Work / Opinion

Sam Bompas tells us why London’s views should be protected

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Agustin Coll

The National Trust, the Horniman Museum and Gardens, and Bompas & Parr teamed up to judge a competition for a new interactive installation titled The Imminent Diorama. Based at the Horniman, the installation will allow the public to take in one of finest unprotected views now, and as it may look in 80 years time.

Here, Sam Bompas tells It’s Nice That why protecting London’s skyline is more important than ever.

London is a city of great architecture, but it is so much more than a collection of individual buildings. London is also a city of great views, a great whole. When we worked on our very first project, recreating St Paul’s in jelly, we recognised that for a building to remain iconic – to remain symbolic of something greater than a building – it had to remain visible. This is true of a skyline too. _The Imminent Diorama_ is a playful project with a serious intent: to get more of the city’s sight lines protected by casting our gazes into the future through the lens one of South London’s best unprotected views, from the gardens of the Horniman Museum. 

Views are a form of public space – they add to our quality of life, to our sense of belonging, without demanding payment for their consumption. St Paul’s is at the centre of many of London’s most treasured historic views, and protecting these sight lines helps preserve the city’s character as tastes in architecture change and progress expresses itself in different ways. They provide a system of checks and balances that challenge architects, designers and developers to create new buildings that are truly worthy of a city that has historically been low-rise and gloriously chaotic. 

But this system isn’t perfect. There are 27 views with some of formal recognised status in London, but only 13 are classified as Protected Vistas – nine of the city from the north and four from the south. While new buildings in the City of London and the West End come under a lot of scrutiny, living south of the river, as I do, it sometimes seems like developers can get away with just about anything. As high rise cities become increasingly ubiquitous, and the demand for property becomes more intense, London’s unique character is under pressure. W. Godfrey Allen, architect and surveyor to St Paul’s Cathedral, first proposed protecting views of the city 80 years ago. It seems important now to do so yet again. 

The Imminent Diorama, which launches this month, brings together eight visions for the future of London from very different designers, each engaging with potential realities. 

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Collective Works

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CT Architects

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David Bray

For Studio Octopi, the housing crisis has transformed the skyline, with tall buildings spreading into the outer boroughs. An optimistic vision, this proposes a new character for London, where densification has made space for new sprawling parks and contemporary architecture and ideas are more important than the preserving the city of yesteryear.

Carl Turner, meanwhile, takes a more dystopian view of a city under water, thanks to a sudden rise in sea levels. Radically transforming the geography of the city, all that is left of the centre is the tips of structures dotted along the horizon. Agustin Coll and Duncan Catterall also engage with the implications of climate change, envisioning London transformed into a tropical holiday resort and into a densely populated city, tinted organ thanks to sand pulled into the atmosphere by violent weather – a vision not completely unfamiliar thanks to the recent effects of Hurricane Ophelia.  

With its elegant visualisation, Design Haus Liberty proposes a new layer of London up in the air, with buildings arranged to spotlight existing protected views in a landscape of parks and high rises, while David Bray envisions a future where the city is covered in smog and only the extravagant homes and playgrounds of the rich – built on platforms high above the city, where the restrictions of today are no longer relevant –are visible from the Horniman.

Examining the implications of the rise of digital space, Collective Works LLP asks viewers to consider what it might be like to have to pay for a view through an app, and Lee Playle with Scamp Factory propose an interactive umbrella covering the city to both protect it from electrical storms and feed the city’s thirst for consumerism. 

By leafing through these different visions with the real view of the city laid out in front of them, we hope visitors will see how important the skyline really is to London’s character and its future. This is part of a wider initiative from the National Trust, examining the importance of urban views and the role of design in supporting the city as it evolves. Members of the public are being invited to share their thoughts on protecting more views, and these will be submitted to the Mayor of London as part of the consultation on the new London Plan, so could have a major impact on the future skyline of the city. 

Sometimes, London’s protected views are considered an obstacle to progress – an issue to be worked around. But the tension between protection and development should actually be seen as an opportunity by designers to push themselves harder. These tensions are beautiful for designers. They contribute to the creation of a really strong editing process and challenge us to create something that can justify its existence. 

We don’t need to stop building, but we do need to recognise that what we build now will exist for years to come, and its impact on the way London views itself will be long lasting. The Shard is an example of an iconic building that justifies an exception to a rule – a structure that contributes to London and engages on the global stage. But do we want another 20 Shards in London? Probably not. 
It’s important for us as designers to create the opportunities for people to engage with these ideas in their own way. That’s why we wanted to be quite playful with the city. By imagining the future, we can either make it happen or take it as a warning of what might be possible if we don’t stop and reconsider. This project is a provocation for the latter.

The Imminent Diorama will be at The Horniman Museum and Gardens from 13 – 26 November and is free to visit.

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DH Liberty

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Duncan Catterall

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Scamp Factory

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Studio Octopi