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Cities are often defined by their skylines - Paris with its stately old buildings crowned by the Eiffel Tower, New York with its glittering forest of tall office towers. Well, the skyline of London is in transition. The British capital is experiencing a building boom of new skyscrapers. One of them, nicknamed The Shard, has become Europe's tallest building. But as Christopher Werth reports, the spate of skyscrapers is raising questions about what kind of city London should be.

CHRISTOPHER WERTH, BYLINE: London is very much a low-rise city. Even a 12-story building is considered tall here. But in recent years, new skyscrapers have begun to rise well above the skyline.

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NIGEL WEBB: We start to hear the noise of the hoist as we rise up.

WERTH: Nigel Webb and I climb aboard a construction elevator toward the top of an open, 52-story steel frame, London's second tallest building.

WEBB: So you'll get a good sense of the views, and you'll realize how low rise London is.

WERTH: Webb is with British Land, the developer of the structure that Londoners have dubbed the cheese grater.

WEBB: I think they just thought it looked like a cheese grater.

WERTH: And it does. One entire facade tapers down to the street at such a sharp angle the building just calls out for a block of English cheddar. Webb says it's designed so the smaller top doesn't obstruct the view of Saint Paul's cathedral built by Christopher Wren in the 17th century. The church is many blocks away, but views of it from around the city are protected by law.

WEBB: Had we designed the building so that it was like a traditional tower going straight up, it would have actually clashed with the dome of Saint Paul's.

WERTH: And this gets at why skyscrapers can be so difficult to build in London. The city boasts centuries of architectural history, and some people are very worried about its changing skyline.

FRANCESCO BANDARIN: You know, nowadays, the landscape of London is completely transformed, has somehow burst into a kind of a small Shanghai. But these changes have limits.

WERTH: Francesco Bandarin is with UNESCO, the United Nation's cultural organization for conserving world heritage. He says London's new skyscrapers threaten another important landmark.

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WERTH: The Tower of London right in the shadow of the city's new buildings.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Present arms.

WERTH: The guards here protect the tower. Built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, the place reeks of British history.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: God preserve Queen Elizabeth.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Amen.

WERTH: A couple of Henry VIII's wives lost their heads here. It's home to the crown jewels. UNESCO designates the Tower of London an official World Heritage site. And Bandarin says it's warned the British government about the new development around it.

BANDARIN: We see now that it's very difficult to perceive the tower as it was in its very long millenary history because of the existence of these high-rise buildings.

WERTH: The British government is in talks with UNESCO to preserve what's left of the area. But Paul Finch, a critic at the Architects Journal, is concerned by the implication that instead of just preserving views of the Tower of London, the city is being urged to protect what you see from it.

PAUL FINCH: I think the idea that we're going start protecting views from these historic monuments and places is a form of madness. There is a danger of ending up with great swathes of a city which cannot accommodate taller buildings.

WERTH: Heated battles have already erupted. John Penrose, a former government minister for heritage in the U.K., is pro-development, but he says The Shard - the tall, glass, spike-shaped building that now dominates the London skyline - was nearly scrapped because of conservationists' concerns over the Tower of London. And he has his own concerns.

JOHN PENROSE: In the worst case, UNESCO could withdraw the designation of being a World Heritage site.

WERTH: Something it's only done once in Europe when Dresden, in Germany, built a bridge UNESCO says degraded the views around that city. But Edward Lister, London's deputy mayor for planning, says all of the new high-rises are essential for London to maintain its status as a global financial center.

EDWARD LISTER: UNESCO is taking a very, very black-and-white position, and I'm afraid life's not like that. You cannot allow development to be stalled in a city like this. London has grown by 600,000 people in just the last five years. And we will be over nine million people before New York. That's the pressure that the city is under.

WERTH: Nevertheless, London has come up with new guidelines as a result of the furor over the city's building boom. The plan protects more views across the city. But some tourists at the Tower of London, like Vanessa Lawson, look up at the surrounding walls of glass and kind of like it.

VANESSA LAWSON: I think it shows us how beautiful time was back in the 11th century and just how beautiful the new creations are now in the 21st century. You know, we kind of have to accept changes and go with them, really.

WERTH: And more change is on the way. London has just approved proposals for tall buildings within view of another World Heritage Site, the Houses of Parliament, and UNESCO is concerned. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Werth.

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