Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Gherkin

click photo to enlarge
30 St Mary Axe? The Swiss Re building? No, to Londoners it is known as "The Gherkin". Only two years after its completion Norman Foster's tower in the heart of the City has won the affection of the locals and the admiration of tourists. The magazine "Conde Nast Traveller" has called it one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Now that is probably going a bit far! But, in its short life it has certainly become widely noticed and admired, and a much filmed and photographed part of the London skyline.

I have mixed feelings about the structure. Let me say straight away that it has more than just the "Wow" factor that is, in my judgement, the only quality of some recent "landmark" buildings such as Gateshead's "Sage". It has an elegant shape which one would think suitable for a tall (590 feet) building. The colour is beautiful during the day, fantastic at twilight when the dying sun picks it out, and wonderful at night when the lights are on. I like the texture of the surface too. But, I do wonder about the spiral banding. Will the simplicity of the concept soon pall, like the catchy hook of a top ten record? Perhaps. However, I suppose my biggest concern is about the thing that I and others find so alluring - the shape. I cannot see the rationale for it. In that sense it is a classical building: the interior space is made to fit the pre-determined exterior form. Many people will have no problem with that. I prefer the interior space to be the prime consideration, and to see the architect's skill deployed in marrying that to an exterior that adds beauty and interest to its location.

My photograph is one of a number I took a few months ago. Many of them show parts of the building surrounded by lower angular offices. It's certainly difficult to get a shot that explains the whole of the building. Of those that I took, this is the best. The Gothic church tower is St Andrew Undershaft, a building of c.1530. Its cream and weathered stone contrasts sharply with the curves of its new neighbour. The juxtaposition of the top of each building is a useful symbol of the old co-existing with the new that typifies twenty-first century London.

So, do I like the building? Am I glad to see it on the City skyline? On balance yes. If that sounds a less than ringing endorsement, it's probably because it is often hard to judge the worth of a building and the contribution it makes to the urban landscape until the passage of several years. Ask me again in 2020!
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen