modern architecture london
modern architecture london

30 St. Mary Axe

Foster + Partners, 2001-03
Offices | St. Mary Axe, EC3A

Photos taken September 2004, May 2009 and September 2009.

On 10 April 1992 an IRA bomb exploded close to the Baltic Exchange. Three people were killed and there was extensive damage to the Exchange and surrounding buildings. Preservationists insisted the building be fully rebuilt and when this proved impossible, wanted the historic parts that had survived to be incorporated into any new building. Fortunately, sense prevailed - the remains of the building were packed into wooden crates and placed in a barn near Canterbury, in the hope that someone will buy them someday and put all the bits back together. An agreement was put in place that specified the site owners could create a new building without including any of the historical elements on the condition that the new design was of outstanding architectural quality.

The 40 floor, 180m tall building designed by Foster + Partners has been known as 'the Swiss Re building' after the original owners but it is more usually referred to by its affectionate nickname 'The Gherkin'. I think the building is remarkable because it's rare to find an example of high rise modern architecture that came to be liked so quickly by the general public. It immediately became an icon for London and no graphic representation of the capital's skyline is now complete without it. The building has achieved this popular appeal because of its external appearance. It has a dramatic sculptural form with triangular glazing panels on the exterior arranged to give a striped, spiral effect. These features set it apart from the more typical rectilinear office blocks, but the simplicity of the design avoids a more overblown, self-conscious statement architecture which may have been more divisive. The shape also helps to reduce wind disturbance at ground level and lessens the impact of the height because when you're at the base of the building, you can't see the top as it's obscured by the bulge in the centre.

Inside, the floors are circular in plan, becoming larger towards the middle of the structure and then tapering to the top. Office space is arranged in six sections around a central core. There are light wells cut out of each floor that spiral up through the building to provide natural ventilation, although these are blocked off every 6 floors for fire safety. The main lift reaches the 34th floor, and there is a push-from-below lift up to the 39th floor. The lack of servicing equipment at the top means that the 39th and 40th floors can be used for a restaurant and bar with spectacular 360 degree views across London. The architects claim that various environmental features halve the amount of energy used compared to a similar sized office building.

In 2004, the building was open to the public for one weekend as part of the Open House event. I went early on sunday morning and joined an already long queue at around 8 o'clock in the morning. When I got into the building at around 10 o'clock, I remember stewards telling people joining the queue that they were unlikely to get into the building before the 5 o'clock closing time because the queue was so long (over 1km according to Ken Allinson's book). It's a pity that the restaurant and bar at the the top are only available to tenants of the building.