‘Build what British people want,’ Housing Minister Kit Malthouse exhorted architects at a recent conference to discuss his department’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission chaired by the right-wing philosopher Sir Roger Scruton. Malthouse believes that if the views of the British people are taken more into account by designers then new development will meet less resistance from local communities. By selecting Scruton, a devotee of classical and vernacular architecture, Malthouse assumes that the British public is only interested in the styles of the past.
What better barometer of middle England taste could Malthouse have than the presenters of the BBC’s Breakfast programme? When Foster and Partners recently launched their decidedly space-age designs for an observation tower in the City of London, branded The Tulip, anchor Dan Walker called the proposed structure“a good looking building”. His co-presenter Naga Munchetty agreed but went further. She commended the tower because it was “very space-like” and then used the ‘B’ word on live television. She called the Foster design “Beautiful!”
Ironically the comments from professional readers of the Architects’ Journal were less flattering likening the shape to a cotton bud, mushroom, spermatozoa and phallus. Not that that should deter the designers. When designs for 30 St Mary Axe were first unveiled one commentator dubbed the curvy structure the “erotic gherkin” in a similarly cynical vein. Since that time however the abbreviated “The Gherkin” has become the affectionate nickname for Londoners’ most favourite modern building.
While such name-calling is good knock-about fun, the proposal is worthy of more serious consideration. Does London, let alone central London, even need a tower like The Tulip? After all, there are already observation platforms in The Shard and the Walkie Talkie and new ones proposed in One Undershaft and 6-8 Bishopsgate. Foster partner Grant Brooker thinks there is a substantial demand for The Tulip’s vertigo-inducing glass floors and pods. “The idea came about as a result of Open House. The queues for The Gherkin were so large they prompted Jacob Safra, the owner of the building, to ask if we could open up the space at the top to the public.” That wasn’t possible but Fosters suggested instead that the available land on the northeast of the 30 St Mary Axe site could be used to build a slim tower to house viewing platforms, bar and restaurants. The million or so visitors it was expected to attract would make it an economic proposition.
“Plenty of cities have these marker buildings,” says Brooker. Fosters designed the Barcelona Communications Tower - the 288m high Torre de Collserola - in 1992; in cities like Toronto, Berlin, Tokyo and Shanghai they are popular tourist destinations providing spectacular views of the surrounding city. Our own BT Tower does just that but is sadly open for only limited periods. New London Architecture (NLA) hosts an annual reception in the revolving deck which is so popular that tickets have to be distributed by ballot.
Providing new tourist infrastructure fits well with City Hall policies: in 2025, visits to the capital are expected to reach 40.4 million as long as we remain competitive and invest in culture and amenities. Those who question whether money should be spent on attractions like the Tulip when London is facing a housing crisis should realise that tourism accounts for one in seven jobs and such overseas investment benefits the wider economy. Policy E10 of the new London Plan says “associated employment should be strengthened by enhancing and extending (the capital’s) attractions, inclusive access, legibility, visitor experience and management….”.
The Tulip responds to the Corporation of London’s own strategy to bring more people into the Square Mile to create a seven-day-week “retail, leisure and cultural destination”.The draft City Plan says “complementary land uses will be encouraged to enhance vibrancy and viability, extending to weekends to diversify the City, its economy and community”.
At the moment tourists flock across the Millennium Bridge to St Paul’s Cathedral and don’t get much further east than the One New Change shopping centre. More has to be done if the crowds are to move into the heart of the City: try and find an open coffee shop on a Saturday morning! The attraction of the Walkie Talkie’s difficult-to-access viewing gallery has increased the number of visitors somewhat in EC3 but not enough to get the shops to open. The City Plan also speaks of improving the offer at Leadenhall Market, a couple of minute’s walk from the site of The Tulip: “the character of the historic market will be maintained and enhanced as a visitor and retail destination, supporting a flexible range of retail uses.”
The Tulip’s planned exhibits and educational programme will add to visitors’ understanding of the City. As someone who spends much of his time attempting to communicate issues around development and change in London to a wider public audience, this will be a spectacular new tool. It will also enhance the Corporation’s cultural strategy which at the moment is focused on the north-west part of the City around the Barbican Centre, the Museum of London and the proposed Centre for Music. More attention needs to be paid to the south - to the amazing heritage of the City churches, of the historic Livery Halls, the Guildhall and the riverside walk which, in spite of being on the sunny side of the river, has a fraction of the numbers of visitors that use the South Bank.
There is some understandable concern that the popularity of The Tulip will mean that the already overcrowded City pavements will become even more so, although Brooker suggests that because of the different schedules of workers and tourists this won’t be a major problem. Anyway, if the City implements its excellent proposed Transport Strategy which promotes improved pedestrian movement, overcrowded pavements will be less of an issue.
Norman Foster himself describes the Tulip proposal as being “in the spirit of London as a progressive, forward-thinking city.” It is in the smooth, steel and glass, engineered style we see in The Gherkin and in the work the practice does for clients like Apple, which has its roots in the high tech movement of the 60s and 70s. Coincidentally, the building was launched in the same week that the eponymous radical architecture group published Archigram: the book. A key Archigram project was the Montreal Tower by Peter Cook - designed some 55 years ago -which might be seen as a precursor of The Tulip with entertainment spaces, views and restaurants on top of a slim stalk. The aesthetic is slicker and more sophisticated but the spirit lives on.
At 305.3m The Tulip will be marginally higher than the proposed One Undershaft next door and shorter than the Shard’s 309.7m across the river; its bulbous, mini-gherkin pinnacle will sit comfortably above the walkie-talkies, cheesegraters, scalpels and cans of ham below. The gallimaufry of designs that make up the easter cluster can easily absorb a new friend. As the scale of the latest orthogonal towers - 22 Bishopsgate and 100 Bishopsgate - becomes apparent, it is clear that the townscape can only take a few such behemoths. There is still a role for the sort of varied geometry that has defined the City over the past decade and has proved popular with the public. Indeed, when NLA carried out research into the number of towers being built in London a commonly heard complaint was that their views of The Gherkin were being blocked by the new developments. Among younger audiences, this was seen as just as damaging as any impact on views of St Paul’s Cathedral dome. In the build-up to the Olympics The Gherkin became a key part of brand London: gone were the beefeaters and Buckingham Place, in came images of modernity and progress.
Fosters’ latest design reflects that vision of a contemporary City, a city of culture and creativity. Is it beautiful? That is, of course, a matter of taste, but when it comes down to defining an acceptable contemporary aesthetic, I’d go with Munchetty over Scruton every time.
Image: DBOX for Foster + Partners
Correction: This article was amended on 26 Nov 2018 to clarify that it was not Rowan Moore who christened 30 St Mary Axe as the 'erotic gherkin'.
Eric Parry's designs for the Leathersellers' Company illustrated in new book on the City's Livery Halls
On Saturday 24 April 1993 at 9.17am, the City of London Police received a coded warning from the South Armagh Brigade of the IRA. Just over an hour later a bomb in a tipper truck parked in Bishopsgate and loaded with almost a ton of fertiliser was detonated, destroying adjacent buildings and severely damaging many others within a 500m radius. The cost of building repairs was estimated at £1billion.
The IRA bombing campaign set in train a series of events that led to an equally dramatic but more benign change in the architecture of the Square Mile - the rise of the Eastern Cluster. The close-kissing towers, still growing on the City skyline - once dominated by Wren’s 51 church spires - have multiplied ever since Foster and Partners received planning permission for 30 St Mary Axe in 2000 on a site made vacant by the 1992 Baltic Exchange bomb.
One of the victims of the IRA was the Leatherseller’s Livery Company Hall in St Helen’s Place, set behind a neoclassical facade built in the early 1900s. As the ancient Company, which dates back to 1444, contemplated restoration, it became clear that surrounding sites of which it held the freehold were ripe for development. The Square Mile was booming and the City Corporation was keen to densify office space. As then Planning Chief Peter Rees said, “if we can’t build out we must build up.”
The outcome was that the Leathersellers did a very advantageous deal with Brookfield Properties whereby the developer would build the 40 storey 100 Bishopsgate Tower next to the site of the old hall and the proceeds would fund a new one - no expense spared.
Instead of building up, Eric Parry designed a building that goes down. Behind the refurbished facades of Helen’s Place, the above-ground floors have been allocated to income-generating office space while a grand ground floor reception space, with views out to the medieval walls of St Helen’s Bishopsgate, leads to a sweeping, processional stair down to the Company’s dining hall. The curved walls are lined with shrunken bull shoulder with a two-tone effect developed by leather designer Bill Amberg, to match the vitreous enamel on the building’s exterior. Elsewhere, Amberg has responded to Parry’s obsession with craft to fill the Hall with a range of leather pieces including a corridor lined with pale green and maroon, gold-foiled, leather-clad panels and an inglenook in the ground floor lobby area entirely stitched by hand using historic saddlery techniques.
Craft, not just in leather, is a key focus of Parry’s interior: the Court Room has double height panels of American walnut with a central court table of European walnut; the reception room sports a central blue-and-white glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly suspended above a circular bronze table, while the carpet was designed by Parry to complement the Chihuly above. At the top of the main staircase is a stained-glass window by Leonard Walker showing Henry VI, the monarch who conferred the first Charter on the Company made in 1937 for a previous hall.
Scagliola pilasters, transferred from the old Hall, have been scattered randomly across the walls and ceilings - perhaps as a reminder of the destruction of previous halls by the Great Fire, the Blitz and the IRA bombings. The walls of the Dining Hall are again covered in American walnut panels which sit below a forty metre long tapestry with images and allusions relating to the Leathersellers’ Company and its history.
The Hall was opened in 2017 by the Earl of Wessex and is a worthy new member of the cluster of City Livery halls that is such an important and little-known component of London’s heritage.
The importance of this collection of architectural gems can be discovered in a remarkable new book by Dr Anya Lucas and Henry Russell with photos by Andreas von Einsiedel. I use the word remarkable advisedly. Astonishingly, this is the first time in their long history that the 40 historic buildings have been properly photographed and compared. Thanks to the initiative of the Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects it is now possible to properly appreciate the legacies of the ancient City trades like the Mercers, the Grocers, the Goldsmiths and the Skinners. It is to be hoped that the publication will prompt the generally secretive Companies to make their homes more accessible to the wider public and in that way to highlight the rich culture of the Square Mile.
The Livery Halls of the City of London Anya Lucas and Henry Russell Photography by Andreas von Einsiedel is published by Merrell on behalf of the Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects. 280 pp and 450 illustrations.
https://bit.ly/2P0Me2k Price £45
Peter Murray, commenting on London, architecture, cycling and cities