“Most old cities are now sclerotic machines that dispense known qualities in ever-greater quantities, instead of laboratories of the uncertain. Only the skyscraper offers business the wide-open spaces of a man-made Wild West, a frontier in the sky.” – Rem Koolhas.
Skyscrapers are everywhere. They not only give an innuendo about the sumptuous economic and technological status of a city, but their reach in the sky is deemed as an architectural achievement and an urban feat. London has been the centre of a large British Empire for centuries.
Sprawling across an area of 600 miles, hundred years until 1925, it had the privilege of being the world’s largest city. One of the most distinguishing features of the magnificent city is its many statuesque looking skyscrapers.
Located in London’s primary business district, called the square miles, even more fascinating is the unique nicknames given by Londoners to each of them. Much of the names are attributed to the distinctive external forms or shapes of these towering structures. The chiselled block of the Leadenhall building has been named as “The Cheese Grater”. The 20 Fenchurch Street building is informally called “The Walkie- Talkie.”
The building at 30 St. Mary Axe by Architect Lord Norman Foster is called “The Gherkin”. With 23 miles of steel and 260000 ft of external glass, The Gherkin was the second tallest building in London during its time of completion (2003) and currently the tenth tallest building in the district. ‘The Scalpel” is the affectionate name received by the tower on 52-54 Lime Street.
However, the building that almost pierces into the sky and demands an exclusive spot in the London skyline is the London Bridge Tower building by Architect Renzo Piano, now called “The Shard.”
But the question that remains is, what makes these designs so undistinguished to be regarded with the inferred names? While some of these names are attributed to the aesthetic choices opted in shaping the building by their respective architects, several concrete elements influence their designs. The answer lies in two factors. First, is the streets of London and the second is the iconic St. Paul Cathedral, itself.
As explained by Peter Murray of New London Architecture, London’s city is historical, and much of its street layout is based on a medieval plan. This meant that small plots of land were being knitted by oddly shaped streets running from one point to another with some or no regularity. These layouts result in the availability of unconventional or even non-rectilinear plans for development.
Another subsequent factor was the push for creating exciting buildings in the later parts of the 20th century that stood as experimentation in architecture. Peter Reese, the city Planning officer, was instrumental in the approval of designs that were quirky and stood out indefinitely. Nonetheless, the most influential building, being the St. Paul’s Cathedral has a significant say in deciding the London skyscrapers’ heights and shapes.
Nearly four hundred years ago, the only prominent buildings in the city’s skyline were churches and their projecting spires. The St. Paul’s Cathedral, a popular space for gatherings and religious events at the time, was the tallest among them reaching a height of 140 m.
But that was not to last. In 1666, the Great London Fire set the whole city ablaze. Apart from the destruction of several buildings across the city, St Paul’s Cathedral endured maximum damage. Despite this, it was reconstructed until 1711 and was now reaching a height of 111 m. The Cathedral remained dominant in the London Horizon for years of development throughout the city.
In 1861, the Tooley Street Fire resulted in the establishment of height restriction for fire safety. The London building act of 1894 further restricted buildings’ heights to 30 m for protecting necessary vistas. An agreement called the “St. Paul’s Heights” was sought in the 1930s to preserve the dome’s vistas under W. Godfrey Allen. It outlined eight corridors through London in which the Cathedral is to be visible.
In 1992, when Architect Norman Foster sought to design the new tower at the Square mile, the initial design towering 386 m was rejected owing to the “St. Paul’s Heights” agreement. As a result, the building was sized down to what we know today as “The Gherkin” at 180 m.
The shape of “The Shard” too was altered from a broader and taller structure to a more slender and shorter tower to disable height competition and allow visibility of the cathedral.
The initial design for “The cheese-grater” was a vertical building. But when viewed from a protected point, the view of the building and the dome clashed. To visually separate the dome and the skyscraper, it was thought to chisel out the part close to the dome so that the building appears to be leaning away from the Cathedral and giving an undisturbed view of the same. Same goes for “The Scalpel”; It’s designed perhaps the most-influenced by the Cathedral than any other skyscraper in the vicinity.
The cucumber-shaped Gherkin also allows wind to go around it without creating strong currents at street level. This, in turn, brings the skyscraper canyon effect into the picture. This factor also is quite detrimental in the shapes of the skyscrapers across the globe due to the micro-climatic effects it imposes.
Even in London, with so many tall buildings tightly packed in a small area, skyscraper canons began being formed. The strong winds would knock over cyclists and pedestrians in the streets below. The narrow and irregular street layout escalated the problem. The design proposal for “The Tulip” by Norman Foster too witnessed protests as it was believed that the skyscraper would enforce an unsafe pedestrian environment at the street level.
However, realising the significant impact of the strong winds on pedestrian life, the UK introduced Wind guidelines in 2019. This requires the designers to provide wind tunnel simulations for their proposals to be deemed safe for approval.
A number of new skyscrapers have been planned over the years, and several are under construction. The upcoming steepling monuments are intended to light up the path of the River Thames to welcome foreign investments. There is also a surge among designers to change the existing restrictions as the prevalent deciding factors on the skyscrapers’ shape and height.
While flexibilities are being granted in upcoming additions to the skyline like “The Cheesegrater 2”, only time will tell if the petition to further changes in these policies is heard and returned.
From the Series: Aerial Britain: Southern England
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