London Skyscrapers: Tall Buildings, Low Morals

London is no Manhattan when it comes to skyscrapers. Our versions appear slight, mere toothpicks in comparison to NYC superstructures. But while the US is Empire State of Sky; London of course, has its own quirkiness. We’re proud(ish) to possess buildings with a vague, contorted resemblance to everyday objects: the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater, the Can of Ham… Seems architects in London get inspiration from their lunchboxes. The City of London, that is the ‘Square Mile’, sites many of London’s most distinctive skyscrapers; 20 Fenchurch Street (the Walkie-Talkie), the Heron Tower and others. Though distinctive, all of these are still too new to have a place in high-history, for none of them were amongst the first cluster of tall buildings to spring up here. 55 Broadway (in London, not NYC) and the Canary Wharf development were the London starter-pack. One was considered outrageous for reasons that you might not even notice, the other tragically brought the death of 3 men. Let’s take a look back at the 19th and 20th centuries, and at 2 major contributors to lofty life in London.


55 Broadway, Charles Holden, 1927-1929, Grade I

55 Broadway was constructed as the headquarters for the Underground Electric Railways Company (UERL) of London, (today’s version of TFL). Made up of 15 floors and with a total height of 53.3 meters, this office building was a serious sign of progression for 1920s London. The building even won its architect, Charles Holden, the RIBA London Architecture Medal in 1931.

The building was designed to allow maximum natural light in, and the upper office floors are designed in the shape of a cruciform, a shape usually attributed to churches rather than offices. The integration of the St James’ Park tube station became a world’s first; and now we see this efficient use of basement and underground space all over the globe. Despite being deemed a skyscraper in the 20s, today 55 Broadway doesn’t stand out as a building of height. Next to the Ministry of Justice building, standing at 56 metres, the stone and steel construction isn’t a shocker on the surrounding scenery.

Our oldest ‘skyscraper’, if we can still call it that, was considered crude and offensive at the time and, surprisingly, not because of its height. It’s art deco detailing, done by avant-garde sculptors of the day, were modern and graphic nude interpretations of ‘The Four Winds’. Carved by Epstein, Gill, Moore and others, the sculptures feature on each elevation just above the 6th floor. The public was so outraged that it erupted into a huge scandal, with newspapers running a campaign to have them removed! One Lord offered to pay for the removal of the sculptures himself and the Managing Director of the UERL threatened to resign. The fury ended with Epstein agreeing to remove 1.5 inches from the nether regions of one of his sculptures and the campaign slowly dwindled. The height of modernism for some, grotesque for others, practically invisible to us!

8 Canada Square, Foster and Partners, 2002

8 Canada Square is one of many skyscrapers that makes up East London’s professional playground. Canary Wharf got its name from a wharf operated by Fred Olsen Lines, for the Mediterranean and Canary Island fruit trade that used to exist on the site before the bankers moved in. The docks were in operation from 1802 to 1939 and were reported amongst the busiest docks in the world. But when they closed in 1980 the area was left derelict. The Government began to look at rejuvenating dock areas across London, but it was only when hot-shot American and former chairman of Credit Suisse Mr von Clemm developed the idea to make the wharf a ‘back office’, that schemes for a new business district began. The construction of Canary Wharf marked the move of the financial hub of London from the City to the East. The architecture of Canary Wharf was, unsurprisingly, planned by renowned Chicago-based firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. With their experience of complex land regeneration projects, they were a top-notch choice. (If you’ve been to Chicago, you’ll know what I mean).

8 Canada Square is one of the master-planned buildings by SOM and was designed by Fosters and Partners. The 45 floor, 200m high building is home to the world headquarters of HSBC and claims the title as the 4th tallest building in the UK. HSBC moved its HQ from Hong Kong to London in 1993, and quickly saw that having its employees spread around London was not ideal. The bank considered many options but the space and location of this new proposal came out on top, and this megalith became their new abode.

Construction of the steel and glass tower began in 1999. The hefty task of installing 4900 glass panels began in the summer of 2000. In May of the same year 3 construction works were killed on the site. The men were attempting to jack the crane up another level when it snapped and plummeted 400 feet to the ground. 8 Canada Square, designed in post-modernist style, was officially opened on 2nd April 2003.

London has had great advances into the upper realms of construction; skyscrapers are complex feats. Now however, it’s no longer just about building to the top, but also making a statement and pushing engineering. There are, in fact, 89 tall buildings (‘tall’ being over 20 storeys, that’s around about 60m or more) under construction across the city and a lot more in planning. Skyscrapers in our ancient city have more than verticality to mediate; there’s rights to light (your neighbours can’t build anything that will block your light without permission), overlooking issues (there should be no direct line of sight into your windows from another window!) and the cherry on the top; protected views to St. Paul’s Cathedral. So ambitious architecture can try… but the challenges are sky-high!

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