London's Tulip Tower, Poster Child for Unsustainable Design, Stays Dead

The Norman Foster-designed restaurant-on-a-stick taught many lessons.

An aerial view of The Tulip in a city setting

Foster + Partners

The Tulip was slated to be the tallest building in London: a thousand-foot tall observation tower that would sit next to the Gherkin. The developers described it as: "[The] centrepiece of a new innovative hub for culture, business and learning supported by technology. A unique destination to celebrate London and the best in British innovation."

It was designed by Foster + Partners, a British architectural design and engineering firm that are known to be pioneers in sustainable design. According to the design brief: "The Tulip’s soft bud-like form and minimal building footprint reflects its reduced resource use, with high performance glass and optimised building systems reducing its energy consumption."

On November 11, 2021, the Tulip was finally killed by the British government, which rejected an appeal of its earlier cancellation by London mayor Sadiq Khan. The long and winding road to this is a fascinating lesson in how the world of sustainable design has changed in the last few years, and how the architectural profession has not really changed with it. Treehugger has been covering the saga of The Tulip for a number of years, making the case that—notwithstanding the green credentials of the architect and the green labels it was targeting—it was, in fact, a poster child for unsustainable design and an example of what's wrong with architecture today.

A mockup view of the Tulip from the river

Foster + Partners

We first discussed the Tulip in our early posts about embodied carbon—the upfront carbon emissions that come from the making of building materials—and the construction of the building. In the post "What Happens When You Plan or Design with Upfront Carbon Emissions In Mind," I suggested that maybe you don't build things that we don't actually need.

Given the Tulip is basically a restaurant-on-a-stick, an observation deck at the top of a giant elevator shaft, surrounded by other buildings with observation decks and restaurants, I wrote:

"Foster, who famously was asked by Bucky Fuller, "How much does your building weigh?", doesn't tell us how much this tulip-shaped tourist trap weighs, or what the Upfront Carbon Emissions are. Given its function, namely building a very tall elevator with a building on top, I suspect that the UCE are really high and really pointless."

Norman Foster and his firm were one of the 17 Stirling prize-winning firms that signed on to Architects Declare, which included among its goals to "include life cycle costing, whole life carbon modeling and post occupancy evaluation as part of our basic scope of work, to reduce both embodied and operational resource use." Will Jennings of the Architects Journal suggested: "Perhaps now is the time for some of the larger firms to make some headline-grabbing statements of intent and extricate themselves from iconic but unsustainable projects and modes of work. What better statement of action could there be than if Foster + Partners withdrew its involvement from that most grotesque ****-you to a sustainable future, The Tulip?"

In the end, Foster didn't walk away from the Tulip. Instead, he walked away from Architects Declare over criticism of his work designing airports. Architects Journal reports that Foster said "'unlike Architects Declare' he believes in developing sustainable infrastructure, adding that aviation has a ‘vital role’ in co-ordinating action and ‘confronting the issues of global warming.’" No mention of the Tulip.

An aerial view of the proposed Tulip tower.

Foster + Partners

The Tulip was first killed by Khan in 2019 when his review panel concluded: "This has not resulted in the world-class architecture that would be required to justify its prominence. The panel also felt that a building of this size and impact should be carbon neutral."

The developers of the Tulip appealed the mayor's decision, which is how it got bumped up to the secretary of state, which rejected the appeal. Reasons included heritage aspects, given its proximity to the Tower of London, loss of public space at ground level, but also environmental reasons that are significant, given that The Tulip was pitched as being green and sustainable. From the decision:

"The Secretary of State has taken into account that the schemes would achieve a BREEAM rating of outstanding and acknowledges the enormous lengths to which F+P have gone to make the construction and operation of the scheme as environmentally responsible as possible. However, overall the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that the extensive measures that would be taken to minimise carbon emissions during construction would not outweigh the highly unsustainable concept of using vast quantities of reinforced concrete for the foundations and lift shaft to transport visitors to as high a level as possible to enjoy a view."

Later in the report, planning inspector David Nicholson notes:

"Although considerable efforts have been made to adopt all available sustainability techniques to make the construction and operation of the scheme as sustainable as possible, fulfilling the brief with a tall, reinforced concrete lift shaft, would result in a scheme with very high embodied energy and an unsustainable whole life-cycle."

This may well be the first time a major decision has recognized that the "carbon emissions during construction" or upfront carbon emissions were considered to be more important than being the British equivalent of LEED Platinum.

Upfront carbon emissions are unregulated and not even acknowledged in much of the world, and the concrete industry would love to tell you about how good their product is in full life-cycle analyses. That's why this is so important. The world of sustainable design is changing rapidly, as we worry less about energy and more about carbon, and we realize that every gram of carbon dioxide emitted now is going against that carbon budget we need to keep under if we are going to keep global heating to less than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius). Foster pitched the Tulip as "sustainable" but the definition has changed.

A mockup of what the interior of the Tulip restaurant would have looked like.

Foster + Partners

When the Tulip was first canceled, I noted how I had been inspired by it when developing what I call my four radical rules of design:

"It is such a good example of what is wrong with architecture today. Because every building should have the following attributes:
Radical Decarbonization: Design to minimize Upfront Carbon Emissions and eliminate operating carbon emissions.
Radical Sufficiency: Design the minimum to do the job, what we actually need, what is enough.
Radical Simplicity: Design to use as little material as possible, whatever it is.
Radical Efficiency: Design to use as little energy as possible, whatever the source.
A glass restaurant-on-a-stick has none of these. The fact that it has been rejected is great news everywhere."

Now that the appeal of the cancellation has been dismissed, the importance of these points is being recognized. It's not enough to be "BREAAM "Outstanding" just as it is no longer enough to be LEED Platinum—the definitions of green have changed. Embodied carbon suddenly matters, as does sufficiency. Essentially, the mayor and the inspector concluded that nobody really needed this thing. I called its cancellation "great news" but the fact that the appeal document is so clear about the reasons is even greater news.

As Joe Giddings of the Architects Climate Action Network (and a pioneer in the discussion of embodied carbon) notes in the Architects Journal: "The bigger picture is that this sets a vitally important precedent for future decisions to be made on the grounds of embodied carbon. Huge moment!"