85. A homage to London’s Gherkin

It’s easy to forget, when you live and work around this great metropolis, just what a marvel it is. London is at least 2 000 years old, and yet continues to metamorphose in front of our eyes. It’s a wonder to me that the views of London are so varied, so constant, and yet so changing – with the seasons, the shade of light, and my own life’s perspective. And on a grey Tuesday morning in April, I stood in the City and wondered all over again.

30-st-mary-axe-gherkin-london.jpg

The London Marathon last weekend brought out my personal reel of race day flashbacks – those cinematic images which you store for a lifetime. Crossing Tower Bridge at 12 miles is a sight to match any in world running. And yet when I ran the event for the second time in 2004, it was the view just before it which caught my eye. Rounding the corner from Bermondsey High Street, the view of the London skyline opened up ahead of me. It was raining, I was wet, cold, and already more tired than I should have been, and yet there was inspiration in that view which stuck in my mind. I can still see it now.

I had run the race just three years before, in 2001, and yet something was different, this time. What was it ? It was only much later that I realised what it was, this difference of one remarkable new building which had grown up here since last I ran.

Sometimes the catalyst for change in London comes from undesirable sources. It was the Great Fire of London in 1666 which destroyed much of the mediaeval city, and 87 of its churches, including the old St Paul’s Cathedral. A disaster at the time, the fire was followed by a wave of rebuilding. Many of the old churches were rebuilt in daring new style by Sir Christopher Wren, who was also the architect for the ‘new’ St Paul’s Cathedral. Much reviled then, its design has become one of the landmarks of London.

And so, on a smaller scale, it was the IRA bombing of the Baltic Exchange in 1992 which was responsible for the latest addition to London’s skyline. Even once it was determined that neither the old listed building, nor just its façade, could be saved, the decision to demolish this small part of London’s trading history caused much heartbreak and hand-wringing. What could replace it ?

A competition was held, and a winning design selected. Work started in 2000, and in April 2004, just a year ago this month, the building opened. That building’s official name is 30 St Mary Axe, and it also goes under the soubriquet of the Swiss Re Tower. But to most of seven million Londoners, it is simply the Gherkin.

This was the new building which had been added to the skyline between my two London Marathons. Just one building, and yet – what architecture !

I had no plan to be here, this Tuesday morning in April, to celebrate its first anniversary, and yet as I headed out of Bank tube station into the morning, there stood the Gherkin behind the Bank of England, the City’s youngest daughter peeping around the skirts of The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street. My meeting nearby on the seventh floor disappointingly revealed only the black and grey austerity of the NatWest Tower, but on escaping later with some time for a stroll, where better for me to wander than through the old streets of the City in search of its newest inhabitant.

I knew I would find her, of course, and yet still I was surprised when I peered down a sidestreet to glimpse her, framed by the vertical walls of shining glass and concrete of the other blocks. For that is what they had become – just simple blocks, in comparison with the Gherkin. For despite her cucumbersome name, she really is a creation of beauty and grace, quite unlike any of her neighbours. I stood there for a moment, looking at the glass, at the curves, at the light, at the brilliance, the audacity and sheer simplicity of the concept – a spiral skyscraper. No wonder the design by Sir Norman Foster has won so many awards, since office blocks have simply never been like this before.

Arriving from Bishopsgate, the tower stands behind the new leaves of a pair of spindly trees. St Helen’s Church lies in front, with St Andrew Undershaft almost right beside, two buildings from a different age and belonging to a different paradigm of history, beginning almost nine hundred years past. The old and the new, standing together – it’s a common London theme, and just as startling for its new repetition today.

The Swiss Re Tower was opened to the public briefly last year, and I wandered around to see whether I could at least gaze upwards from within. But although it’s not the IRA we fear now, these are troubled times too, and other threats abound, particularly at election time, with its echoes of Madrid. I’d sauntered confidently past the Cockney guards posted at each corner of the grey granite plaza, but found my match in the politest of enforcers at the door, with his earpiece and microphone, fulfilling the updated rôle of tastefully besuited bouncer. He told me I couldn’t go inside.

It was a poor kind of homage which was on offer now, but I wanted to make it, nevertheless. And so I wandered across the street, to sit with an Italian coffee and pass a few minutes in tribute to the new friend that I had made.

At 180 m tall (around 600 feet) it may be three times the height of Niagara Falls, but it’s still only the sixth highest building in London. And yet, it is perhaps the most remarkable. It’s an entire design concept, not just a clever outline, with an internal layout arranged so that air circulates naturally, the convecting draughts cooling in summer and the lower sunlight maximised and reflected inwards in winter, lightening the space and warming its inhabitants. The result is an energy usage which is 50 % less than the conventional office blocks which surround it.

gherkin-night-by-keith-marshall-on-flickrcom.jpgAnd yet, for all of that innovation, it is that external design which startles. I love views of London, and the beauty of the Gherkin is that she crops up, unexpected, in so many views across the city.

You may be on top of a bus in the East End, striding beside the Thames, or in a taxi crossing Waterloo Bridge at night, and suddenly, there she’ll be. Like so many other buildings, yet different.

And it’s clearly not just me who is fascinated – on one website alone I found no less than 87 views of the Gherkin snatched in places from Whitechapel to the West End. I’ve wondered about that prominence, and come up with the reason – it’s simply that a curving form means there’s always free space around the tower, from wherever you look.

I wandered back through the narrow City streets. A modern financial capital for the world, replete with street names from its market-trading past. East Cheap, Poultry, Mincing Lane, Lime Street. Down to Pudding Lane, and its Monument, marking where the Great Fire started. Across the Marathon course near 24 miles at Thames Street, and down to the river, whence London’s traded wealth originally came. And along the Thames Path towards my next meeting in the West End, that other, newer, Georgian city which lies alongside its Roman and mediaeval twin.

gherkin-from-the-south-bank-by-mykreeve-on-flickrcom.jpgIt really is a great city, this city, an amalgam of change. The Gherkin – Swiss Re Tower – 30 St Mary Axe – it’s a building of its time, just one of many that London has seen. There’ll be many more times, and more buildings to follow.

To grace its age, now, and to grace ages to come, that is the quality of great architecture. That to me, is London’s Gherkin, and there’ll be few fresh landmarks more graceful and remarkable than this.

Related articles:
141. A winter sky and green and blue – Hyde Park, London
36. The Embankment, inspiration and reality
51. London Calling
94. London Olympics 2012
142. South Bank spring – Tate Modern, London

8 responses to “85. A homage to London’s Gherkin

  1. arthur rooney

    The Gherkin – Swiss Re Tower – 30 St Mary Axe i have seen this building many times and wondered what it was that dominated so many scenes of london on tv being from scotland it was only on investigation my curiosity was fulfilled your article answered my question thank you

  2. Thanks very much Arthur, and I’m glad that you enjoyed this article.

    Phrases like ‘London Gherkin’ crop up in searches that lead to this site, almost every day, so it’s gratifying to know that it does provide some answers, of a kind at least.

    It’s interesting to note that the building’s media team until very recently expressly forbade the use of the name ‘Gherkin’ in any of their official publicity as well as that of other organisations who use the building. They always insisted instead on use of the official name of 30 St Mary Axe.

    That was understandable in many ways, since this kind of architecture surely commands a degree of respect. And yet, on a different kind of level, it looked like quite an impressive case of denial, and really just a little late. Because 7 million Londoners, and just about the rest of the world, already knew the building by exactly that name.

    It makes me suspect that they might have been missing a marketing trick, right there. Because if a brand name works – use it.

    I wonder if that policy is changing now, since the building has recently been sold by Swiss Re for £640 mm, bringing them a £300 mm profit in the three years since the tower was completed.

    It seems remarkable that the building’s value has increased quite that much in such a short time, until you factor in the unique cachet of owning a stylish (and practical) London landmark with such instant worldwide recognition. And until you realise that this rate of price inflation is actually also pretty close to that achieved by almost every house in London over the same period.

    In my recent post about Hyde Park, I note the new apartments under construction there which are now on sale off plan for £ 84 million each.

    That’s an amazing figure, in any language, and makes one wonder if such prices really are sustainable, or if they’ll end in tears, one day not all that far away.

    Many thanks once again for reading this site, and with all best wishes from me to Scotland.

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  4. Thanks very much for linking to my article on The Gherkin. I see that you found the building from the tube station, much as I did.

    That picture from the South Bank that you link to on your site does capture it very well.

    In return, here is a marvellous panorama taken from Tower Bridge which says many of the same things about The Gherkin, and perhaps even more about London itself.

  5. A lovely article, Roads. I remember seeing the artists’ impressions of the Gherkin, crossing my fingers (and toes) and just hoping that it would actually make it off the drawing board and into reality. Then, from my flat, I watched as it began to take shape, growing gracefully upwards.

    I maintain it’s the most beautiful skyscraper built anywhere for many a decade – perhaps since the Chrysler Building. It’s so perfect I used it for the spaceship in my children’s book, Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London (the Gherkin is the Spirit of London).

    I absolutely adore your picture of the building with her green Christmas lights. Can you tell me where that came from originally. Never has the building looked more like a fantastic starship!

  6. Thank you, Keith, and the very best of luck with your new book .

    Yes, that night portrait is stunning. The building was still very new in 2005 and there wasn’t a lot of photography available then. Sadly there is so much more now that I couldn’t relocate that picture when I searched tonight.

    However, this image by Geoff Hamilton shows a similar lighting scheme, and here’s another shot of a spacerocket-like Gherkin.

    I finally made it to the top of the Gherkin a few weeks ago, and I’ll be writing about that long-awaited visit soon. In the meantime, many thanks again.

  7. This is odd, it is the first time that i have come across your article, and it is perhaps the best written in the 11 or so years since we finished the building. It is interesting to note that it was not always popular, with Mira Bar-Hillel running a long and vitriolic campaign in the Evening Standard throughout the planning process.

    I have always thought that the building is feminine and i am glad that you agree. Unusually for a client team involved in the day to day running of the project, two of the three involved were women, Sara Fox and Carla Picardi working with Richard Griffiths, Sara taking the building through construction on site, which is even more unusual.

    I love working on projects in London, and tall buildings, in the right location are very much a part of its history and chemistry, providing important points of punctuation, rather like a well constructed sentence, where height signalled the focus and hearts of proud and independent local communities. A look at the etchings from around the time of the great fire shows how London has grown, subsuming these ‘villages’ into a vibrant and ever changing whole….but without the loss of that intense community spirit or vitality, where locals are still intensely proud and defensive of their individual patches of London.

    There are many things that I enjoy about the building, but i am fascinated by the way it has been received by the public, quickly becoming symbolic for London as a whole not just of its ‘village’, the City. I think one of the reasons that it will endure is because it is a happy, quiet and confident building, a complete and contented form. It was never going to be the tallest (it was a very diplomatic 10ft. shorter than Tower 42 the ‘NatWest Tower’ from the outset).

    If you ever get the chance, do visit the spectacular restaurant and bar at the top inside the glazed dome….. simply the best view of London….where if you look carefully you will also see the only piece of curved glass in the building and that is on the very top.

    Robin Partington

    Director at Foster+ Partners responsible for The Gherkin, now with my own architecural practice Robin Partington & Partners on New Oxford Street by Centre Point (….another good building)

  8. Hi Robin,
    Thank you for your comment and I’m delighted that you liked this article in praise of the wonderful building that you built. Eleven years later, The Gherkin has only grown in stature as it has become a symbol of London, recognised all around the world.

    I did finally make it past the door and high aloft to the top of The Gherkin, back in the autumn of 2008 when the dark clouds of the financial crisis were hanging over The City of London. As you rightly predicted, the view didn’t disappoint, but I found the steel and glass framework above us just as compelling, framing the evening sky in a dramatic airy cage soaring high over the solid floor we stood on.

    London’s skyline continues to evolve — as it always has — if not always for the best. Perhaps the excitement of The Shard was captured most memorably by the adventurous souls who climbed it before it was finished, and the building has continued to grow on me ever since. It’s an addition to the landscape and to the view from the North Thames Path especially.

    By contrast, the addition of 20 Fenchurch Street, The Walkie Talkie, has been more problematic, blocking for ever as it does the view of The Gherkin from the South Bank captured by Paul Catherall.

    Building Design Magazine recently awarded The Walkie Talkie their Carbuncle Cup, and following this, The Guardian even suggested tearing it down altogether.

    And yet, on a grey winter’s day, there is something grimly impressive about its sheer bulk on the skyline. As you say, Centre Point has made the transition from empty eyesore to Grade II listed building, so although The Walkie Talkie may not have many fans today, perhaps, with time, we’ll grow to like it better than we do now.

    In the meantime, many thanks again for your work on The Gherkin. The building continues to enhance any day in London. As luck would have it, I’ll be enjoying a view of The Gherkin from Aldgate again this morning.

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