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A superb new London building

Modern Architecture just gets better and better – although when you think how bad it was three or four decades ago this has not been hard to contrive. It looks as if I will be writing about new London architecture a lot on my new Culture Blog, and my most recent post there is about a superb new London building that is now nearing completion.

This is 30 Saint Mary Axe, formerly know as the Swiss Re Building (Re meaning Re-insurance), and still known unofficially as The Gherkin, which is a bit unkind because it is a deal more elegant than that, I think. My congratulations to Sir Norman Foster and his partners. This elegant new tower makes a distinctive contribution to London’s skyline, and is just as impressive close up.

I know that these things are a matter of opinion, but I think that this building is extremely beautiful. I also believe that the chances – on the whole and with many exceptions – are improving all the time that the next big new building where you live will be likewise. It didn’t use to be at all like this, but now, it is.

Why all this beauty, all of a sudden, and in a style that used to be the very definition of brutish ugliness? Big question. Short answer: they are now, at least, trying to do beauty.

36 comments to A superb new London building

  • If this is a trend, then it lags by several decades the bold designs – some dreadful, some breathtakingly beautiful – seen in Tokyo and Hong Kong… and most recently in Shanghai.

  • Matthew

    I like it, but I’m not sure I’d categorize it as pure “beauty” so much as “personality.” It has a sort of VW Beetle friendliness to it. By that standard, perhaps the “Gherkin” nickname is not unkind, but rather affectionate. (Of course much depends on the tone in which the name is spoken.)

    But me? I’d love to be able to say, “Oh, yeah, I work in the Gherkin…”

  • Byron

    So when’s the NOW protest against it going to happen?

  • That’s “Erotic Gherkin”. Very phallic. Will probably be targetted by feminist terrorists 🙂

  • Liberty Belle

    You refer to it as a “tower”, but it looks as though it’s only around 30 stories or so. This is what we in N America and Southeast Asia call a “lowrise”. It does, as Matthew posts, have Beetle-esque quality to it — a negative from my point of view. I’ve always thought Beetles and Beetle drivers had a superior lefty “entitled” air that rendered them rather irritating. (They would definitely go on self-congratulatory peace marches.) Of course, it’s all a matter of taste …

  • That thing is hideous. Sheesh.

  • LB, if you think that of Beetle drivers, what do you make of 2CV drivers?

    I can’t imagine a 2CV like building. Not sure if I want to.

  • Chris Goodman

    I have also noticed that new buildings are getting more beautiful. Most buildings built between about 1933-84 in the UK become more of an eyesore every year. Was there anything built in the Sixties that we would not be delighted to demolish? Was the reason modernism or lack of money? I mean some of the building are so ugly they make you want to vomit. Were we really that uniform grey and Stalinist?

  • OK, since no one else has said it, I will (with tongue firmly in cheek):

    I certainly hope they didn’t raze historic No. 70 St. Mary Axe, location of the shop of the famed John Wellington Wells…

  • I can see it from the window of my office and it’s called ‘Erotic Gherkin’, Brian, thank you very much. 🙂 Not that I need it, mind you…

  • Snide

    Steven Den Beste thinks it is ugly… after reading his blog, every pixel dripping with the product of endless patriotic wanks praising the sacred, blessed, wonderful, sainted USA… I assume the real reason he thinks that the gherkin is ugly is that it ain’t in the good ol’d US of A (gawd bless it), it is in England (wherever the hell that is) and so it MUST be ugly!

  • Byron

    PS – NOW = National Organization for Women. I just now realized that it may not be an international organization, US-only, and that my joke may not have been understood. Thanks to Tim for clarification.

  • Jenn

    It makes me think of a lighthouse–a very large, 21st century uber-lighthouse, that is. It particularly brings the Cape Hatteras to mind.

  • Julian Morrison

    Okay, so how long til some joker spraypaints it pink? It’s just bound to happen…

  • Dave Farrell

    If memory serves, this was the area blown to smithereens by the IRA in the 1990s. I was working not far from there at the time. I do remember that the facade of St Mary Axe was ordered preserved after the bombing wrecked the Baltic Exchange building. Is this on the same site?
    I note it is 30 St Mary Axe, BTW

  • Dave Farrell

    As for the look: the spaceship in Flesh Gordon comes to mind.

  • Hep Cat

    Actually it reminds me of a suppository or maybe a tampon. Man modern European (excluding the U.K. and Ireland) is ugly. From that pos pyramid at the Louvre and those stylish concrete slums outside Paris to the beautiful workers flats in Berlin it’s all crap. That’s why I despise the new design at the WWC site, it’s designed by Germans, nothing in the design speaks to or about America, it’s European, and it’s friggin’ ugly as homemade sin.

  • What is interesting is that many of the great buildings of East Asia that led the trend were designed by Sir Norman Foster, a British architect. It is only now that he is being let loose in London. (His most famous British building prior to this is I think the passenger terminal at Stansted airport, which is nice but nothing compared to the terminal he designed for the new airport in Hong Kong.

  • O'Brian

    It certainly leaves London in a bit of a pickle!

  • Brian

    It looks like it came out of the Doug Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad. Either that or Annie Hall: “We use a large, vibrating egg.”

  • Hep Cat: Most architecture in the last 50 years, in both Europe and the USA, is really much of a muchness, with just the occasional flicker of interest… there is nothing particularly ‘American’ about post-war American architecture and the 1960-1970 saw the USA take the ‘lead’ in ‘made-by-the-mile and then cut-to-length’ brutalist slabs of interchangable gigantism and ghastly faceless projects.

    Of course that was not the case in the golden age of the 1920-1930’s, when American architects led the world, producing marvels like the Chrysler building <sigh>.

    I think things have got a bit better generally since the mid 1980’s, not just in the USA but throughout the First World.

  • Byron

    The Louvre’s glass pyramid imho is certainly not ugly. IM Pei is one of the greater architects of this century, with his unique geometric glass buildings. I wish he had submitted a design for the new WTC.

  • Hep Cat


    I could not agree with you more. One look at the TransAmerica tower in San Francisco,the Sears tower in Chicago, or the U.N. building in NYC tells the story. They lack grace, personality, and style.
    They can’t even compare to Flat Iron building or the Brooklyn Bridge in NYC.

    Byron art and architecture is relative granted. But to me it’s out of place. Plus pyramids have been done for at least 5000 years. Glass or no glass this to me was not one of IM Pei’s inspirations

  • Byron

    Which of his buildings do you consider to be his inspirations?

  • Hep Cat

    Byron I left out ‘better’. And I don’t consider any of his work inspiring.

  • Nancy Reyes

    The Gherkin? Nope, it’s not.
    But put it this way: If you made a copy out of it in snow at Harvard, the feminists would go bonkers.

  • Byron

    Hep, what architecture do you consider inspiring then? Just curious.

  • The more London looks like the city-planet of Coruscant, the better.

  • Greg

    I assume in the picture the “Gherkin” is still under construction. I say that because the incomplete (?) postion near the top makes the building look more like a lit fatty (or, to be charitable, a cigar). I’m not especially impressed, but at least the building has a certain whimsy.

    As for the person who was so fond of I.M. Pei- I have in the flesh experience with examples of his work, and I must say his buildings tend to border on uninhabitable. In my experience that impression tends to be shared by people forced to actually inhabit the things.

    I do wonder what the blunt, er Gherkin, is like inside.

  • Boga

    Well i think it looks like a gigantic cock …? what do u think ? Dont you think we should have a pussy like building too?

  • Acalia

    I love it! I can see it from my house. What is it? I mean, what goes on in there?

  • Lee

    I think! the so called erotic Gkerkin is very elegant in design.
    All I can say is – its about time London is finally producing 21st Century Architecture.
    Until recently in my opinion – London has produced ugly architecture which has not reflected London’s true status as Europes Financial Centre and one of the best capitals of the modern world.
    It seems ironic because until now other cities of the world – New York, Sydney, Tokyo etc have been getting the best architecture while London has been stuck in the past. Hopefully this trend stops! because Great Britain along with our European counterparts produce some of the best architects for example: Sir Norman Foster: A British architect who has designed beautiful architecture throughout the world such as Hong Kongs new airport and much more. So with this in mind lets hope London innovates with buildings like the Gkerkin. Finally Great Britain is a nation for new ideas and inventions in the creative industries, Music, Design, Film, Theatre, etc so I hope we will continue the new trend for this type of architecture.

  • Yes, it was indeed built on the site of the bombed Baltic Exchange, which was bombed by the IRA in 1992, and was considered by English Heritage as beyond repair.

    It is around 41 storeys high, and makes a pleasing, pretty, if hilarious addition to the London skyline. It looks very nice at dawn, I drove past it this morning at 4:30 ish

  • Chris

    Often wondered what the building was called now i know GHERKIN what goes on in there it looks good when you go by on the train must get a birds eye view
    Chris From Kent

  • Stevie

    Its easily the most stunning building in the world……..

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