Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

30 St Mary Axe

The tower built by Swiss Re between 1997 and 2004 for its own occupation and letting out to tenants has met with near-universal acclaim. As Foster + Partners' own website profile says, it was “London’s first ecological tall building and an instantly recognisable addition to the city’s skyline”, held up as an exemplar of dense but humane urban planning for single buildings and, as its grid structure rose above London during the Millennium, a new symbol for a new time.

My own view back then was a cautious one. Depressed by the loss of the Baltic Exchange and thrilled by Foster’s hubristically super-tall London Millennium Tower that was first mooted to replace it, I was curiously nonplussed at the announcement and then commencement of what soon became known as the Gherkin. I found its wilfully counter-conventional shape irritating and was more interested in the secrets of the hauntingly beautiful and mysterious Edwardian faience cliff that is Holland House by Berlage over the road.

Nevertheless, I duly recorded the construction of this new shape in the City and started to learn how, despite its apparent complexity, each of the hundreds of glazing panels needed to clad the building would be identical, and flat. And, as that process happened, I began to appreciate how removal of a segment in each circular floorplate to make an atrium and rotation of that gap on every successive floor create the tower’s highly distinctive colour banding, a slow-climbing helix in grey and black.

Completion, however, and my first tentative approaches to the exterior thereafter saw my interest sour. The only building of its type in the City, the circular plan may have eased wind loadings and buffeting at the base but has exposed rather cruelly much of the surrounding fabric. Circularity is alien to London’s street block pattern and it simply felt wrong too see this curving mass retreating from its rectilinear neighbours as if haughty or afraid.

The “new public plaza” formed by this round peg in a square hole did little to refute this view. It is mean, forbidding and retrograde, ignoring – rather bafflingly – the unique shape of the building at its centre and doing nothing to encourage one to linger. Considerations of that great 21st century god ‘security’ undoubtedly contributed (note the unbroken perimeter of stone-clad benches which conveniently keep vehicles as a distance) but I couldn’t help feeling this was an extraordinary wasted opportunity in a Square Mile where new public space is always at a premium, and given the new building’s shape was also designed to bring more light to the ground around it.

A few years later, though, and that splendid September weekend of full-scale, real-time architectural research that is London Open House presented the possibility of access to the interior. Fortunately, as one of the lucky (very) few to have succeeded in obtaining a ticket, that possibility became reality.

Close-to, the massive but elegant crisply-sheathed steel structural members that give the building its form reach the ground amid a sea of grey stone and a dry canal-like moat spanned by mini-drawbridges. The effect is chic and sharp but there’s that defensiveness again. Inside, there is something of the great tradition of New York skyscrapers on display in the double-height lobby with its folded, fluted silver walls which seem to invite exploration. Unfortunately, the openness of being able to walk through such a space that is so characteristic of the American city is of course absent here. A milk-white disc embedded in the floor slyly prefigures the experience that awaits at the summit, and two sets of lifts and a stair takes you there, to the bar on the 40th floor.

And it is here that the building comes alive.

The experience of standing in this space is almost overwhelming. The roof is not a roof and the walls are not walls. Instead, a unique glazed dome envelops you and disappears below your line of vision, interrupted only by a wide mesh of glazing bars and topped with a lens, the sole curved panel of glass in the building. The view of London that is around/above you is unlike any I have seen.

This stunning effect is made possible by sandwiching much of the mechanical plant and the window cleaning rigs that usually live here into floors below the bar and 39th floor restaurant, with the remainder evicted to an entirely separate building, a small, neat annexe across the plaza. It’s a generous gesture, not least given the rental premium that top floors usually command.

Returning to the ground is of course a come-down in every sense.

At its height, 30 St Mary Axe is sublime, without a doubt. The problem is that this exhilaration is offset by a monochrome colour palette that is severe and monotonous, an off-putting variation on the familiar architectural trick of compression and expansion. Allied to the failure of the plaza, with its recollections of mediaeval castles and distancing aesthetic, and one cannot but conclude that Foster’s work has created a symbol indeed but one that is cold and off-putting rather than glorious and humane.

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30 St Mary Axe as seen from Tower 42 (top) and one of the roof terraces of the Willis Building, and at the summit

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