Jason Speechly-Dick

UK & Europe

Jason has over 23 years’ experience in design and construction on diverse projects around the world. His creative approach to design has seen him work for leading architects such as Foster + Partners and Will Alsop. Jason regularly teaches at both the Bartlett School of Architecture and the Architectural Association London.

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A new build is always a positive sign, especially as many of the world’s economies make the slow but steady climb back into growth. But does the return of “supertall” buildings signal the start of something new? Experts from Atkins around the world share their insights.

By Jason Speechly-Dick, a head of architecture, UK

For thousands of years, people have used whatever technology is available to them to reach as high as they can, whether they’re constructing an earth mound, a pyramid, or the incredible steel and glass structures that dominate skylines around the world today. Tall buildings have come to represent our ambition and, some would argue, the strength and economic importance of a country or city.

When we build up, we’re pushing the boundaries of technology and materials. The higher you go, the more difficult it is to support and sustain the upper levels. As architects and engineers we welcome, and indeed keep meeting this challenge, and as our knowledge and tools advance so do the height of the buildings.

In an old city like London, there are added challenges too. We’re building sleek, new structures but we’re placing them in an historic context. Striking new towers including The Shard, The Leadenhall Building and 30 St Mary Axe have appeared in recent years though they are conservative in height compared to other cities around the world.

Over the next decade, development in the city will be driven by densification. It won’t be on the same scale as cities like Hong Kong or Dubai, so there is less pressure to do more to maximise the space. But land values in London will increase and so too will the height of buildings. Last year, a study commissioned by New London Architecture found that hundreds of buildings greater than 20 storeys are being planned for the capital over the next decade. The benefits that this may bring are widely, and fiercely debated.

Tall buildings can play a major role in the successful regeneration of city sites and act as a magnet for investment and a catalyst for change. Take Canary Wharf in East London as an example. These former docklands have been transformed into a thriving financial centre in just over 20 years, and even from a distance this collection of high-rise buildings, including One Canada Square – Europe’s tallest building when it was constructed – tells us that the area is home to world leading organisations.

But there are of course risks in altering the city’s skyline to the extent that is proposed, and current discussions raise questions about quality versus quantity. And then of course there is the way the buildings would merge the new with the old and contribute to the public realm. I believe getting the balance right in terms of placement and encouraging a debate on design will be more important to Londoners than adding to the number of supertall structures. The impact our tall buildings have on the people that live and work in them will be the real measure of future success. We have an opportunity to add contemporary architecture to the extraordinary tapestry that is historic London, without overshadowing it.

See: The return of the supertall

UK & Europe,