At the 2019 ULI U.K. National Conference, attendees heard about how two leading architects are responding to the market’s demands for taller buildings across Europe’s big cities while taking into consideration the desire to maintain a more traditional skyline.
Peter Murray, chairman of New London Architecture, took to the stage to interview Lee Polisano, the founding partner and president of PLP Architecture in what was described as a “fireside chat between two architectural visionaries.” Murray started by praising Polisano for his work on the Heron Tower, which at 754 feet (230 m), was the tallest building in the City of London when it was completed in 2011.
Murray pointed out that the Heron Tower paved the way for further tall buildings in the square mile. How had Polisano managed to get it through planning? “London had moved on,” he replied. The City has seen a collision of global commerce for 500 years, but as we came into the 21st century, it was struggling with how to grow. At the time, London was dominated by a traditional European way of looking at cities—the only way to have a debate was around the impact on St. Paul’s.
“So, we began by painting a contemporary vision of London. The city needed different building forms. London needed tall buildings, but not New York big. We managed to paint a different London and it opened people’s eyes. It was about an authentic vision for London today.”
Polisano admitted that the process was still controversial, but that it was important to persevere because the Heron Tower ultimately set the standard for future tall buildings, not least the Shard. “It was controversial—I was accused of doing more damage to London than the Luftwaffe,” he said. “But the bar was set quite high in terms of architecture. All London’s tall buildings are unique, and we should struggle to hold onto that.”
Murray pointed out that Polisano’s own approach is consistent with that philosophy. The 22 Bishopsgate project, which PLP is currently building on behalf of Lipton Rogers and AXA IM – Real Assets and is due to be completed later this year, is conceptually very different from the Heron Tower. Polisano nodded his agreement. “We imagined the Heron Tower as 13 different buildings,” he said. “22 Bishopsgate is one big community. It’s designed to encourage a different way of working; to lead to innovation and health and well-being. It’s a microcosm of how we should be working.”
Moving on, Murray asked Polisano about PLP’s work on the Edge in Amsterdam, which as the audience had heard earlier in the day was the most sustainable office building in the world when it opened. “For us, that was a great learning experience,” said Polisano. “It taught us a lot about combining spatial concepts and technology—those things had been looked at in isolation previously.”
However, while Polisano said that PLP remains extremely proud of the Edge, he added that the studio’s thinking has moved on in terms of the different ways in which buildings can and should be used. “We’ve moved on to look at how we can go further,” he said. “Not everyone wants work and life to be separate. Buildings can cater to your lifestyle and support healthy lifestyles.”
That new way of thinking is supported in no small part by PLP Labs. A relatively new initiative, PLP Labs is described as a “design research collaborative operating at the intersection of technology, culture, and space.” The idea is to design solutions for the cities of tomorrow, whether that is about urban transport solutions or the way in which individual buildings are designed and operated, using fields as wide ranging as digital technology and anthropology.
Polisano said that PLP Labs now plays a hugely important role in supporting the evolution of the wider studio. “It deals with people, tech, and place before we start to design anything,” he said. “We’re trying to get greater insight into the real subject matter. It helps inform us—the team has been doing lots of great research. We’ve managed to put together a really interesting team at PLP—there are 10 people whose profession we can’t even identify.”
The approach is exemplified by one of PLP’s latest projects—a new university in India. PLP’s involvement in the project is about far more than producing a master plan and designs. “We helped on how they are actually going to deliver education, so right at the front end,” said Polisano. “It’s about dissolving the traditional concept of a university. The project is backed by 18 Indian billionaires—there are a lot of them—and involved a two-year competition, during which time we didn’t actually design anything.”
At the end of the day, Polisano said that all of PLP’s work comes down to raising the quality threshold wherever it works. But that, he added, cannot be done in isolation—rather, municipalities have to act as guardians. “I spent years going back and forth between New York and London,” he said. “I love London. In New York we had a beautiful skyline, but it doesn’t have that anymore—the zoning policy was manipulated.
“We should raise the bar in terms of what does and what does not get built. In Vauxhall, I think that debate has been lost in part. It shouldn’t be a debate about height; it should be a debate about how good something is. And if a client is building an office block or a residential building, we point out that the ground floor is free space—there are all sorts of things you can do with that, either for the community or for yourself. It all comes back to quality.”