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Three Iconic London Skyscrapers: The Developing Skyline of England’s Capital

Three Iconic London Skyscrapers: The Developing Skyline of England’s Capital

Picture of Bethan Morgan
Updated: 23 October 2016
The Gherkin, Walkie-Talkie, and Cheesegrater are renowned for their distinguished forms, media exposure and savvy nicknames. All three high-tech skyscrapers are the product of a starchitect, a staggering budget and commercial backing.

The Gherkin, unobtrusive and yet visually present, has been part of the London skyline since 2003, the Walkie-Talkie and Cheesegrater however remain to be completed. Juxtaposed with its historical surroundings, these three high-tech buildings contribute towards the shift in London’s architectural identity, one which is rapidly reconfiguring the character of the city. The increase in commercial skyscrapers opens up a discourse into London’s urban language, commercial direction and the tenuous balance between history and the present.


The Gherkin

Affectionately named the Gherkin, 30 St Mary Axe has become one of the most iconic buildings to punctuate London’s ever-changing skyline. Standing at 180m, it was designed by esteemed British architect Norman Foster and celebrated for its sculptural shape and progressive technology.


Norman Foster has built up an impressive architectural portfolio which includes the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts – Foster’s first major public building built in the 1970’s. Housing the Sainsbury family’s art collection, Foster’s modular design was exceptionally sympathetic towards content, internal space and light and the building’s construction and engineering feats.


Foster carries a certain sensitivity when marrying design and engineering that can be found in his architectural details to date – the Gherkin being no exception. Collaborating with Arup engineers, Foster includes an advanced natural ventilation system which, the architect claims, reduces the energy usage by half compared to a similar sized office building. The unorthodox layout of the Gherkin adds to the efficiency of the building by incorporating light wells which allow natural ventilation between floors whilst reducing the need for artificial lighting. The double skin facade maintains a double-glazing effect, which can be adapted depending on the heating and cooling demands within the building.


These high-tech elements focus on the internal services within the building, which thus dictate the external aesthetic and form. The Gherkin nods towards architectural expressionism as its exposed steel structure and advanced window system become an external visual language, one that has become so familiar to Londoners.


The Walkie-Talkie

Designed by architect Rafael Viñoly, 20 Fenchurch Street, nicknamed the Walkie-Talkie, is currently under construction and due to finish in 2014. Easily identifiable by its top-heavy appearance, the Walkie-Talkie will tower over London at a height of 160m. Accommodating office spaces with public access to the top floors, its glass facade ensures unforgettable views across London.


In 1983 the Uruguayan architect Viñoly created Rafael Viñoly Architects in New York; the firm has since expanded with offices based in London, Los Angeles and the United Arab Emirates. A principle concern of Viñoly’s is the inclusion of public realms into civic buildings. He considers this to be of great value to the identity of the city and states: ‘architecture is a dialogue with the forces of life. As a major form of social intervention, its essential responsibility is to elevate the public realm’.


Viñoly’s concern with public and commercial interaction has greatly informed the shape of the Walkie-Talkie, which he insists evolved from the needs of the public and the will for the building to give back. On completion the public will be able to access a three-level botanical skygarden featuring cafes from which visitors can marvel at the 360° views of London – all free of charge. Viñoly has succeeded in creating pockets of social activity contributing to the public realms within London. By concentrating on social aspects within the design, Viñoly balances the Walkie-Talkie’s social responsibility with the commercialisation attached to such a momentous project.


However, this unusual shape has not escaped a stream of criticism and controversy. Groups such as Unesco and English Heritage have opposed the shape of the building, concerned that its ‘oppressive and overwhelming form’ will block views of St Paul’s Cathedral and dominate the city skyline. Criticism continues in regards to the reasoning behind the widening of the floor plates towards the upper levels of the building. As the floor space increases so does the revenue from the lease of these offices with their much sought after views. It can be argued the the Walkie-Talkie’s dominating form was encouraged by the promise of financial gain.


Regardless of the resistance, the Walkie-Talkie has irrefutably set a precedent that will inform future skyscrapers of London. Transporting social spaces from the pavements of London into the sky means that people engage with the city from an alternative perspective, one that is usually reserved for members of London’s elite.


The Cheesegrater

British architect Rogers Stirk Habour + Partners designed 122 Leadenhall Street, popularly known as the Cheesegrater. Its distinctive wedge shape allows uninterrupted views of St Paul’s Cathedral from protected viewpoints, preserving elements of London’s urban experience. With 48 floors and costing around £286 million, the Cheesegrater attracted media attention when construction was halted due to the financial crisis in 2009. After a year of uncertainty work commenced and is expected to be completed in 2014.


Lord Rogers has been instrumental in both architectural history and the discipline’s current direction. Having studied at The Architectural Association School of Architecture, London, before attending Yale School of Architecture, his career has spanned over five decades. Rogers’ reputation was propelled into the limelight when he joined architectural forces with and Renzo Piano (the Shard) to create the iconic Pompidou Centre. Similarly to Rogers’ Lloyd’s building, the Pompidou Centre exposes all service components externally, allowing the public to view the building’s vital organs, which are usually buried deep within the structure. Removing these parts from the internal space provides a clean, uncluttered space, easily adaptable for the contents within.


The incorporation of high-tech elements remains an important part of Roger’s architectural practice. Working alongside Arup engineers, Rogers designed the world’s tallest steel megaframe, which externally supports the building. The advanced technology of this frame system avoids the conventional concrete core running through the centre of the building and therefore maximizes space, providing possibilities for layout or activity variation from floor to floor. The structure, similarly to the Gherkin, determined the aesthetics of the building, and the form was deciphered from the needs of London as a historical context.


London’s architectural landscape is littered with buildings from diverse eras and movements, identifying itself with social values and addressing the city’s needs at certain points. Architectural characteristics, especially the form and aesthetic, are modified depending on the technological involvement and the architectural conditioning of the city as an organism. Even under this vast umbrella of aesthetics the shift can be visually determined. Materiality is chosen by its ability to marry technology with services and – as function now follows form – the internal layout is dependent on the sculptural form of the skyscraper itself.