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High rises cast shadow on Tower of London

Skyscrapers threaten the view from the turreted fortress, which may be added to the list of endangered World Heritage Sites.

June 24, 2007|Raphael G. Satter | Associated Press

LONDON — It has withstood assaults from renegade barons, rampaging peasants and Nazi bombers, but the Tower of London, one of Britain's top tourist attractions, is once again under siege.

This time the peril is from skyscrapers that threaten to ruin the view of the turreted tower, prompting the world's top cultural body to consider adding the 900-year-old fortress to its list of endangered World Heritage Sites.

Built on the orders of William the Conqueror in the late 11th century, the 90-foot tall stone building long dominated the city's panorama -- a symbol of royal authority meant to inspire awe in rebellion-minded Londoners and would-be invaders.

But by the time the tower was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, the city had sprawled past it. Today, hemmed in by a noisy highway and overrun by tourists, the landmark no longer casts quite the same shadow in an area dominated by glass-canopied office buildings and hypermodern skyscrapers like the Norman Foster building known as "The Gherkin."

The World Heritage Committee will hand down its verdict on the tower this weekend. The body says further construction could undermine the tower's profile even further.

The Historic Royal Palaces, an independent charity that maintains the building at the southeastern edge of London, says there are eight planned projects that could affect the tower's visual integrity. Among them is the Shard of Glass, which at 1,016 feet would be Britain's tallest skyscraper when completed in 2011.

The Shard might be visible from the tower's courtyard, diluting the sense of isolation visitors feel when they enter the fortress, said John Barnes, conservation and learning director for the Historic Royal Palaces.

But some argue the juxtaposition of old and new enhances the tower's mystique.

"In a way [the skyscrapers] add symbolically to what the buildings were about," said Alex Bux, a senior advisor to the mayor of London. "The tower was always a fortress on the edge of London -- the capital city -- and was always in tension with London as the capital city."

New buildings help give London fresh appeal, said Tom Hall, travel editor for Lonely Planet Publications.

"I think lots of people assume that visitors to London only want to see the old, [that] they only want to come look at the Tower of London or visit Madame Tussauds, and I don't actually think that is the case," he said. "One of the things that keeps people coming back to London is that it is a city constantly reinventing itself."

Although being listed as an endangered heritage site will not directly halt nearby construction projects, citing the tower would be a "huge embarrassment" for the British government, according to Barnes. Other sites listed as endangered include Everglades National Park in Florida, the Iranian city of Bam and the Katmandu Valley in Nepal.

Barnes said the Historic Royal Palaces was working to address UNESCO's concerns, and Britain's Department of Culture Media and Sport also has submitted a report to UNESCO detailing efforts made to protect the fortress' skyline.

Whatever UNESCO's decision, construction is unlikely to deter the approximately 2 million people who tour the tower each year. Certainly not Mike Rutter, a Dallas teacher who was visiting the tower recently.

"People want to still come and see it, even if they have to go through a maze of buildings to get there," he said.

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