30 St Mary Axe | icon 015 | September 2004

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photo: Grant Smith photo: Nigel Young/Foster and Partners

words Kieran Long

Foster and Partners has reached its corporate apotheosis. Norman Foster’s office has created a contemporary building in London with an unmatched place in the public’s perception of the capital, and topped it with the most prole baitingly spectacular corporate space in the city.

Just to be clear, the bar and restaurant on the top floor of 30 St Mary Axe, better known as the Gherkin, are not public. When I asked how I could get a table there, the PR person told me that the only way was to “take your business to Swiss Re [the developer and anchor tenant of the building] and they may invite you as an esteemed client”.

Fair enough. There has perhaps never been a building in London so public and yet so private at the same time. The Swiss Re tower has transformed London’s skyline, and has had a profound effect on the geography of east London, turning streets like Whitechapel Road and Kingsland Road into gateways to the metropolis, and pulling these down-at-heel districts towards the centre. But it is also an impregnable solid, a hermetic piece of geometry that resolves itself at its crown in a spectacular playground reserved for the company’s employees.

One of the justifications for high buildings in the City of London has been that they will provide public space at a high level – something London lacks. Although planning regulations stop short of obliging high-level public access, it has been used to justify high buildings in London, and was seen as a failing of the towers built at Canary Wharf.

Norman Foster’s first masterpiece – Willis Faber Dumas in Ipswich – was also an office, one that was, as he put it at the time, “a conscious attempt to elevate the workplace”. Its glass envelope holds a swimming pool and a roof garden, while making an urban piece that was sensitive to its context without being radical. The Swiss Re tower has elevated the workforce to a place unattainable by us commoners, housing in a hermetic piece of geometry staff paid to do work few understand, and provided them with a publicly inaccessible eyrie from which to look down on the city.

Despite the collateral effects of the tower’s place in the skyline, Swiss Re has an almost completely arbitrary urban strategy. The plan of the building is circular, so the ground floor is circular, leaving the corners of the site as public open space (owned by the developer, of course). The building Swiss Re replaces, the Baltic Exchange, occupied the extent of the city block in St Mary Axe on which it sat. The new cigar-shaped tower clearly cannot, and so the surplus space is left as a plaza, with concrete benches, and other hard landscaped elements. A small moat, crossed by bridges, surrounds the building, functioning as drainage, and, no doubt, a security measure.

The plaza is generous and well-executed, and compares very well with the modernist plaza on the other side of St Mary Axe, near Leadenhall Street. The scale of the leftover spaces around the base of Swiss Re feels right at home in the dense medieval street plan of this part of the city. The small building on the corner of the site, also by Foster and housing services for the main tower, has a café on the ground floor with seating outside, facing the bar housed in the eastern side of the base of the building. A shallow colonnade around the tower’s base adds to the feeling of public gesture, without really providing any usable space. In all, you can’t really argue with its effect in the city, and it does provide very good office space with great views and a creditable environmental strategy.

The site plans of Foster’s buildings reveal an architect with a neutral attitude to urbanism, reasoning that a finely made curtain wall is enough of a public gesture, and that beyond that, no great reformulation of prevailing orthodoxies should be offered. His buildings generally accept that a facade should allow proximity to the public, but without any need to pretend that the building is public. At their best, they reformulate the idea of the municipal into something distinctly different from the more conventional left wing bias of earlier modernists in England. However, Foster’s ability to make plausible architecture without using a dialectical political position seems to have more recently been lost to an ever-increasing desire to make shapes, and the buildings (Gateshead Music Centre, Glasgow conference centre, City Hall in London) are increasingly pale, vaguely anthropomorphic pieces that are given funny nicknames rather than real affection.

This shift seems to have coincided with the increasing responsibility of Foster’s design partners for projects. Ken Shuttleworth, who was the main designer behind Swiss Re, has had a malign influence on the work of Foster and Partners, despite being credited with being the genius behind the late, more formally spectacular work. Shuttleworth’s geometric obsessions have been given free rein, but his prodigious ability to sketch seductive forms has diluted the work rather than moving it forwards. Through the desire to make glass-and-steel facades contort into ever less standard forms, a certain simplicity has been lost, culminating in the complex but ugly double and triple facades at City Hall, and with the faceted column casings of Swiss Re. The buildings have become less orthogonal, and the cladding systems have not been able to keep up. This provides ample brainwork for the army of architects and engineers who detail the buildings, but has moved the office’s central concerns away from the possibilities of glass and steel to enclose and reveal space towards an interest in pure geometry. The novelty of the forms now obscures what was genuinely new about Foster’s architecture.

In his early commercial buildings, Foster’s was a rereading of the office typology that acknowledged a clear and self-evident division between public and corporate, and posited glass as the appropriate material to express this, optically blurring a line that the modern citizen is very comfortable with, but retaining it as a physical solid. At Willis Faber Dumas the single surface of glass between public and private is undifferentiated and unreactive to the surrounding public spaces, but the reflective glass and the amoeboid plan acknowledge the context. Swiss Re is more undemonstrative, not even nodding to the surrounding morphology of the city.

But it is at the top of the building where the shift in Foster’s work has become obvious. WFD’s roof garden throws the office worker back into the context of the city, except with grass underfoot, an Arcadian and highly romantic experience. At its best, Foster’s architecture has always been this picturesque.

The material expression of the top floors of Swiss Re is by and large very delicate, apart from the clumsy grey doughnut around the oculus window. Diagonal members continue the lines of the frame of the building, but this top section is so light it does not require the primary structure of the office floors. Just the filigree steel diagonals between the glazing panels are left, converging at the top in an oculus of clear glass, giving views of the sky. One of the ironies, though, of Swiss Re’s panoramic restaurant is that it is never really transparent. It is impossible to see in at any time of day, and it is equally difficult to see out at night. Even at the top floor restaurant, reflection from the house lights make the city beyond all but invisible.

It was perhaps easy for Foster to give up social aspirations as his work became more commercial. For while Foster is perhaps one of the last of the heroic modernists, he is also very much a post-Thatcher pragmatist, unquestioning about the prevailing paradigm of corporate responsibility.

30 St Mary Axe is, in the end, defensive and inaccessible to the public – it is the polite face of the newly paranoid corporations, runnning scared of lawsuits and terrorists, but still trying to be polite. It is a great monument and a beacon for east London. But it is a depressing document of our times.

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