London’s Protected Views

Feb 8, 2021 0 comments

Many prominent landmarks in London, such as St Paul's Cathedral, the Monument to the Great Fire of London, the Tower of London, The Palace of Westminster, and others are visible from key locations around the city. St Paul's Cathedral, for instance, is visible from across the South Bank of the Thames as far away as Richmond Park. Although topography certainly plays a part here (St Paul's Cathedral being located at the highest point of the city), the unobstructed views that some of London’s greatest buildings enjoy is certainly no accident.

St Paul’s Cathedral

St Paul’s Cathedral. Photo: Chait Goli/Pexels

The London View Management Framework identifies more than two dozen important views across the capital, from parks and other public spaces that take in important buildings and urban landscapes that define London. These views are protected so that Londoners can enjoy this architectural history as they go about their everyday lives, such as crossing one of London’s bridges, or walking along the South Bank, or visiting one of the viewpoints above the city, such as Parliament hill, Primrose hill or Greenwich. These series of visual corridors that crisscross the English capital have been safeguarded since the 1930s.

The development of strategic view management in London began with the capability of erecting tall buildings—structures significantly taller than their neighbours—which were able to obstruct previously open views. In 1861, following a fire in Tooley Street in which the Chief of the Fire Brigade was killed, there was a call to limit the height of buildings to a level which could be reached by ladders and the limitations of water hoses.

Queen Anne’s Mansions

Queen Anne’s Mansions. Photo:

In 1873, work began on a tall load-bearing brick residential building, Queen Anne’s Mansions, close to Buckingham Palace. At twelve stories, later increased to fourteen, it was the loftiest residential building in Britain, and the first to threaten London’s skyline of chimneys and spires. Even Queen Victoria objected to the obstruction of her view of the Houses of Parliament from Buckingham Palace. A direct result of Queen Anne’s Mansions, which the Court Circular for January 1897 described as “a stupendous pile which, for solidity, comfort and general convenience, sets all rivals at defiance”, was the passing of the London Building Act in 1894 which limited all new constructions to a maximum height of 80 feet.

However, the law included an exception for ornamental tower turrets, attics, and other architectural features, which architects began to exploit to breach 100 feet. The Senate House, for instance, reached an unprecedented 210 feet when it was completed in 1937.

St Paul’s Cathedral from Richmond Park

A slash through the trees allow St Paul’s Cathedral to be seen from Richmond Park. Photo: Jean-François Paris/Flickr 

In 1932, W. Godfrey Allen, the Surveyor to St Paul’s Cathedral, drew attention to the fact that “quite recently the view from Blackfriar’s Bridge has been spoilt by the hideous new Telephone Exchange building in Queen Victoria Street”. Following this observation, Allen prepared a series of montages showing the effect that building to the limits allowed by the London Building Act of 1930 would have on views of the Cathedral. Allen showed, that even when erected according to law, developments along certain streets would gravely interfere with the distant views of the cathedral, such as from the Surrey side of the river, which according to him “are amongst the finest in London”.

Godfrey Allen’s photomontage

W. Godfrey Allen’s photomontage showing the effect that building to the maximum building height limit allowed by the London Building Act 1930 would have on views of St Paul’s Cathedral. Photo: The Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral

Allen’s proposal found support from the City of London Corporation, and in 1938 a “gentlemen's agreement” was made to protect important vistas of the Cathedral. Allen outlined eight viewing corridors centering on the 17th century church that was to be protected. Later, similar rules protecting views of the Monument to the Great Fire of London, The Tower of London and Thames river vistas were implemented. These agreements were not enshrined into a formal policy until 1989, but has been effective in deterring tall buildings very close to historic landmarks, with one exception—the Shard.

The 1,000-feet skyscraper that conservationists described as a "spike through the heart of London” stands on the Kenwood House viewing corridor. The building doesn't obstruct the view of St Paul’s Cathedral, but greatly maligns it by standing behind the historic landmark.

St Paul’s Cathedral and The Shard.

St Paul’s Cathedral and The Shard. Photo: stephengg/Flickr

In 1956, London's building height restriction was removed. Instead, every application to build a high-rise was reviewed on its own merits. The Leadenhall Building, completed in 2013, is one example of how a building can be tall and at the same time respect London’s protected views. Nicknamed the Cheesegrater because of its distinctive wedge shape similar to the kitchen tool, the Leadenhall Building leans back from the road as it increases in height to minimize its impact on the protected view of St Paul’s Cathedral from Fleet Street. The Shard, on the other hand, is vulgar and unwanted. “It is like putting a wind-turbine in front of the Taj Mahal, or hanging florescent tubes from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel,” writes Will Gompertz on BBC.

Developers claim that these protected views act as a constraint on development, and are preventing more than half a million homes from being built in the city. According to a 2018 news report, the Office for National Statistics said that London needs 844,000 more homes to meet the demands of its rising population.

Peter Wynne Rees, the former City of London City Planning Officer believes that protected views are helpful in providing a constraint that aids development, “but you can't protect every view of everywhere”, he said.

Map of London’s Protected Views

Map of London’s Protected Views. Photo: The Times

Today, there are the 13 views that are protected under the system: 

  • From Alexandra Palace to St Paul’s Cathedral
  • From the summit of Parliament Hill to St Paul’s Cathedral
  • From the summit of Parliament Hill to the Palace of Westminster
  • From Parliament Hill, at the prominent oak tree east of the summit, to Palace of Westminster
  • From the viewing gazebo at Kenwood House to St Paul’s Cathedral
  • From the summit of Primrose Hill to St Paul’s Cathedral
  • From the summit of Primrose Hill to the Palace of Westminster
  • From Greenwich Park, north east of the General Wolfe statue, to St Paul’s Cathedral
  • From Blackheath Point, near the orientation board, to St Paul’s Cathedral
  • From Westminster Pier to St Paul’s Cathedral
  • From King Henry VIII’s Mound in Richmond Park to St Paul’s Cathedral
  • From the centre of the bridge over the Serpentine to the Palace of Westminster
  • From The Queen’s Walk at City Hall to the White Tower

# Francesca Street, Are London's protected view corridors still relevant today?, CNN
# London's Image and Identity, Historic England
# London view management framework,
# Will Gompertz, Imagine the meeting that led to The Shard, BBC
# Wikipedia


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