To its developers, Imperial College London's new White City campus tower is a 35-storey iconic landmark; to its British neighbours like Henry Peterson, it's an eyesore.
"The Imperial tower is nearly finished. I don't think local people are very happy about it," says Mr. Peterson, chair of the St. Helen's Residents Association, which tried to prevent the tower from being built.
The new building is a key component in a bold redesign of the college's campus in London's Kensington district, famous for its tony homes and shops. Construction started in May of 2016 with development partner Voreda LLP and contractor Laing O'Rourke, both headquartered in Britain. The structure has reached its full height and is expected to be completed in 2019.
The controversial tower will be primarily residential, with 192 flats, 59 of them at below-market rents for the college's key workers. It's designed to anchor a 25-acre redevelopment of the school's London campus, including a molecular science research hub and an innovation centre.
Imperial has 17,000 students and 8,000 staff, and since its founding in 1907 14 Nobel Prize winners have come from its ranks. The college says the entire redevelopment is designed "to co-locate research, entrepreneurs, established companies and global corporations on a scale unprecedented in London."
While developer Voreda declined to comment, Graham Stark, Imperial's development director for the White City campus, says the new building "demonstrates our long-term commitment to delivering a vibrant mixed-use community," by mixing residences with the school and research and development facilities at the site.
"The tower is an integral part of our new innovation campus and further establishes Imperial's presence in the area for generations to come. The campus itself is the largest single development in the college's history and offers huge potential for the local area," Mr. Stark says in a statement from mid-2016, when work began.
Imperial is ranked among the world's best places of higher learning for science, engineering, medicine and business – all virtuous pursuits in the 21st century knowledge economy. Yet for all its accomplishments and accolades, it didn't win over all neighbours with the tower.
Mr. Peterson and his 420-member residents' association tried to fight the project, saying it doesn't fit with its surroundings, and in some ways they consider it a slap in the face to their west London neighbourhood.
"Imperial folly" is how Mr. Peterson's group describes it.
"It will be remembered for many years for destroying the western skyline for all those living in this part of London," the residents' group says.
"We don't have any problem with the college itself. It's just the way they approached this project," Mr. Peterson adds. "They could have developed it at a lower density. We don't think much of the architecture."
He's not alone.
Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian newspaper's architecture critic, calls the project "one of the 10 worst London skyscrapers."
While acknowledging that it's supposed to be part of an innovation hub, he decries it as "an angular wedge on the skyline, a terracotta Dalek [a fictional race of cone-shaped aliens from the Doctor Who television show] looming over the terraced streets of north Kensington.
"Will it contain a thrilling world of skylabs and experiments in the clouds? … Alas, no. It is another silo of luxury flats, to be sold to fund the rest of the development, over which the tower will cast a long shadow," Mr. Wainwright has written.
Imperial College's institutional tower has also arisen at a particularly sensitive moment in the Kensington neighbourhood's history. It's "the first example of a building of this height in a sector of London which had previously been spared anything on this scale," the residents' association says.
Until the 1980s, there were only a smattering of high-rise buildings in London, and most of the taller development since then has been in the City financial district or to the east in neighbourhoods such as the Canadian-conceived Canary Wharf. These earlier high rises tended to be concentrated in areas that were either already built up or on industrial or derelict sites, rather than close to residential neighbourhoods.
"It now dominates the landscape with its inappropriate shape and size and is a blight on the otherwise uninterrupted skyline," says Anita Lowenstein Dent, an international development consultant who regularly walks in a nearby open space called Wormwood Scrubs.
The building is ruining the neighbourhood in different ways, she contends.
"I regularly walk on the open space and enjoyed the impression that this was a final urban wilderness. The views are now forever altered by the scar of the tower upon the sky. Those who live in its shadow say they have all lost significant amount of light from their homes," she says.
There is also an element of social conflict in the neighbourhood residents' antipathy to the new project. While towering buildings have been rare in this part of London, the new building is within sight of another tall building that is tragic and infamous – the 24-storey Grenfell Tower public housing site that burned in a horrific fire last June, killing 71 people.
Local residents lambasted the government of British Prime Minister Theresa May for what they consider an inadequate response to the Grenfell tragedy. Ms. Lowenstein Dent, who worked as a volunteer in the rescue and recovery effort, says that London planners' approval of the college tower can be seen as another sign of indifference to the community.
However, dealing with unhappy residents over a tower project is hardly unique to London, says Josh Matlow, a Toronto city councillor who has seen many similar conflicts emerge in the midtown district he represents.
It's not necessarily a case of one side being right and the other wrong, he says. Sometimes a shocking development can be a positive catalyst – for example, Toronto's City Hall, opened in 1965, spurred a wave of new thinking about the city's potential.
The problem is that neighbourhoods feel ignored, he says.
"Whether it's London, New York or midtown Toronto, don't be surprised when local residents are upset. When you say you want to build a tower, what residents hear is that you want to make a lot of money and you'll leave them with construction noise and dust and ultimately more people competing for services," Mr. Matlow says.
"It's more and more difficult for the process to manage opposition to development," adds Robert Glover, a Toronto architect and urban designer and partner at Bousfields Inc. There are ways to get it right – he cites the community efforts now under way for the site of the former Honest Ed's store in Toronto as an example of how to have a constructive dialogue.
"There are firms now that specialize in this," Mr. Glover says.
London under construction
Office construction in London is expected to continue a dip that was triggered by the 2016 Brexit referendum, but a recovery is predicted for 2019. Some observations derived from the London Office Crane Survey by Deloitte Real Estate and Bloomberg News:
– Office space under construction slipped by 6 per cent in the first six months of 2017, to 13.9 million square feet, the first drop in three years.
– Toward the end of this year, there is likely to be a rebound to levels not seen since a peak reached between 1989 and 1991, when Canary Wharf was being built.
– With office projects under way or in the pipeline, London may have an additional 39 million square feet of office space – though a lot depends on the outcome of Brexit negotiations.
– At the same time, residential prices appear to be cooling. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors predicts a flat market, with a possible slump in London tempered only by a continuing lack of housing supply.
from the London Office Crane Survey by Deloitte Real Estate and Bloomberg News