London, United Kingdom - The launch of a viewing platform at London's Shard skyscraper and a helicopter crash on a tower block have turned attention to the British capital's unique skyline, which is forming a striking backdrop to a broader battle over the future of the country's landscape.
While the recession appears to have lowered the volume of a debate about high-rise buildings in the city, skyscrapers are nonetheless subtly transforming its identity.
London's evolution is set to take centre stage in a wider struggle over radical government reforms to planning rules aimed at solving a housing crisis and spurring growth that could transform the character of the United Kingdom's cities and countryside.
The capital's skyline was thrust back into public consciousness after two people died when a helicopter hit a mist-shrouded crane on a building on January 16. Eyes have also been drifting upwards for the launch on February 1 of a viewing platform at the Shard - the European Union's tallest tower, built with funding from Qatar's royal family.
London is rare among its peers for the small number of tall buildings. Along with other major UK cities, it is not participating enthusiastically in a global skyscraper surge being led by countries such as the United Arab Emirates. So rare are tall towers that, like the Shard, anything that rises above a certain level is given a nickname - the Helter Skelter, the Cheese-grater, the Walkie Talkie or the Gherkin - strengthening a building's brand in an effort to ease planning hurdles or public anxieties about its form.
All major proposals for tall towers in the city provoke heated disagreements about whether they are needed and their impact, and it requires political will for large projects to proceed.
The Shard, for example, came under fire from some elements of the media and public for its impact on St Paul's Cathedral, for being out of proportion to its surroundings, and even for symbolising financial greed.
Nonetheless, the helicopter crash and the Shard's growing popularity have prompted observers to note that London is creeping upwards regardless, but that some areas of policy, particularly on flight paths, remain on a lower floor.
Negotiating the skyline
Unease about tall towers is often cultural. James Newman, publisher of the Skyscrapernews.com website, said, "All too often in London, opposition to skyscrapers is driven by a fear of modernity that recasts the capital as an English village, rather than any rational discussion as to the strengths and weaknesses of the architecture."
"We need local authorities who have now got more power under the new planning system to be identifying enough land to meet the demands for the people in their areas. If they can only do that by tall buildings, so be it."
- Steve Turn, Home Builder's Federation
The debate about London's skyline is cyclical - highly sensitive to the condition of the economy and hence largely silenced by the recession since 2010, which has slowed construction. Last year architect Ken Shuttleworth, who led the team that designed the Gherkin, declared that the recession meant the skyscraper era was over.
Yet figures suggest the opposite and towers are going up in London as developers plan for a projected surge in office rents and the market for high residential buildings grows. The Architects Journal reports that 20 tall buildings are planned for the city. Just this week consultation began on the highest residential building in the UK - a 75-storry tower in the Isle of Dogs.
But the battle lines over tall towers have often been blurred, not least because politicians such as London Mayor Boris Johnson have at times both capitalised on unease among some voters about tall towers and ignored it.
On his campaign trail, the conservative Johnson opposed the urge of his socialist predecessor Ken Livingstone to usher in a new skyscraper era, but in office, Johnson has largely fallen in line with his forerunner's pragmatic approach to tall buildings.
London's complex planning system gives the mayor and the government's communities secretary Eric Pickles the right to overrule objections to large projects, vesting in politicians real power to raise the skyline.
This huge discretionary power is often used to help builders meet demand and has influenced government efforts to tear up the UK's planning rules in order to unleash a construction boom that will both lead the country out of recession and resolve a housing shortage.
Steve Turner of the Home Builders' Federation said, "Our issue is land, and we need local authorities who have now got more power under the new planning system to be identifying enough land to meet the demands for the people in their areas. If they can only do that by tall buildings, so be it."
The reform agenda raises the stakes considerably over the future vision of Britain's landscape and confronts ministers with a familiar conundrum: how to reconcile the protection of heritage and nature with adequate housing and economic growth.
Warnings about an acute housing shortage are voiced across the spectrum, and government desperation to kickstart growth is increasingly marked by a sense of urgency.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has spoken of a dual housing and construction sector crisis. The National Housing Federation, homeless charity Shelter and the Chartered Institute of Housing say overcrowding, homelessness, housing costs and affordability in the private rental market are all getting worse - and have slammed the government's lack of progress.
Sector figures show the UK building industry's performance in 2012 in a freefall that wiped 8bn pounds ($12.6bn) off its value. At the same time, the industry remains cautious about large projects - mindful of public perceptions about over-development.
Alasdair Reisner, a spokesman for the Construction Alliance which represents the sector, says: "I can understand there is the desire to get more activity going but what we do not want is for the industry to end up where we got to in the past, that sense of 'develop or be damned'."
"Any large city like London that has limited space .. [will] sooner or later will require tall buildings - otherwise you are talking about the sprawl of the city which is, in itself, a major disaster."
- Kamran Moazami, engineeer
The reform agenda means ministers now face a stark choice: to increase the density of cities which will require more skyscrapers, or to allow cities to spread out into surrounding rural areas.
A landmark piece of mapping, the National Ecosystem Assessment, which reported in 2011 that just 6.8 percent of the UK's land area is urban, may offer beleaguered ministers a respite - allowing them to argue that there's still plenty of space on this crowded island.
But the government has come under intense pressure from the powerful countryside, conservation lobbies and some communities resisting further rural development, forcing it to come out fighting with the appointment of an outspoken new planning minister, Nick Boles.
Future of the UK
At root, the future of the UK's cities and countryside is at stake - and attention is turning towards skyscrapers, with London's skyline and the Shard very much in the foreground. The Shard's Italian architect Renzo Piano, for example, has been forthright about the need to intensify the city's development from the inside specifically to avoid further sprawl on the periphery.
There are sound reasons for building upwards in the UK that strengthen the case for inner-city towers.
Kamran Moazami, lead structural engineer on the Shard, says: "Any large city like London that has limited space as far as the land is concerned sooner or later will require tall buildings - otherwise you are talking about the sprawl of the city which is, in itself, a major disaster."
Some conservation groups and environmentalists are now finding themselves looking at tall towers as favourably as some developers.
A staunch countryside critic of government efforts to relax planning rules, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, for example, sees a positive role for skyscrapers and higher urban densities. Spokesman Paul Miner says: "From CPRE's point of view it is possible to do high-rise well in clustered locations - in order to minimise visual impact - in areas that are identifiably urban, such as the City of London."
London's skyline is also rising up the global agenda. The next conference in June of the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat - a world authority on skyscrapers - will be held in the British capital.
Spokesman Kevin Brass says: "London is wrestling with many of the issues facing established older European cities that are looking for ways to modernise without destroying the city's heritage and culture. But land is growing so scarce and so expensive that building taller is often the only route that makes sense for developers."