The London Bridge Tower is a master work of architectural design’, adding that ‘the contrast between St Paul’s Cathedral dome and the transparent glass spire would even emphasise the cathedral's silhouette’ (Gray 2003: § 3.4, 3.14). This is a point of view endorsed by the inspector who declared that the tower ‘would represent an improvement over what exists and would not reduce the visibility or setting of St Paul’s, nor would it devalue its status or significance’ (Gray 2003: § 16.42-16.58). For the mayor, the juxtaposition of the two edifices is befitting of a changing skyline that accommodates London's dual historic and global status (McNeill 2002, Holmes 2004). On the contrary, the tower's height, its presence in the protected viewing corridor from Kenwood House and the rivalling of St. Paul’s Cathedral monument status are cited by EH as arguments against the tower during the public inquiry (EH 2002). Because of its bulk, the tower would ‘be the first thing to which the viewer’s eye will be drawn’, thus diminishing and devaluating ‘the status and significance of St Paul’s’ (Gray 2003: § 9.42–9.43).

31However, the planning inquiry was not the only hurdle in the way of the Shard. In view of the difficulty in turning the project into reality, the GLA played the role of project guarantor against the banks following its decision in 2005 to house part of its transport division (Transport for London) in the tower. This is a move that was abandoned by the new mayor after the developer wanted to renegotiate the contract in order to make the most of rising rents.

Figure 4: The Shard in the protected view of St. Paul’s Cathedral from Parliament Hill

Figure 4: The Shard in the protected view of St. Paul’s Cathedral from Parliament Hill

Photo: ©Appert, 2015.

32Therefore, the Shard is unique by virtue of its height, architecture, location and paradigmatic status accorded by its developers and supporters. First, it is a model tower, a beacon for office-led urban regeneration that has since served as an example in other private developments. Second, it is an exemplary model for the London Plan, as it materialises densification around an existing transport node and reduces the amount of travel, thanks to its mixed-use function. Like 30 St. Mary Axe (‘The Gherkin’), the Shard also reveals the resonant influence of aesthetic and environmental considerations in the debate. Indeed, in the absence of public big projects and a private sector-led local governance, it marks the backing and the instrumentation of high-profile private developments by politicians. For the GLA, the monumental status of the Shard helps it to weigh more in fiscal negotiations with the State (Gordon and Buck 2005) and to materialise its planning leadership locally while expressing its business-friendly approach to planning. If 30 St. Mary Axe was the first tower to be instrumented by the GLA after completion, the Shard is the first to be exploited before it—a sort of hyperreal icon of the global city appearing in brochures, logos and municipal publications prior to its construction.

The Pinnacle and the dramatisation of Central London

33The rapid handling of the Pinnacle project (Skyscrapernews 2006), from the design stage right up to the first construction phase, contrasts with that of the Shard even though both towers are of a similar height (288m) and play a significant role in structuring the London skyline. While the Shard stands alone on the South Bank, much like a monument staged with St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Pinnacle will crown the cluster of towers at the heart of the City of London. This office tower, designed by the American architecture firm Kohn Pederson Fox (KPF), promoted by the Australian developer Brooklyn Multiplex and financed by Arab Investment (part of the Economic Development Corporation of Saudi Arabia), replaces an earlier project measuring 216m that was designed by Helmut Jahn but rejected in 2003 under pressure from EH, which objected to its intrusion into the views of St. Paul’s Cathedral from Fleet Street. The KPF project, first mooted in 2004, was taller than the Jahn design but shifted slightly towards the north, thereby disappearing from the contested view. The 2004 and revised 2005 KPF projects also attracted strong criticism from EH, which thought the tower would be intrusive into views from St. James’ Park. EH was partially satisfied with these revisions and finally abandoned its call for public inquiry (EH 2005) despite the sheer height of the building (Architects Journal 2005). They stated that ‘the proposed height reduction would help to address concerns about the impact of the building upon the view from St James’ Park […] would be less intrusive in the historic skyline and the building’s tapering upper part would have some affinity with the spires and domes, which define the roofscape of Whitehall’ (GLA 2006: 5).

34The uniqueness of this skyscraper's design lies in the consideration of other neighbouring tower developments (Heron Tower, Swiss Re, Broadgate Tower, 20 Fenchurch Street, and 100 Bishopsgate) and therefore the predicted evolution of the City of London skyline through coordination between the architects and the consultant who produced the townscape and visual impact assessment of the Pinnacle at the pre-planning stage (The Tavernor Consultancy– Thus, this tower clearly contributes to an unusual landscaping exercise of private developments, led by the City of London Corporation, and more specifically by Peter Rees, the chief planning officer of the city. The tower design is also the result of preliminary cooperative work between the city's town planning services, CABE, EH, the GLA and architecture firm KPF. During these consultations, a consensus was established on the principle of an apex for the skyline of the financial district. EH endorsed the tapering shape of the tower, stating that it ‘provides a focus and summit to the hazily defined and at present inchoate eastern cluster’ (Evidence of EH at the London Advisory Committee, LAC 2005/42, 7.1). CABE commanded the way in which the tower related to the skyline of the city as early as 2004, in March and November 2005, and then in 2007 (the online references are unfortunately no longer available). They even went so far as to regret the height reduction of 20m requested by the Civil Aviation Authority. The GLA praised the dramatisation of the city’s eastern cluster. This ‘world-class’ tower, ‘attracting international recognition’, would indeed unify ‘the grouping of buildings with an apex’, a design that ‘will be recognizable in all directions and among the important views designated in the London Plan’ (GLA 2005b: 4).

35Contrary to the Shard, it is the skyline as a whole that is given monumental treatment. The architectural expression of the apex conjures the image of a structure that spirals upwards into the sky and is a reminder of how skyscrapers can help to sculpt skylines (Höweler 2003). The Pinnacle is perceived by some of its supporters as the ultimate expression of the attractiveness of the city, a driver of the London economy. The GLA indicates that ‘this prestige landmark building will be an attractive venue as a global headquarters operation for firms wishing to establish themselves in London’ (GLA 2005b: 4). Its treatment has exceeded ‘traditional’ office layout considerations in order to achieve the economic centrality of the central business district, which is, ultimately, a classical perspective of the American metropolis that ranks high in the world-city imagery. The photomontages (especially those of the Cumulative View Document) do indeed show how the Pinnacle acts as a linking element between the other towers in the emerging cluster, all the while romanticising it (Huxtable 1984). In contributing to the final design, the GLA and the City of London Corporation applauded the accomplishment of this project: ‘The building will still be a prestige landmark that will undoubtedly support London’s World City role’ (GLA 2005a: 12). By doing so, it is probably a means of communicating on the restructuring of both the city’s governance and that of the wider GLA, the latter being recreated and the former, having experienced profound transformations in the past 10 years or so, turning into a more business-friendly political and planning environment (Kaika 2010).

36The instrumentation of both the Shard and the restaging of the city’s skyline by political players such as the City of London Corporation and the GLA is reminiscent of the position adopted by the then-prime minister of Malaysia, Mahatir, when the Petronas Twin Towers were being erected in Kuala Lumpur. The modernity and confidence expressed by these artefacts therefore turn out to be a means of communication on a favorable economic and planning regime in the context of competing global cities (McNeill 2005).

Territorialising through landscape control

In the new era of capital reinvestment in the center, downtown emerges as a key luminal space. Institutionally, its redevelopment straddles public and private power. Visually, the redevelopment process eliminates or incorporates the segmented vernacular into a landscape of power (Zukin 1991: 195).

37Our hypothesis is that in the growing competition between cities in light of globalisation, actors develop territorial strategies based on taking ownership of and exploiting the urban landscape. The actions and discourses on the London skyline are then expressions of the territorialisation modes of a specific group of actors.

38Landscape and territory are closely inter-related notions, translating the representation and spatial dimensions of power. On the one hand, while the landscape is indeed ‘at once a panorama, a composition, a palimpsest’ (Meinig 1979: 6), it also expresses the relationship between society and its territory. The urban landscape is at once produced and consumed (Urry 1995) in time and space (Terkenly 2005). The landscape—as form, meaning and representation—has also been defined as a commodity (Harvey 1989, Cosgrove 1998) and an ideology that can alienate even those who belong to it (Mitchell 2005). On the other hand, the concept of territory has been used in two major senses (Dubresson and Jaglin 2005, Giraut 2008). The first is centred on individual representations and the practice of space (Blakeley and Snyder 1997, Levy and Lussault 2003). The second is centred on the spatial dimension of power, be it restricted to economic dynamics (Scott 2001) or understood more broadly as a theoretical framework for understanding the relationships between actors at different scales (Raffestin 1980, Agnew 2002, Dovey 1999, Marcuse and Van Kempen 2000, Cox 2001, Johnston 2001, Mitchell 2002, Sudjic 2005, Kaika and Thielen 2006). We postulate that a territory is ‘produced by the action carried out by syntagmatic actors (i.e. who implement a program)’ (Dansero and Mela 2006: 6). In the context of the redrawing of the London skyline, the programme is to take control of the landscape for the group to reproduce and develop.

39Taking control of the landscape is thus a mode of territorialisation, a means of getting—and maintaining—control of space. Modes of territorialisation are political, economic, material and symbolical devices or arrangements used by actors to express their power and identity related to space to similar or different actors, be they consumers, competitors, voters or other groups (Sack 1986, Gospodini 2006). These modes are embedded in time through two concomitant and contradictory dynamics: the desire to compensate for ‘changing area management practices and the jeopardising of political territorialities’ and ‘the concern of rebuilding political projects territorialised on new bases’ (Debarbieux 2007: 108). Debarbieux’s subsumes these processes by the notion of empaysagement (2007), a neologism for territorialisation through landscape control. From this perspective, the radical transformation of the London skyline reflects the building of a global political project based on the localised intentions of a set of actors that Sklair (2001, 2005) labelled the TCC.

The territorialisation of the TCC through landscape control

40The broader context is one of the significant mobility of individuals, groups and capital, and of changing urban governance. It is also one of territorial struggles induced by the transformations of the urban landscape (Cox 2001), ‘continuous, dialectal struggles of power and resistance among and between the diversity of landscape providers, users, and mediators’ (Aitchison et al. 2000: 19). Unequal struggles persist, however, because in the process of the urbanisation of capital, power has concentrated even more in the hands of corporations with the help of entrepreneurial municipalities (Harvey 1989). These actors have been identified as members of the TCC (Sklair 2001), belonging to one of its four interrelated fractions: corporate, state, technical and consumerist.

41These urban coalitions exert an economic, political, cultural and ideological control over the making of the city to attract investments in the context of global competition between cities. They tend to commodify buildings and places by using global references but sometimes also local characteristics. Sklair examples draw from the making and instrumentation of iconic architectures across the world in which real estate actors as well as mediators but above all political authorities have a pivotal role. In order to reproduce themselves, these factions are taking control of the urban landscape as a resource. They at once codify and normalise spaces across the globe linked by flows of capital, ideas and spatial solutions, but they also localise themselves, inducing a network-led territorialisation (Sklair 2005).

42The changing London skyline not only results from the corporations that invest, promote and occupy the skyscrapers but also from the works of architects, planners and politicians, who are accomplices—at interrelated scales—in taking control of the urban landscape.

43Control over the landscape, through the informal pre-planning stage and the formal planning process that follows, reveals the emergence of a business-friendly governance more prone to instrument architecture in the global competition between cities (Kaika 2010). In the absence of big projects, because of a relative lack of public finances and strong local political power, public control of the transformation of the urban landscape relies on several privately built skyscrapers and on their staging on the skyline alongside older and sometimes renowned buildings. The relative adhesion to skyscrapers in London reveals a new governance arrangement and a wish to rebalance power: A weak municipal authority (GLA) and a conservative City of London Corporation have largely been transformed and opened to new ideas as to new partners. The newly elected GLA wanted to acquire more power and investment from central government (Gordon and Buck 2005, Charney 2007), while the City of London Corporation performed a ‘visual coup d’état against its old-time heritage oriented planning’ (Kaika 2010: 453).

44Therefore, the changes in governance that have been witnessed in London have mainly been performed by and for the TCC. This concerns both those who issue dominant norms and, more directly, those economic players on whom city developers and urban planners depend partially in the context of public-private negotiated planning (Imrie et al. 2008): property developers, investors and architects. Second, planning is not autonomous and purely local. Indeed, since British developers far from suffice to create this new skyline, new forms of governance and standardised architectural solutions are devised in order to attract global capital. This translates into a shift from a local to a transnational technocracy open to global actors.

45The TCC has now taken ‘the right to overpaint Canaletto’, as wrote Jenkins (2005, quoted in Charney 2007: 119). Indeed, EH, the holder of memory, had to accept towers because of the rise of the GLA’s power in local planning and of the ‘U-turn’ of the City of London Corporation towards skyscrapers (Kaika 2010). They now condition their approval to good design and have begun to acknowledge tall buildings as part of a skyline in which the views of St. Paul’s Cathedral have been salvaged.

46While mediating the planning process, the GLA also profits from parts of the new landscape composition, as in the case of the already iconic Shard. Its image is used to communicate to the wider public that this new landscape provides jobs, density and more sustainable buildings, making legible and giving legitimacy to the London Plan (2004, 2010). At the same time, GLA has materialised aggressive public strategies to promote London to real estate actors that, in turn, will finance infrastructures and services through planning gains (Section 106).

47In the context of globalisation, we posit that one of the modes of territorialisation of the TCC is based on landscape control, materialised in the design and staging of skyscrapers on the skyline. Consequently, despite the participative turn (consultations), the legislation on London’s skyline can be defined as a technocratic real-estate base planning regulation in the hands of actors pushing global agendas forward. The agenda then enables the TCC to reproduce itself by including and maintaining selected parts of London in its network of ’glocal’ territories (Gospodini 2006).

The drawing of a ‘glocal’ landscape by and for the TCC

48The TCC is taking control of the skyline through the design of skyscrapers, formal skyline regulations and informal compositions. The resulting skyline is conceived for some of its members who, despite being dispersed throughout the world, share similar representations of the global city.

49In this context, architecture plays the part of an ‘accomplice’ to capitalist and political powers in the formation of world cities (Jones 2009). Architects produce solutions that use an international language consisting of specific building typologies, forms and materials (McNeill 2008): Glass and steel skyscrapers are among the solutions provided by global architectural firms such as KPF, SOM or Foster and Partners, from Singapore to Chicago.

50The resulting homogeneisation of the urban landscape usually induces the need for iconic buildings, as major cities want to be distinguished from their competitors. Iconic or super-tall skyscrapers are at the forefront of these urban strategies. They provide distinction, prestige and visibility for occupiers, investors and politicians who instrument them, acting as ’landscape artifices to compensate for the lack of clarity in hyper-modern territorialities’ (Debarbieux 2007: 110). Relying on huge (but not infinite) oil royalties and unhampered political might, Dubai has been particularly productive in selecting architectural solutions that create differentiation and new economic resources.

51The strategy of Dubai indicates that the urban landscape would be a sort of ‘image consumption’ (Zukin 1991: 38) based on iconic buildings, which today take the form of iconic skyscrapers, themselves inserted into a skyline composition, now of iconic status. The latter would then correspond to a quest for object uniqueness and hyper-presence. Such a discourse is leaning interpretations of the skyscrapers staged on the London skyline towards the semiotics of images, with the metropolis being perceived as a capitalist show signalling the death of urbanity (Swyngedouw and Kaika 2005).

52However, contrary to emerging metropolises such as Dubai or Kuala Lumpur, representations of European cities are based on the spatial accumulation and hierarchisation of several hundred years of history, and the recognition of their landscapes is thus done through that lens (Cosgrove 1998: 65). Consequently, the current transformation of the London skyline is the object of competing discourses. Contemporary territorialisation through landscape control corresponds to a new perspective on the ways—or even the very possibilities—of introducing ‘modernity’ into a historic city. The seemingly contradictory discourses on contemporary skylines must be understood as ‘simultaneous expressions of successive modernities’ (Monnet 2000: 405) and therefore as the clash and mediation between bearers of different modernities.

53The very existence of these differing views reminds us that the modes of territorialisation of the TCC are also embedded locally. Indeed, in the quest of both legibility and distinction in the global competition, strategies of landscape control tend to maintain the identification to a place and to a history. The rapid development of discourse founded on ‘heritage values’ that are supposed to embody a historical account regulated by the government and/or international authorities, and on global economic ‘values’, leads to the use of the city centre as a special showcase for projecting certain images (Zukin 1991, Sklair 2005). Urban marketing discourses that aim to anchor London's global city status would thus enforce themselves on top of the national dimension of its landscape (Green, 1990), a dimension that was intended to establish the British State and, formerly, its empire (Cusak 2010). Through the use of image, investors and developers, the City of London Corporation and the GLA, while communicating in the interest of their own agendas, attempt to bridge the gap between the contemporary economic functions of the city and their materialisation in the landscape.

54Thus, one might contrast the Shard—which, according to the former mayor, apparently fits into London’s ‘first-class heritage’ while expressing its ‘world-city’ status—with the Pinnacle, which is conceived as the apex of the financial district that conforms to the classical American model of the central business district, based on the grand account of triumphant modernity. Both towers are depicted by the advocates of 'heritage' as destroyers of an atemporal skyline mainly inherited from the Georgian and Victorian eras. Consequently, both advocates and opponents of skyscrapers have no other choice than to evaluate new skyscrapers as part of the historical succession of views of the city that, until the 19th century, depicted a jagged line of rooftops from which St. Paul’s Cathedral and then the Houses of Parliament emerged, imprinting the image of an ideal typical skyline on canvases, on paper and in the people’s minds.

55The return of skyscrapers and the redrawing of London’s skyline directly result from the pragmatic management of tall buildings of the GLA. While evolving from a defensive to an unshared proactive approach, the planning environment has set aside several representations of the contemporary metropolis. In this tour de force, there has been a reassertion of a very classical pictorial representation of London, a selective retrospective view to legitimise London’s future urban forms.

56Monet and Canaletto, church spires, chimneys and ship masts—such were the references put forward by the GLA and Piano to portray the landscape impact of the Shard, which alluded to the maritime past of London and the architectural eclectism of the 19th century. Praising an urban planning based on surprise and contrast was the way used to legitimise the building of a skyscraper appearing in the background of the protected views of the St. Paul’s Cathedral from Kenwood House and Parliament Hill. The distinctive and significant presence of the Shard is supposed to create a contrast with the cathedral, hence emphasising the cathedral’s silhouette and reversing EH’s argument that the Shard would devaluate it instead (English Heritage 2005).

57As for the Pinnacle, which intruded into the views of St. Paul’s Cathedral from Fleet Street and from St. James’ Park, concessions were made to EH by reducing its size. The City of London Corporation then insisted on the capacity of the Pinnacle to ‘define the roofscape’ and ‘unify the skyline’ because of its ‘affinity with the spires and domes’ (GLA 2006: 5), a skyline that EH itself had portrayed as ‘hazily defined and… inchoate’ (EH 2005: s.p.).

58The landscape of global London is therefore far from being linked only to its contemporary skyscrapers but to the simultaneous reading of these new buildings in a composition with the historical and iconic London. The London’s skyline becomes ‘glocal’, a ‘landscape-collage’ (Beriatos and Gospodini 2004: 191) built upon effective transformations and discourses that legitimise both the modern turn of London and its staging with selected symbolic religious and political buildings viewed from the Thames (Cusak 2010). By taking control of the skyline, the TCC is landscaping London so that it conforms to the references of global capitalism and at the same time provides distinction in the competition between cities. The landscaping exercise provides more value than the skyscrapers do per se by rebranding London as part of the networked territories of the TCC.

59Such ‘glocal’ brandscapes (Klingmann 2007) have reached their aim: The TCC is consuming them, judging by the surge of new skyscrapers in the City of London and in the rest of Inner London. The TCC is not only content with consuming them but also the TCC designs, approves, finances, builds and sells them, controlling the entire process from pre-planning to the very occupation of buildings and organising it into a system. However, community groups are forming to resist London’s TCC skyscraper system: Conflicts tend to materialise beyond the elite circles (the TCC and the ‘traditionalists’) in areas where corporations reach gentrified spaces. In the city’s fringes, for instance, ‘creative’ groups organising in an effort to have their say against the implicit expansionist policy of city developers in the neighbouring boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Hackney (Appert and Drozdz 2010).


60The transformation of the London skyline can be interpreted as the expression of contemporary modes of territorialisation of the TCC. It is an emblematic case of landscape control by a network of transnational stakeholders within the context of global London. The mode of territorialisation that has been implemented in London in the past decade results from a new governance, whose protagonists are part of the global economic elite and local technocrats, while excluding ordinary subjects in the debates surrounding the agenda for skyscrapers. The changing skyline is a composition in the making, mixing local and global references by articulating a historical stratification of the city: successive identities and modernities as a stage for London’s new infrastructures of global capitalism. London’s image as a global city is not associated with individual shiny skyscrapers but with the way they are read in a composition with the old London from selected viewpoints on the Thames. The composition consists of highly symbolic landmarks, such as St. Paul’s Cathedral, that stage a collection of skyscrapers designed either in a monumental manner (the Shard) or with a classical take on the modern American CBD skyline (the Pinnacle). A new ‘glocal’ landscape drawn and consumed by the TCC in the context of competing places has emerged.

61The case of London enables us to look beyond the standardisation of urban forms that follows the globalisation and urbanisation of capital. The TCC is rebranding London by designing a skyline that draws as much from its inherited identities as it does its new infrastructures. However, tensions between pro- and anti-skyscraper individuals have arisen from territorialised conflicts in four dimensions: Adding on to an area is the third dimension of volume, which in this case is conveyed by the desired or denied height, and the fourth dimension of time, which manifests itself through the highlighting of antagonist temporalities from the past to the future, both of which are mythologised and mystifying.

62This interpretative framework may prove useful for understanding the recent debates on skyscrapers in other major European cities such as Madrid, Vienna or, more notably, Paris. Paris mayoralty is stirring controversy in attempting to increase the height limit of new buildings (velum) in response to what is perceived by business organisations as an economic decline compared to other global cities.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1: The accidental skyline of Central London from the World's End Estate
Credits Photo: ©Appert, 2010.
File image/jpeg, 396k
Title Figure 2: Towers and monuments in the context of protected vistas (GLA 2007)
Credits Source: Based on Appert (2008: 8).
File image/png, 255k
Title Figure 3: Towers greater than 100m built in London between 1960 and 2010 (and projections)
Credits Source: Appert (2011, s.p.).
File image/png, 32k
Title Figure 4: The Shard in the protected view of St. Paul’s Cathedral from Parliament Hill
Credits Photo: ©Appert, 2015.
File image/jpeg, 2.7M
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Electronic reference

Manuel Appert and Christian Montes, Skyscrapers and the redrawing of the London skyline: a case of territorialisation through landscape controlArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Special issue 7 | 2015, Online since 13 July 2015, connection on 24 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Manuel Appert

Associate Professor of Geography. Institute of Geographical Researches, University of Lyon, France. Contact:

Christian Montes

Professor of Geography. University of Lyon, France. Contact:

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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