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The Gherkin

14 May 2012

The Gherkin has become a quintessential part of London's skyline since its completion. Rose Balston tells us a bit more about this incredible architectural beauty.

There is an architectural revolution going on in the City. Our ‘starchitects’ of today are creating buildings that rock all architectural foundations, reach unprecedented heights, altar skylines forever and compete to be more ‘green’ and ‘efficient’ than their neighbours. These astonishing buildings add another, fascinating glass and steel layer to the already complex architectural history of our capital.

Perhaps our two most talked about architects are Richard Rogers and Norman Foster. We are lucky enough to be able to witness a fabulous show-down between these two – flanking either side of Leadenhall Street you can find the Gherkin of Lord Foster, and the Lloyd’s Building of Lord Rogers.

Rivals now, Foster and Rogers started their architectural lives in partnership with each other. In 1963 Team 4 (including Su Brumwell and Wendy Cheeseman) was formed.  It wasn’t only an architectural practise they shared. Rogers had a liaison with Cheeseman before Foster married her. Rogers went on to marry Brumwell. Not surprisingly this rather close-knit partnership only lasted four years, before the company split to go their separate ways.

At the end of this month, 8 years ago (May 2004) the most iconic of the Leadenhall group was opened. In fact, it is one of the most dominant buildings in the whole capital - when you think of a London skyline, you might think of the London Eye, a red telephone box, the Canada Tower in Canary Wharf and of course Norman Foster’s unfortunately named Gherkin. Formally known as the Swiss Re Tower this dominant, phallic like building stands proud in the City - arrogant, yet graceful. Its sweeping, cylindrical design maximises daylight within the offices, and the double skin keeps workers warm without unnecessary use of heating. One of the first ‘green’ structures in the city, the agility and finesse of the Gherkin has captured the attention of the public and had become a vital visual landmark.  

At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum is Rogers’ first work on this site – the Lloyd’s Building. Erected 18 years earlier than the Gherkin, there are no clean lines here, no such sweeping elegance. Instead there seems to be a tangle of pipes, lifts, cranes revealing the services of the building on the exterior. Completed in 1986 this was one of the most revolutionary buildings ever to have been seen in Britain. This futuristic post-modern structure has been nicknamed ‘the inside out building’, ‘coffee shop turned coffee machine’ and ‘building on a life support machine’. Unlike the Gherkin, many critics have abhorred it for its brutish ugliness and aggression. Yet for those who take the time to walk underneath the workings of this building and look up into its guts you will find one of the most exciting sights in the whole of London. For the lucky who can enter the building, you will be swept into an extraordinary cathedral-like interior, with endless concrete columns rising to the heavens and a glass gallery high above creating the apex to this Room. Surely one of the most dramatic workspaces in town?

With such excitingly contrasting building, backing again onto Wren and Hawksmoor churches, George Dance’s (the younger) Mansion House and William Tite’s Royal exchange, the City becomes an architectural laboratory for ever changing style. It is an eye wateringly exciting place and every London and visitor to our capital should spend time there.


To learn more about the City of London, come on Rose’s ‘Wren to Rogers’ tour on Saturday 26th May. See the Art History UK website for more details.

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