‘An Incoherent Riot’: Why London’s Skyline Looks So Weird

London has a jarring profusion of odd skyscrapers with funny names or nicknames. There are the Shard and the Scalpel, which are pretty elegant. The (mostly) well-liked Gherkin, which looks like a glass pickle. The wedge-shaped Cheese Grater. And the widely loathed Walkie-Talkie, a bulbous cartoon of a building that “looms thuggishly over its low-rise neighbors like a broad-shouldered banker in a cheap pinstriped suit,” to quote The Guardian.

There’s an economic explanation for why London has so many skyscrapers that get up on their toes and say, “Look at me”: Developers hire star architects because doing so gives them a better chance of winning approval for taller, more profitable buildings, according to research by Paul Cheshire, an emeritus professor of economic geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and others.

Cheshire and Christian Hilber, also of the London School of Economics, advanced the starchitect argument in an article way back in 2008. Cheshire and Gerard Dericks of the University of Oxford offered supporting evidence in a 2014 article and updated their argument with fresher data in 2020. Last year, Cheshire included the starchitect idea in an article for a policy journal of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He expanded his thinking in an interview with me last week.

Land-use decisions in Britain are mainly discretionary rather than rules-based, as in, for example, Chicago, Cheshire noted in his article last year. The elected committees that decide on applications in London are unpredictable and can be swayed by lobbying, he wrote.

“Although Chicago may have been the birthplace of great modern architecture, any competent architect can get permission to build a skyscraper there if it meets the zoning regulations and building standards,” Cheshire wrote. “With London’s discretionary planning,” he added, employing a trophy architect “seems to help developers generate a powerful signal of design quality, providing a passport to political approval and a bigger building.”

I contacted the office of Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, for a response. A spokesperson emailed me: “All planning applications referred to the mayor are assessed against the criteria of the London Plan,” a long-term development strategy. “Any suggestion that the profile or reputation of a particular architectural practice has any influence over this decision-making process is false.”

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