Height of ambition, or of folly ? London’s rising skyline knows no limit

London Canary Wharf

Only 50 years ago, St Paul’s was still London’s tallest building: the capital’s skyline has become so overwhelmed with glass and steel towers since then that it’s easy to forget.

In the last couple of years, the Shard on the south bank, western Europe’s tallest building, has been followed by the Cheesegrater and the Walkie Talkie in the City.

Height matters. British Land insists its Cheesegrater is the tallest building in the City – but Gerald Ronson’s Heron Tower is actually taller, thanks to its 28m mast.

Many of these buildings have been dogged by financial problems or design glitches. The Cheesegrater and the Walkie Talkie were both put on hold during the recession when the market for odffice space ground to a halt, and work on the Pinnacle was halted two years ago. The Walkie Talkie’s south facade was found to have scorching powers, while the Shard has taken transparency too far (see below). Most skyscrapers were controversial at first, for their design or for blocking treasured views of an older London landmark such as St Paul’s.

The Gherkin illustrated how skyscrapers tend to be filled with tenants: just like their construction, it is often from the ground up, with the top floors commanding the highest rents. But, as seen in recent deals for the Gherkin and HSBC’s tower in Canary Wharf, the buildings still change hands for sky-high sums.

The Gherkin

One of London’s most recognisable silhouettes, the 180m Gherkin was last week bought by Brazilian banker Joseph Safra in a deal thought to be worth more than £700m. Officially called 30 St Mary Axe, the Foster and Partners-designed tower tower, designed by Ken Shuttleworth at Foster + Partners,was put up for sale – for the second time in its 10-year history – in the summer with a guide price of £650m after its previous owners, private equity firm Evans Randall and German property investor IVG, defaulted on a loan. They had bought it for £600m in 2007 from reinsurer Swiss Re, which commissioned it in 2004. It was the first tall structure built in the Square Mile since the 1970s.

What you may not know

It was built on the site of the old Baltic exchange bombed by the IRA.

HSBC tower

One Canada Square’s more prosaic neighbour, HSBC’s global headquarters at 8 Canada Square was acquired last month by Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund for more than £1.1bn. The 45-storey tower’s previous owner was South Korea’s national pensions service, which acquired it for nearly £800m from HSBC in 2009 in a year of low property prices. The bank, whose lease runs until 2027, had sold it in 2007 to Spanish property company Metrovacesa for £1.09bn, but took it back a year later when Metrovacesa ran into financial trouble. HSBC staff moved into the 210m tower, also designed by Foster + Partners, in 2002 and it now houses 8,000 people.

What you may not know

Last month’s sale to the Qataris made it the UK’s most expensive office building.

Canary Wharf tower

When One Canada Square became the first tower to rise out of the docks of east London in 1990, it was surrounded by controversy. At 244m, it was the tallest building in the UK for two decades until it was overtaken by the Shard in 2010. Architecture critics thought it was too big. Margaret Thatcher was not impressed and Prince Charles told its architect, César Pelli: “I personally would go mad if I had to work in a place like that.’’

The developer, Paul Reichmann’s property firm Olympia & York, collapsed into administration in 1992 during the recession, losing him much of his fortune. In that year, security was scaled up after an IRA bomb was placed near the tower, although it failed to go off (another did go off at nearby South Quay four years later).

The 50-floor steel-clad obelisk is more than 90% occupied, by housing owner Canary Wharf Group and parent Songbird, along with firms including HSBC, HS2 and the European Banking Authority.

What you may not know

It is rapper Dizzee Rascal’s favourite: “It means the most to me, I could see it from all angles as a kid. That was the highest building I could see from my bedroom.”

Heron tower

The 230m skyscraper, currently the tallest building in the City, opened in March 2011 with just two tenants – the US law firm McDermott Will & Emery and Landmark, a serviced office company. Like other developers, property tycoon Gerald Ronson (who pioneered self-service petrol stations in the UK in the 1960s) struggled to fill all the space. It is now more than 90% let, with 3,000 people working in the building, but it almost fell into receivership last year when a consortium of banks led by Wells Fargo called in a £300m construction loan. After wrangling between Ronson’s Heron International and his backers – the State General Reserve of Oman and Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd of Saudi Arabia – the three investors stumped up enough money to secure a refinancing. The building, located near Liverpool Street station, was previously rescued by then deputy prime minister John Prescott, who overruled a warning from the government’s conservation agency English Heritage that the tower would spoil the protected views of St Paul’s Cathedral. There was another row in May when its owners renamed it Salesforce tower after the largest tenant, the US software firm Salesforce.com. However, they were overruled by the City of London after other tenants also complained, so the building is officially called 110 Bishopsgate. It was designed by New York architects Kohn Pedersen Fox and features fully glazed double-decker lifts along with restaurants at the top and bottom.

What you may not know

The lobby features a 70,000-litre aquarium with 1,200 fish. Sharks have been removed because, Heron International says, they were getting bitten in their sleep by the other fish.

Tower 42

Architect Richard Seifert’s brash, steel-lined tower opened in 1979, the first of a rash of tall buildings in the City. Originally called the NatWest Tower, built to house National Westminster Bank’s international division, for many years it was Britain’s only real skyscraper. At 183m, with 47 floors, it was the highest building in the UK until it was surpassed by the Canary Wharf Tower in 1990.

What you may not know

You can sample the view from the upper levels of Tower 42 by appointment – by booking a table at the Vertigo champagne bar on the 42nd floor.

6 Shell Centre

Plans to revamp the 1960s Shell Centre near Waterloo on the south bank, close to the London Eye, were recently approved by communities secretary Eric Pickles. He overrode heritage concerns over the £1bn complex of offices, luxury apartments and shops, but a legal challenge against his decision was launched by activist and writer George Turner. The developers, Canary Wharf Group and Qatari Diar, the Gulf state’s property investment vehicle, are awaiting a high court ruling next month. The 27-storey tower that houses oil company Royal Dutch Shell will live on while other parts of the complex are knocked down to make way for eight new buildings, including a 37-storey block of luxury flats. The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins has lambasted the scheme as a “visual wall of towers on a truly Stalinist scale”. Designed by Sir Howard Robertson for the bomb-damaged site levelled for the 1951 Festival of Britain, the Shell Centre tower will remain the centrepiece of the complex while its low-rise wings will be demolished. About 1,600 Shell staff will have to relocate temporarily to Canary Wharf and the Shell Mex building in the Strand, but once the complex is finished all 4,000 London staff are expected to move to the site. It could take up to six years.

What you may not know

Sir Howard Robertson’s design team based the tower, Europe’s first major air-conditioned block, on the Rockefeller Centre.

Walkie Talkie

The first tenant, insurer RSA, moved in in May even though the 37-storey skyscraper, designed by Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly at 20 Fenchurch Street, is not quite finished. Its Sky Garden will open to the public in January, including a landscaped garden, terrace, bar and restaurant. It took the developers, Land Securities and Canary Wharf Group, some time to fix problems created by its concave, light-reflecting south-facing facade. Acting like a giant magnifying glass, the curved building melted parts of a car parked below it last year and was also blamed by nearby businesses for scorching carpets and cracking tiles. Staff have now covered its glass wall with non-reflective film called brise-soleil. Up to 6,000 are expected to work in the building.

What you may not know

The “Walkie Scorchie” is not the first Viñoly building to raise temperatures – his Vdara hotel in Las Vegas, which also sports a concave glass facade, has melted sun loungers and singed newspapers.


British Land’s recently completed new Leadenhall Building, nicknamed Cheesegrater for its wedge shape, made headlines last week when two steel bolts fell off it, with parts falling to the ground. An area is still cordoned off at the base of the tower while tests are being carried out. The 47-storey, 224m skyscraper, designed by Graham Stirk of Rogers Stirk Harbour and partners – is still empty, with the first tenants due to move in early next year. Insurance broker Aon will be the main tenant, with insurers Amlin and Rothesay Life and Australian serviced-office provider Servcorp also taking space. This means just over half the office space has been let so far. Up to 6,000 people will be working in the tower eventually. It set a new record for office rents in the City recently when US insurance firm FM Global took the 41st floor at £85 per sq ft. This eclipsed the previous record of £80 per sq ft set earlier in the year at the Shard on the south bank of the Thames.

What you may not know

It got its nickname from Peter Rees, then the City’s chief planning officer. “When I first saw a model of the building, I told [architect] Richard Rogers I could imagine his wife, Ruthie, using it to grate parmesan. I don’t think he was too happy, but it stuck.”

The Shard

Soaring to 310m, with 95 storeys, Irvine Sellar’s Shard was intended to be the tallest building in Europe, but was beaten to the title by Moscow’s 339m Mercury City Tower (the Shard is still the tallest building in the EU). The property entrepreneur and the tower’s Italian architect, Renzo Piano, managed to overcome scepticism that the building opposite the City across the Thames, would cast a huge shadow over St Paul’s Cathedral. Piano insisted that “when together, the two buildings will kiss each other”.

Financial backers Credit Suisse First Boston pulled out in 2007 with the banking crisis looming and were replaced by the state of Qatar, which bankrolled the £1.5bn project, including the 17-storey “baby Shard” next door. None of the office space had been sold by its completion in 2012 (Transport of London pulled out, leaving the five-star Shangri-La Hotel as the only business customer to have signed up). Only two-thirds of the building has been filled, with 4,000 people working there. The Shangri-La hotel occupies 18 floors including the highest infinity swimming pool in Europe and other tenants include Al-Jazeera and Warwick University Business School.

In a spectacular moment, the Shard was struck by lightning in May 2014. The 10 luxury apartments near the top, with price tags of £30m to £50m each, haven’t been put on the market yet.

What you may not know

Because of a design glitch, it emerged that some hotel guests can see into other rooms if blinds are open.


The planned 288m, 63-storey tower on Bishopsgate in the City is also known as the Helter-Skelter for its twisty design at the top. Humiliatingly, it also became known as “the stump” after construction (which had begun in 2008) came to an abrupt halt in 2012 when funding dried up, leaving a seven-storey shell. The plan was to finish the tower this year. Some £400m has already been spent out of a total estimated cost of £1bn.

Its owners, Arab Investments and the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund Sedco, are thought to be close to selling the scheme for £220m to a group of investors led by pension firm Axa’s property arm. Assuming a deal is struck, it will still take until 2018 or even 2020 until the tower is finished. The design is now likely to undergo radical changes to save money. Karen Cook and other architects at US firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates have left and set up their own firm, PLP, to work on new plans. It could be another year until construction resumes, as a fresh planning application will have to be submitted. But the expensive “helter skelter” curved glass panels at the top could still be scrapped.

What you may not know

Under the original plan, the Pinnacle would have been the tallest building in the Square Mile and almost as high as the Shard.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Julia Kollewe, for The Observer on Sunday 16th November 2014 00.02 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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