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Letters From London

Raising the Game

As New York recovers from Sept. 11 with construction, it would do well to look abroad for ideas. Reporting on the history of London’s skyline, and how architecture heals.

London’s most prominent landmarks often have a stealthy, hidden history. Renewal, enhancement, rebuilding, destruction: all are integral to the shifting cityscape. The sudden violence of unexpected demolition robs the memory of what once existed, a memory of absence which is all too often subsumed by the irrevocable permanence of new buildings. Development is, by its very nature, greedy, and empty sites are like suppurating financial sores, needing to be swiftly lanced with shiny real estate. What was once dead space becomes alive with crisp suits, strip lights, mail trolleys, and acre upon acre of carpet tiles, or boxy loft-style apartments rendered in the timid, pinched modernism that characterises our era.

No-one could accuse London’s skyline of being dull, but the simple truth remains: we don’t have skyscrapers here. Not real skyscrapers. Skyscrapers.com lists 1,107 high rise buildings in London, but look at the skyline and you’d never believe it. The city’s tallest building is Cesar Pelli’s One Canada Square at Canary Wharf at a modest 777 feet. This barely rubs shoulders with the Condé Nast building on Times Square, whose laughable London rival is the King’s Reach Tower, the 364ft tall home of AOL Time Warner subsidiary IPC Media. King’s Reach Tower epitomises the London tower block, a stubby, grubby 70s throwback with filthy windows and sluggard lifts.

The city’s tall buildings were never targets. The tens of thousands of workers evacuated on that fateful September morning went back to work swiftly enough, reasoning that lack of stature and ready symbolism would keep them secure. The new Barclays Bank HQ at One Churchill Place, designed by HOK, is rumoured to the city’s first ‘terror-proof’ building, a fate-tempting description that is said to refer to strengthened ‘panic rooms’ integrated into the concrete service core. For the most part, London’s towers have been able to rise above disaster, looming over the ruins of the post-Blitz city. In contemporary London, disaster has been a street-level preoccupation.

At 9:20 pm on Friday 10 April 1992, the day after a general election unexpectedly returned the Conservative Party to power, a small truck pulled up in St Mary Axe, a narrow street in the heart of the City of London. Inside was a home-made explosive device, probably consisting of a mixture of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and sugar, and ignited by a commercially available detonator, mostly likely Semtex, the ‘plastic explosive’ designed for industrial use by Czech scientist Stanislav Brebera in 1966. Semtex, manufactured by the state-owned company Explosia (no, really) is conveniently pliable, moldable and almost undetectable. The other ingredients were commonly available.

Although the majority of office workers had gone home, the resulting explosion killed three people, Danielle Carter (15), Paul Butt (29) and Thomas Casey (49). 91 more were injured. Insurance payouts were estimated at £800m, although actual infrastructural damage was relatively slight. For Londoners, this kind of violence seems hard to remember today, as the urban fabric has long since been stripped back, overhauled, and sold again at twice the price (conspiracy theorists still insist that the bomb was known of in advance by the government—a sadly familiar claim—yet it was ‘allowed’ to detonate as a subversive form of urban regeneration. Certainly, Manchester benefited hugely from the insurance windfall that followed the IRA bomb on 15 June 1996, when 400 people were injured and the city centre entirely devastated).

The main architectural casualty of the April 10 blast was the Baltic Exchange, a venerable survivor of the late Victorian era. Once headquarters of one of the world’s largest shipping markets, the Baltic Exchange was founded in the Virginia and Maryland Coffee House on Threadneedle Street in 1744, a haunt for captains and merchants looking to sell their current cargo. Conservationists and opportunistic developers wrangled over the devastated site for a few years, but ultimately the city’s itch to develop the site won through.

First up came Norman Foster’s design for a Millennium Tower, an overly ambitious scheme for Europe’s tallest skyscraper (Foster has had his eye on the height prize for decades, yet has always been foiled. The firm’s WTC proposals were only the latest victims of this jinx). 90-stories high, with a tapering, needle-like form, it caused a brief flurry of excitement (and vocal howls of protest) before gently fading away into memory. Foster was retained, and the site earmarked for the HQ of the Swiss Re insurance company, the world’s second-largest re-insurer (ironically, no stranger to risk and disaster, natural and man-made). Fresh plans were drawn up and exhibited: a striking, cylindrical tower that was dubbed the ‘Erotic Gherkin’ by a sceptical press.

After a brief tussle, permission was received and the old Baltic Exchange was doomed. The elegant Victorian façade of granite and Portland stone, together with ornate internal metalwork, mahogany doors, and windows and numerous other bits of architectural ephemera, were dispersed amongst the capital’s architectural salvage companies and the site cleared. Swiftly, a metal lattice rose from the ground.

The Gherkin, now known by its official name of 30 St Mary Axe, is structurally awesome. Held together by a diagonal lattice that encircles the tower, criss-crossing the façade into a series of faceted diamonds, the internal core is free and flexible, although it has the inherent awkwardness of a circular plan. In practice, you’re not too aware of the curve, as the inner skin cuts straight across the curve, turning offices into pie-like wedges. The building tapers as it reaches the tip, and each ascending floor is offset, creating a spiral of light wells that runs up the full height of the structure.

The building’s dramatic (and strangely suggestive) form was extensively wind tunnel-tested in order that the new public piazza at ground level didn’t suffer from the skirt-raising effect so familiar to citizens of the vertical city. More importantly, as the external wind loads are minimised, natural ventilation can be used to supplement mechanical air conditioning; the owners estimate that mechanical systems need only be running 60 percent of the time. The gherkin is sustainable, more or less, a serious cut above the steam-belching, curtain-wall towers of the first wave of international style office building.

Foster’s tower is a reminder of how remarkable the city must have seemed when only the white dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and a hundred thrusting church spires spiked the skyline. St Paul’s modest 355 feet is only surpassed by 14 other buildings in the city, and rigorous building codes exist to protect certain ‘key views’ of the cathedral. Upcoming proposals keep pushing the boundaries—the Renzo Piano-designed scheme for a ‘glass shard’ London Bridge, Richard Rogers’ scheme at 122 Leadenhall Street, KPF’s 110 Bishopsgate—recycling sites to turn the city of a 100 spires into one of gleaming towers.

I mostly see 30 St Mary Axe from afar. Originally, the thatch of girders, encircled by their attendant cranes, was indistinguishable from the rest of the mostly low-rise cityscape. Gradually, however, an alien, skeletal form emerged, pushing higher and higher, the cladding racing to catch up with the structure. Only in the past month have the final steels been craned into place, completing the curvaceous form. On my daily walk to the train station I can now see the upper six storeys in the distance, a few miles directly north, but I’ve never had any reason to walk past the site. It strikes me that I never even knew the original Baltic Exchange, except in photographs.

I’m even content with not knowing where—and how—30 St Mary Axe hits the ground. I could probably identify the site on a map—a site, like so many in London, weighed down with histories past and present. While the violence and tragedy of the bomb will never be forgotten by the victim’s relatives, the city has absorbed its loss—the destroyed infrastructure, vanished history, the void and view now filled with 41 storeys of office space.

Architectural innovation need not only be born of tragedy, but perhaps buildings that address some kind of loss are imbued with a higher calling than a speculative glassy stump. A building like 30 St Mary Axe is destined to become an instant icon, a civic symbol that transcends its presumably banal function and offer us a science fiction vision of a better tomorrow. When 30 St Mary Axe was officially ‘topped out’ in December 2002, the ceremony was accompanied by a laser show and illuminations that transformed the structure into a giant Christmas tree.

The tip of the building will serve as a conference room, reserved, it is said, for the exclusive use of the tenants (a giant tempting carrot, now that Swiss:Re is no longer planning to take the whole structure): it will be one of the most dramatic rooms in London, if not the world. It looks pretty good from every angle, too, whether up close, the façade filling the middle distance at the end of London’s tight, angled streets, or on the horizon, clearly different, the sunlight catching the curves. It’s the kind of structure that has journalists reaching for words like ‘glistening’: innuendo is never far away when large, vaguely-phallic shapes are involved.

The bureaucratic tussle between development and conservation notwithstanding, new structures—even skyscrapers—swiftly blend into the cityscape. Old views are lost and new ones found. Several hundred thousand square of carpet tiles find a new home. Life goes on. London constantly mutates, soaking up all adversity. On 24 April 1993 an even larger bomb exploded 200 yards down the road from Bishopsgate, killing one person, injuring 40, and causing about £350m worth of damage. The tiny medieval church of St Ethelburga’s, which had stood since the fifteenth century, was about 15 yards from the tipper truck containing the bomb. It was totally destroyed. The city sighed, shrugged, and the scaffolding went up once again.
 

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TMN Contributing Writer Jonathan Bell lives in South London. He co-edits Things Magazine and likes to write about architecture. More by Jonathan Bell