30 St Mary Axe

The tower built by Swiss Re between 1997 and 2004 for its own occupation and letting out to tenants has met with near-universal acclaim. As Foster + Partners' own website profile says, it was “London’s first ecological tall building and an instantly recognisable addition to the city’s skyline”, held up as an exemplar of dense but humane urban planning for single buildings and, as its diagrid structure rose above London during the Millennium, a new symbol for a new time. This is either fitting or ironic given both those descriptions and the building's popular name, the gherkin, actually apply to what might have been built on the site of the bombed Baltic Exchange, rather than what was...

Depressed by the loss of that historic market, I was thrilled by the hubristic London Millennium Tower that was first mooted to replace it following sale of the plot to a developer (the Exchange moved elsewhere). Commissioned from Norman Foster's practice, the nickname 'erotic gherkin' was coined to describe it. Planned to be taller than what became The Shard and indeed the fourth-tallest tower in the world, it was abandoned after protests and the site sold on once more, this time to reinsurance form Swiss Re. Retaining Foster, a new scheme emerged that was very different.

I was curiously nonplussed at this announcement and even the commencement of the new building (which, oddly, retained the nickname much to Swiss Re's initial annoyance). I found its wilfully counter-conventional shape irritating and was more interested in the secrets of the hauntingly beautiful and mysterious Edwardian faience cliff that is Holland House by Berlage over the road.

Nevertheless, I duly recorded the construction of this new shape in the City and started to learn how, despite its apparent complexity, each of the hundreds of glazing panels needed to clad the building would be identical, and flat. And, as that process happened, I began to appreciate how removal of a segment in each circular floorplate to make an atrium and rotation of that gap on every successive floor create the tower’s highly distinctive colour banding, a slow-climbing helix in grey and black.

Completion, however, and my first tentative approaches to the exterior thereafter saw that initial interest sour. The only building of its type in the City, the circular plan may have eased wind loadings and buffeting at the base but has exposed rather cruelly much of the surrounding fabric. Circularity is alien to London’s street block pattern and it simply felt wrong too see this curving mass retreating from its rectilinear neighbours as if haughty or afraid.

The “new public plaza” formed by this round peg in a square hole did little to refute this view. It is mean, forbidding and retrograde, ignoring – rather bafflingly – the unique shape of the building at its centre and doing nothing to encourage one to linger. Considerations of what was becoming the great 21st century urban planning god security undoubtedly contributed (note the unbroken perimeter of stone-clad benches which conveniently keep vehicles as a distance) but I couldn’t help feeling this was an extraordinary wasted opportunity in a Square Mile where new public space is always at a premium, and given the new building’s shape was also designed to bring more light to the ground around it. That said the building itself has some draw for me, particularly the domed glass summit.

A few years later, then, and that splendid September weekend of life-sized, real-time architectural research that is London Open House presented the possibility of access to the interior when the building was opened to the public for the first time. Fortunately, as one of the lucky (very) few to have succeeded in obtaining a ticket, that possibility became reality.

Close-to, the massive but elegant crisply-sheathed steel structural members that give the building its form reach the ground amid a sea of grey stone and a dry canal-like moat spanned by mini-drawbridges. The effect is chic and sharp but there’s that defensiveness again. Inside, there is something of the great tradition of New York skyscrapers on display in the double-height lobby with its folded, fluted silver walls which seem to invite exploration. Unfortunately, the openness of being able to walk through such a space that is so characteristic of that American city and its cousin Chicago is of course absent here. A milk-white disc embedded in the floor slyly prefigures the experience that awaits at the summit, and two sets of lifts and a stair takes you there, to the bar on the 40th floor.

And it is here that the building comes alive.

The experience of standing in this space is almost overwhelming. The roof is not a roof and the walls are not walls. Instead, a unique glazed dome envelops you and disappears below your line of vision, formed by a wide mesh of glazing bars and topped with a lens, the sole curved panel of glass in the building. The view of London that is around/above you is unlike any I have seen. It’s a generous gesture, not least given the rental premium that top floors usually command.

This stunning effect is made possible by sandwiching much of the mechanical plant and the window cleaning rigs that usually live at this level below the bar and 39th floor restaurant, with the remainder evicted to an entirely separate building, a small, neat annexe across the plaza. Returning to the ground is of course a come-down in every sense.

At its height, then, 30 St Mary Axe is sublime, without a doubt. The problem is that for the visitor at least this exhilaration is offset by a monochrome colour palette that is severe and monotonous allied to the failure of the plaza with its recollections of mediaeval castles and distancing aesthetic. The dissonance is clear (and repeated at Foster's later tower across the road, the Willis Building) and one cannot but conclude that Foster’s work has created a symbol indeed but one that is a curious mix of cold and off-putting and glorious and humane.

Posted 30 October 2010, edited 22 November 2020

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30 St Mary Axe as seen from Tower 42 (top) and one of the roof terraces of the Willis Building, and the experience at the summit

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