Courting Controversy in London Architecture

St Paul's Cathedral
St Paul’s Cathedral

When the final stone of St Paul’s Cathedral was laid on 26 October 1708, its imposing structure soared above the city around it. For centuries, this central place of worship dominated the capital’s skyline and soon became an icon of British religion and power. If you’ve ever been to London, you’ll know that it is a different story now. Peppered throughout the City of London, huge buildings, often the result of the deregulation of the architectural profession in the 1980s, proudly pierce the horizon. These buildings excite both hearty enthusiasm and fierce derision, spawning a catalogue of nicknames including the “Gherkin”, the “Walkie Talkie”, the “Cheesegrater”. During our Introduction to London Architecture, we encounter a number of these striking edifices. With the help of our docent Kevin Childs, we put together five buildings that have both spearheaded design and courted controversy.

Slide 1
Undoubtedly one of London’s most recognizable buildings, this 40-foot glass pickle has become a defining feature of the city’s skyline. However, as Kevin explains, “what looks like its most decorative aspect, its shape, is also one of its most functional. The curvilinear design of the Gherkin, incorporating a glass and steel triangulated perimeter structure actually increases the stiffness of the building, thereby enhancing its wind-resistance. The Gherkin doesn't sway.” Photo: Matt Brown
Slide 2
A few steps away from the Dickensian Leadenhall Market and a stone’s throw from the Gherkin, the “Cheesegrater” speaks to both contemporary design and city’s desire to protect traditional architecture. Architect Richard Rogers was forced to create its slanted front in order to comply with planning controls, which protect the view of St Paul’s from various viewpoints. Photo: Matt Buck via Wikicommons
Slide 3
The so-called “Walkie Talkie” building received a huge amount of press in September 2013 when light, reflected from its surface, melted parts of a Jaguar car parked nearby. Now equipped with brise soleil sunshades to avoid further damage to the city around it, this striking skyscraper is now more favorably known for its three-storey Sky Garden.
Slide 4
Often referred to as the “inside-out” building, this extraordinary edifice was designed by Richard Rogers, the same architect who built Le Centre Pompidou in Paris. By placing the functional elements of the building - the elevators, the bathrooms, the pipes - on the exterior, Rogers made the most of the irregularly shaped site simultaneously providing the maximum amount of internal office space. Kevin points out that amazingly, “part of his remit was to find a space for Robert Adam's original Committee Room, designed in 1763: modernism and classicism meet for a brief moment on the 11th floor.”
Slide 5
Unlike the imposing glass-fronted buildings described above, No.1 Poultry presents an entirely different architectural aesthetic. Designed by the postmodern architect Sir James Stirling, its striped exterior and colourful inner arcade has not always been popular. When its design was first proposed, Prince Charles disparagingly remarked that it looked like a “1930s wireless.” Kevin notes that “it replaced the much-loved Victorian Gothic Mappin and Webb Building and was a compromise on a plan to construct a modernist tower designed by Mies van der Rohe in the style of New York's Seagram Building.” Regardless of its success or failure, it is certainly distinct amongst its neighbors.