R. Buckminster Fuller would be proud...
November 23, 2003
A 40-Story Pickle Commandeers London's Skyline
By BARRY GEWEN
Norman Foster's Swiss Re tower, also known as the gherkin, is redefining how London looks.
London is about to be transformed. Work is nearing completion on 30 St. Mary Axe, also known as the Swiss Re tower, a 40-story skyscraper in the heart of the financial district. The architect is Norman Foster, a man famous for his audaciousness. He designed London's city hall, an eye-catching if utterly weird structure that looks like a bicycle helmet attacked by a madman wielding a large, dull ax. American tourists know Mr. Foster for his exuberant Great Court at the British Museum and for the delightful Millennium Bridge, linking the Tate Modern to St. Paul's Cathedral. But he has never been more audacious than now.
The new tower is circular in shape, resembling, in Lord Foster's words, a cigar. It starts small at the bottom, bulges to its greatest width at the 26th floor, then tapers back to a soft, rounded top. One of its most striking features — in a building that consists of nothing but striking features — is the spiral pattern that climbs up the curved sides, achieved by the slight rotation of each of the floors, with atriums, or "sky-gardens," on every level producing the spiral effect.
The rotation has an ecological as well as a design function: it creates pressure differentials between the floors that pull air in through vents and reduce the need for air-conditioning and energy consumption. Mr. Foster has said, "For me, the optimum design solution integrates social, technological, aesthetic, economic and environmental concerns."
Even before a single tenant has moved into an office, the building has become famous here. "London Will Never Look the Same Again," blared a headline in one British architectural journal last year. And the structure's blatant phallicism has inspired an affectionate nickname: the "erotic gherkin." If you are trying to find it (though how could you miss it?), don't ask a Londoner about St. Mary Axe or Swiss Re; ask how to get to the gherkin.
One of the best ways to get a sense of the building's impact is to stand on the new Hungerford Bridge walkway facing north. The skylines of most cities present a cluster of tall buildings, but London's skyline reads more like a frieze, with the structures spread out in a line. Three dominate: Tower 42 (formerly the NatWest Tower), St. Paul's Cathedral and the gherkin. The streamlined Tower 42 is the tallest of the three, but as an exemplar of the clichéd 3-M thinking (Modernism, Minimalism and Mies) that prevailed in corporate circles a few decades ago, it could be plopped down anywhere from Shanghai to Houston and no one would know the difference. It's the dome of the cathedral and the rounded line of the gherkin that vie for attention.
When Mr. Foster's plan was originally announced, the Dean of St. Paul's issued a sharp protest, saying the proposed building was a threat to the cathedral's "iconic status," and a "challenge that should not go uncontested." It turns out that he was right. Christopher Wren's renowned dome once had the London skyline pretty much to itself. No longer.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
By Dominic Burke:
I like the building. It looks cool and it most certainly is unique. I would say that is most definitely a good thing.
Modern Britain's instant icon
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online Magazine
It's 25 years since the City of London last got a new office tower, and it's never had one like the Swiss Re skyscraper - known as the Gherkin for its unique shape. Only now officially opened, it has already become visual shorthand for the capital.
Inside the Swiss Re Tower
For three years London has watched the Swiss Re Tower gradually spiral out of the ashes of bombed Baltic Exchange site in the heart of the financial district.
In the initial stages of construction, its curved skeleton could only be glimpsed between the buildings crowding the City's tangled streets. But as it stretched skyward, it crested the packed skyline.
From this glazed tower, the capital spreads out beneath your feet. And just as those inside look out at London, London looks back.
For it can be seen from far and wide, its blue cigar-like shape providing a sharp contrast as it rises above box-like office blocks and familiar sights such as Tower Bridge, the London Eye and St Paul's Cathedral.
As an instant icon of 21st Century Britain, it has all but supplanted the Routemaster bus and Big Ben as shorthand for London on TV, in ads and on film. In Love Actually, it reared above Liam Neeson as his on-screen son told of a schoolyard crush during a stroll along the South Bank.
Even those who have worked long and hard on this newest addition to the skyline say it can still take them by surprise. For architect Norman Foster, whose firm Foster and Partners designed the building, this is one of its many charms.
"We did all the modelling, all the computer simulations to explore how it would look and how it would sit in the City. Yet I love that I still get unexpected views of it from all over London, and unexpected reflections of other buildings in its walls," Lord Foster told BBC News Online.
Those who work at 30 St Mary Axe every day - the employees of financial giant Swiss Re, and the construction team still hard at work fitting out the remaining floors - agree.
"The approach to the building is the best part of my day," says one.
Another says that even though he has worked on the project for four years, he still delights in seeing it from vantage points around the capital.
Its innovative design, both in terms of its striking appearance and eco-friendly services - the design maximises daylight and natural ventilation so that it uses half the energy typically required by an office block - marks an evolution in architecture.
"It's part of a wider evolution toward more interesting forms of buildings around the world and here, wonderfully, in London," says Lord Foster.
Onward and upward
It is an evolution that is pushing ever upwards. A century ago, the capital's skyline was still dominated by St Paul's Cathedral. As late as the 1960s, building restrictions meant the chimney on Bankside Power Station - today Tate Modern - could not top St Paul's dome.
While 30 St Mary Axe is by no means London's tallest building - it's topped by the likes of the nearby Tower 42 (formerly the NatWest Tower) and Canary Wharf - it is the first of a cluster of planned skyscrapers.
The "shard of glass" - the 1,016ft London Bridge Tower - is set to be the tallest building in Europe. Last November the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, gave the 66-storey project the go-ahead despite opposition from English Heritage (a body by no means opposed to height, as the Gherkin has its full support).
His decision is likely to encourage other developers to reach skywards. Work has started on a 47-storey glass tower in Manchester. And among the towers on the drawing board are projects in Brighton, and Aldgate and Bishopsgate in London.
But up is not the only way to create a distinctive building.
The 40-storey Swiss Re tower is among 2004's most notable new buildings, but last year's landmarks were far more down to earth - quite literally.
The winner of the prestigious Stirling Prize for architecture was the low-slung Laban dance centre in east London, with the so-called "blinking eye" bridge which links Newcastle and Gateshead taking the 2002 award.
"Where going tall does make sense is in the inner city where buildings are densely-packed and there is little green space," says Lord Foster.
1. London Bridge Tower 303m - approved
2. Canary Wharf One Canada Square, 237m - completed 1991
3. Minerva Building St Botolph St, 216m or 247m with spire - approved
4. Leadenhall Building 215m or 234m with spire - proposed
5. Tower 42 183m - completed 1980
6. Heron Tower Bishopsgate, 183m or 222m with spire - approved
7. Swiss Re Tower 180m - completed 2004
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2004/04/28 14:07:49 GMT
© BBC MMIV
A restless baron
By Edwin Heathcote
Published: December 3 2004 12:10
“Well, what can I tell you that you don’t already know?” says Norman Foster, as he sits down to be interviewed.
The question is a good one. Foster is one of a handful of genuinely world-famous architects and his work is both widely known and influential.
We are in his Battersea office by the Thames, over which he is in fact Lord, his full title being Baron Foster of Thames Bank. And, looking down the river, it is apparent that no single architect since Christopher Wren has had such an impact on the face of London.
The eastern side of the city is dominated by Foster’s Swiss Re Tower, better known as the Gherkin, the recent recipient of the UK’s top architecture award, the Stirling Prize. Then there is City Hall, the Greater London Authority headquarters and the huge More London site that flanks it. And the “blade of light”, aka the “wobbly bridge”, the first new river crossing in the city for more than a century, opens up a route between London’s old temple (St Paul’s) and its new shrine (Tate Modern). On the other side of London is the gleaming white arch of Wembley Stadium, which towers over London’s drab north-west skyline at a height of 133m.
Wren transformed London for the first time, with St Paul’s and the City spires, but his ambition stretched far wider. He wanted to use the opportunity presented by the Great Fire of 1666 to rebuild London into a planned metropolis like Paris or Rome. He failed, beaten by the lack of absolutism which made such dramatic sweeps possible on the Continent. In the convoluted lanes of London, private property ruled and boulevards such as Kingsway would only happen later when slums were cleared.
Foster, however, has succeeded. His work is visible not only on the skyline, but at street level. The National Gallery looks like it has always been the focus of Trafalgar Square yet, only two years ago, London’s most famous piazza was little more than a traffic island. Foster’s remodelling righted it. His underground station at Canary Wharf is one of the most impressive recent stations anywhere in the world and has contributed to “making a place” far more than have the dim collection of towers around it, one of which is also, unfortunately, by Foster.
With his back to Albert Bridge and the sun glinting off the river behind him, Foster sits me down in the far corner of his enviable, self-designed office. It is a cliche to say so, but the lean, tanned Foster looks younger than his 69 years. “I still get an enormous kick out of being close to the design process,” is his answer to my inept attempt to ask him whether he still feels the same passion about architecture, or whether he is thinking of retirement.
I ask how it feels to have had such an impact on contemporary London. “I feel I’ve been enormously privileged to be able to work on such a scale,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in cities. I grew up in a very urban environment [Manchester]. It is immensely satisfying to see the ways an urban intervention can change its surroundings, the way that a building can exert a ripple effect. The thing that I find exciting about our work in London is that it’s not all about the individual building, but a wider agenda about what makes a city tick. For instance, the attention was on our Great Court at the British Museum, but the fact that we managed to remove the cars from the forecourt there is as important as the other stuff.”
Having built so much in the city, is there anything here he still feels he would like to address? “As an architect, there’s a certain restless quality,” he says, avoiding the question. “The exciting thing about a city is this state of continuous renewal.” Then, looking out of the window behind him, he adds, “There’s always the relationship to the river. Even though everyone is now aware of it, I think there’s still a lot that could be done in terms of improving the relationship of the city to the river.”
Pushed to define a field in which he would like to work, he says something that genuinely surprises me - “affordable housing”. “There’s a real anomaly,” he continues. “If you take the areas where we spend our money, whether it’s furniture or travel, we take for granted a wide spectrum of choice, whether its easyJet or first class, Ikea or Habitat. We don’t talk about affordable travel or affordable furniture, but we still have this stigma attached to affordable housing. It’s a stupidity: housing should just be a matter of choice.”
Is it likely then that Foster and Partners will get involved in social housing? “In Europe and elsewhere we’ve already produced the equivalent of affordable housing. In Duisberg, for instance, we produced a housing scheme with some real oddball apartments on the top floors. Interestingly, it was the odd flats that sold first, but that kind of experiment would be very hard to do over here. We’ve been working in Duisberg for over 15 years on a lot of projects, nothing sensational, but we’ve created canals, transport, infrastructure.” Foster says he has spoken to a developer about a housing scheme in the UK. About time too.
The last few years have not been without controversy for Foster. There was the initial embarrassment of the wobbly bridge; a number of mediocre office developments; mixed reaction to the GLA building and the departure from the practice of Foster’s right-hand man, Ken Shuttleworth.
Foster’s work is criticised for an increasing corporatisation (an idiotic accusation in my opinion, as his work has always looked slick and corporate), and for some of the more eccentric and bulbous shapes of his recent designs - including the snooker balls in a sock of the new Sage centre in Gateshead. But this has hardly slowed Foster’s stride.
As if to prove the point, he moves on to talk about Beijing Airport, “the biggest construction site on the planet” as he puts it. The 1.1 million sq m project is indeed impressive. “There are 20,000 people working on the site 24 hours a day, seven days a week and it will be completed in time for the 2008 Olympics; in fact it’ll be ready in 2007 to allow it to run in,” he says.
Foster has become the acknowledged master of airport buildings, having done Stansted and the Hong Kong International Airport, Chek Lap Kok, the largest airport in the world when it was completed in 1998. As with its predecessors, Beijing International is all about a single, elegant roof, incorporating the minimum of supports to create the maximum amount of flowing, clear space below.
While he has long been known for airports, Foster has recently begun to make a name for himself with skyscrapers. The Swiss Re building has without doubt become the most visible building in London and it is one of the few skyscrapers of recent years to attempt something new. Its soft, sensual form (Foster refers to it as “feminine” in contrast to the angular phallicism of other structures) is unique. “It’s a radical shape,” says Foster “and it was always going to be controversial. It is very nice, though, that a derogatory nickname has ended up as an affectionate term.” Indeed the Gherkin, as it is known, has become one of the very few new structures that Londoners recognise and take to.
The Swiss Re building is also notable for its attempt to reinvigorate the skyscraper as a viable building type, aesthetically, economically and environmentally. The Stirling Prize and the recognition factor have assured success in the first category. But, with half its floors still unlet, the jury is still out on its economic success. Some of the world’s best skyscrapers had trouble filling their floors, however - the Empire State was nicknamed the Empty State for years.
Foster makes few revelations in interviews. His persona, like his architecture, is aloof, sometimes slightly detached. The only time the architectural message slips is when he admits that “the best part of the day is taking the kids to school”. And, even though his lifestyle is hardly that of the typical architect (he pilots his own helicopter; skis from his bulbous, futuristic house in St Moritz and inhabits one of London’s most visible penthouses), he ensures it is his architecture, not his celebrity status that sets the agenda.
As he guides me around the building I comment on how cosmopolitan and young the staff are. “Fifty nationalities, I think, and an average age of 32,” he says.
Most practices, by the time they get to this size and this prominence, run out of steam, the creativity squeezed out by the realities of big business. Not Foster’s. After nearly four decades as Britain’s pre-eminent modernist, he looks unlikely to retire any time soon. The average age of his practice might have to go up a little more.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic.
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i was at the Swiss Re building yesterday and for those who have not visited, this building has the curious quality of diminishing in size the closer you are to the building until standing at its foot looking up, most of the building becomes invisible.
the convex, compound curves create a building that curves very slightly outward from the base to about one third of its height from which point it starts to curve back inwards rendering the building from that point on invisible from the base.
sadly the building is struggling to attract tennats with flexible 5 year leases being offered. also, a few of the windows have fallen out.
a few hundred metres from Swiss Re is the Lloyds building, another Foster (was it Foster?) building. THis masterpiece is looking a little shabby and needs a good clean. it has been disfigured by the phone masts and even TV arials at its apex
I think that the Lloyd's Building was designed by Richard Rogers.
That's the sad truth about most post-war skyscrapers. They require constant maintainance because there's nothing charming about a dilapidated glass box...gherkin...whatever.
What's so great about it?
It's tall, it's big, it's shaped like a sex toy. "That don't impress me much".
It's surrounded by a concrete free-fire zone. It shades much more elegant buildings in its vicinity. You will note from some of the pics the missing panels that fell out (that's right, out and DOWN).
They obliterated the possibility of restoring a beautiful historic building (which had been damaged by the I.R.A.) to erect that glass d!ck.
Gives interest to the skyline, a genuine monument to join St. Paul's, Parliament, the Eye and Tower Bridge. At least as interesting as OXO Tower. Used to great effect in Match Point.Originally Posted by Luca
Photos of the old Baltic Exchange building (from the less than unbiased, but still reliable "London Destruction" Webpage:
Last edited by TLOZ Link5; February 10th, 2006 at 06:06 PM.
Apparently there was little will to restore it after the bombing, for whatever reason. Anyway, the Baltic Exchange seems more or less nondescript for London. One can find dozens of structures like it around Regent Street alone. The Swiss Re is a much more significant structure, one which has practically become the symbol of British prosperity and modernity since its construction.
It ought to be understood that London, to a lesser extent than New York but far more so than Paris, is not a city that necessarily believes in the virtue of remaining architecturally static. If it's to iconographically compete with American and Asian cities, it will have to some extent make sacrifices in the city centre to achieve this.
Of course, the Blitz ensured that the vast majority of such sacrifices will be cheap postwar garbage, so one oughtn't be concerned demolitions such as that of the Baltic Exchange will be too frequent.
I think that the problem was that the Baltic Exchange wanted to restore the building, but it would have been way too expensive to do so. They sold to a developer, who tore down what was left.
Are there any photos of the building after it was damaged?