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London’s Skyscrapers – A Tragic Past; An Optimistic Future

May 27, 2009

London is perhaps better known for being one of the greenest capital cities in the world, with over 22km squared of royal parkland gracing its surface, than for having a particularly noteworthy skyline.

Bishopsgate Bombing, 1993

Bishopsgate Bombing, 1993

That said, London’s relationship with tall buildings is a long and uneasy one. All tall buildings in London share a tragic history of bombings, which took place throughout the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s due to the IRA. The City’s Bishopsgate estate was rocked by a bomb in 1993 which caused literally millions of square foot of damage, almost leading to the Natwest Tower’s destruction. It required extensive refurbishment, costing in the region of £1bn. Natwest eventually left, leading to the new tenants renaming the tower. The death toll was minimised by virtue of it taking place on a Saturday morning. One journalist died.

‘Black gaps punched its fifty-two floors like a mouth full of bad teeth.’ – Daily Mail

Bishopsgate, 1993

Bishopsgate, 1993

The Baltic Exchange, now the site of the Gherkin. 1992

The Baltic Exchange, now the site of the Gherkin. 1992

The Canary Wharf estate has had several lucky escapes. Once when an IRA bomb exploded on the nearby South Quays estate in 1996. Two people died. (This bomb literally shook my house, I recall everybody talking about it in primary school the next day.) Another bomb closer to the estate failed to detonate.

BT Tower bombed

BT Tower, 1971

The BT Tower’s top-floor restaurant closed permanently following a bombing.

The newest additions to London’s emerging skyline, such as the Gherkin are also tainted by this bloody past. The Stirling Prize winning tower sits on the site of the Baltic Exchange shopping centre, destroyed by the IRA in 1992.

The future of London’s skyscrapers looks bright, however as that chapter of British history now looks firmly closed thanks to what looks to be an enduring peace in Northern Ireland.

Despite a reputation for architectural serenity when compared with fellow leading cities such as New York or Tokyo, the construction of the  HSBC/Citigroup Towers in Canary Wharf (2002) and the more famous, if shorter, ‘Gherkin’ in the City (2003) broke with this tradition, giving London’s few, now ageing, skyscrapers some company.

Londons three tallest buildings... but not for long.

London's three tallest buildings... but not for long.

The sky-rocketing property prices prior to the economic downtown lead to a glut of new projects. The economic downturn has lead to the suspension of several of these projects, but the good news is most of the noteworthy developments continue, and have moved from architects drawing boards to the building sites.

Of course, this new generation of skyscrapers continue London’s tradition of nicknaming her proudest buildings.

My joint two favourite (and tallest) skyscrapers under construction are the Shard of Glass aka the London Bridge Tower…

This will be the tallest building in western Europe (Russia will maintain the title) standing 310m high (1017ft)

This will be the tallest building in western Europe (Moscow will maintain the title) standing 1017 ft high (310m) it will be the first to break the 1000m barrier in London.

..and the Helter Skelter or Pinnacle, only time will tell which name Londoners choose to Christen it.


Set to stand at 288m high, this tower dominates two of London's iconic skyscrapers - 70's masterpiece Tower 42 (bka the Natwest Tower) and Foster's 2003 icon the Gherkin - both pipsqueaks in terms of Skyscraper height at just 600ft and 591ft respectivly. Construction is set to be completed late 2012, early 2013.

Astonishingly, 2009 will see more steel being used in the construction of the Shard of Glass than the entire Olympic Site (source: Financial Times, March 16 2009).

As the Olympics draws ever closer it looks like London has more than just a brand new Olympic Park to show off – it will hopefully have a whole new skyline.

For a full summery of London’s planned skyscrapers visit Skyscrapercity.
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