Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

In the late 1980s, following the opening of Crosby Court, 38 Bishopsgate, for Standard Chartered Bank, a pedestrian bridge was installed to connect the highwalk at the rear of the NatWest tower over Bishopsgate to the new block. It was the last link in the ped-way network here, and the first to be removed in 2009 when Crosby Court was itself demolished.

Following the devastating Bishopsgate bomb of April 1993 which blew out most of the original (single-pane) glazing, GMW Architects worked with Seifert’s son John on a major programme to renovate the building between 1994 and 1997. Double glazing was installed, services replaced and old air handling units removed from the office floors to give more space. Most visibly, the original lobby was demolished and a giant flared glasshouse atrium added as a bulwark against further incidents – its purpose is to screen visitors as well as rejuvenate the building. It was detached from the highwalk at the same time, though advantage was nonetheless taken of the existing upper-level entrance to form a private zone between lobby and tower core proper, reached by escalator and further enhancing security.

The economic climate had changed by the time the work had finished, and NatWest never returned to its refurbished building. Initially renamed the International Financial Centre and offered to tenants, NatWest eventually disposed of the freehold too.

In 1998 the building was renamed Tower 42 by its new owners, in reference to its 42 occupiable floors. A public restaurant was opened on the upper sky lobby floor and a champagne bar on floor 42, the former viewing gallery. The tower was marketed as a luxury, fully-serviced location for tenants needing less space than that available in bigger blocks. The small size of the leaves – just 3,000 square feet each – now became an advantage, whilst the shallower suspended ceilings and raised floors that were all that could be fitted into a building not designed for them have coped with the lesser demands generated by smaller office plates.

As of late 2010, Tower 42 was on the market again. Meanwhile, the Heron Tower has topped out at 755 feet (230 metre), relegating Tower 42 to second-tallest in the City. Interestingly, this newcomer has been specifically designed for occupation in smaller, self-contained units called villages. Each comprises a full base floor and two gallery floors arranged around an atrium.

Does this render Tower 42’s future uncertain? It’s impossible to say. A walk through its floors betrays its 1970s roots, with surprisingly confined spaces, tight corners and low ceilings. Even empty, the office floor leaves are startlingly small. And yet the intricately planned curves delight and other features of that period’s architecture, solidity and craftsmanship, are also obvious. The stainless steel cladding of the external mullions, in particular, are of extraordinarily high quality. The 42nd floor bar, with impossibly narrow floors but a mirrored backing to the walls and full-height glazing giving staggering views, is superb.

The former NatWest tower remains a impressive presence on the skyline of the City of London, and a high point – quite literally – in bespoke, commissioned headquarters architecture. Although the Pinnacle on the site of Crosby Court will within a few years overtake it once more, it deserves to keep its place in the cluster of super-tall towers that is only now truly developing.

Twr42 - DSC01176

The remarkably small available floor size of a leaf is clear, although this has not limited occupation levels even in 2010

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Twr42 - int 2

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