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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

BT phone home

Hotels provide a home away from home regardless of price, location or style and whether they were purpose-built or converted. Indeed some of London’s most luxurious establishments started out as government offices, magistrates’ courts and even the American embassy. But in a few years’ time guests will be sleeping, wining and dining in accommodation resulting from the most remarkable transformation yet – that of the BT tower, which its owners today announced has been sold to a US hospitality firm.

It’s a revelation, even to Londoners who thought they knew their capital.” This is true of any tall building’s rooftop or observation deck, but the comment had a special resonance when used to describe the view from the astonishing 600-foot-tall tower that had opened in 1965 as an exemplar of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat’ era. The building had been commissioned by the then General Post Office as part of a national expansion plan to handle the country’s rapidly growing volume of telephone calls (I mean their number, not your grannie

shouting at your dad down the line). Fortuitously, however, a necessary piece of infrastructure became something much more elegant and meaningful thanks to skilful management of its technical requirements, engineering solutions and aesthetics. It was a time when London was a key centre of culture, commerce and cool and everything seemed possible – the first Moon landing was still four years in the future, don’t forget.

Watched today, nearly sixty years later and decades after public access was withdrawn save for a lucky few (yes, I have been up the tower myself, coming down to earth with the certificate to prove it), Rank’s populist newsreel has much of interest beyond its obvious period charm: the radar scanner turning against the sky, the lift doors and uniformed doormen in London bus red, the mirrored walls reflecting the windows ad infinitum (a more grounded approach was taken by Pathé the following year, despite the snazzy electronic score).

The Sixties are long gone, of course, as is that décor, those distinctive microwave ‘horn’ aerials on the outside of the tower and even the original lifts, replaced with more modern versions some time back. And so as one of London’s notable structures goes from hanging out to hanging up, it falls to Thomas Heatherwick to ‘reimagine’ this genuinely iconic feature of London’s skyline. I’ll raise a glass of bubbly if he does it.  

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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