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.
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.
And 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.
It 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.
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