The Gherkin: How London's Famous Tower Leveraged Risk and Became an Icon

The Gherkin: How London's Famous Tower Leveraged Risk and Became an Icon

How does design change the nature and distribution of risk? In this, the first of four installments examining the Gherkin, the London office tower and urban icon designed by Foster + Partners, author Jonathan Massey introduces the concept of “risk design.” The series, originally published on Aggregate's website, explains how the Gherkin leveraged perceptions of risk to generate profits, promote economic growth, and raise the currency of design expertise.

Designing Risk

Back the Bid. Leap for London. Make Britain Proud. Emblazoned across photomontages of oversized athletes jumping over, diving off, and shooting for architectural landmarks old and new, these slogans appeared in 2004 on posters encouraging Londoners to support the city’s bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games. Featured twice in the series of six posters—along with Buckingham Palace, Nelson’s Column, the Tower Bridge, the London Eye, and the Thames Barrier—was 30 St Mary Axe, the office tower known colloquially as the Gherkin for its resemblance to a pickle, or as the Swiss Re building, after the Zurich-based reinsurance company that commissioned the building and remains its major tenant.

By featuring 30 St Mary Axe as support for vaulting gymnast Ben Brown, this “Back the Bid” poster suggested that London possessed the expertise and daring to risk public money on hosting the Olympic Games. M&C Saatchi, Inc., “Back the Bid,” offset lithograph poster, 2004. Courtesy of London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG).

One poster shows the upper half of the Gherkin standing alone against a clear sky. A gymnast vaults above the building, using its smoothly rounded apex as a pommel. The contrasting blues of his uniform echo those of the building’s glazing, while the higher of his legs aligns with one of the spirals that animate the otherwise crisp and symmetrical tower. Constructing affinities between body and building even as it captured attention through a dramatic juxtaposition of scales, the poster associated British athleticism and architecture as complementary manifestations of daring and skill. In representing Games-hosting as a leap akin to vaulting over the Gherkin, it also imagined public investment as the running of a risk. By figuring the building’s dynamic equipoise as support for the gymnast’s virtuosity, it enlisted the Gherkin as evidence that London possessed the expertise and daring to handle that risk—to manage the complex investments and construction projects in infrastructure, architecture, and landscape needed to host an Olympic games.

A forty-one story cylinder that tapers inward at its base and its top, where it peaks in a rounded apex, the Gherkin has been compared to many objects of similar shape, including a pine cone, a bullet, a stubby cigar, a pickle, and a penis.

As this diagrammatic section through a near-final version of the tower shows, atriums two and six floors tall link many of the office floors. Foster + Partners, Sheet PA1202, “Bury Street East Illustrative Section,” from a drawing set submitted with the final planning application for 30 St Mary Axe, July 1999. Courtesy of Foster + Partners.
This site plan showing the plaza and context of 30 St Mary Axe includes the ground floors of both the tower and the Bury Street annex building at the east end of the ramp leading down into the below-grade parking deck. Courtesy of Foster + Partners.

Upon its completion in 2004, this unusual yet centrally symmetrical form created a distinctive and consistent silhouette widely visible across London. Reproduced in countless advertisements, drawings, photographs, and postcards as well as in films, television shows, video games, and other media, the Gherkin has become one of the world’s newest urban icons, a junior partner to the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, and the World Trade Center. The building has served as a powerful branding instrument for Swiss Re; for British design expertise, in particular that of the building’s architects, Foster + Partners; and for the London of Tony Blair’s New Labour, Ken Livingstone’s mayoralty, and the 2012 Olympics. [1]

The building is unusual in form, construction, appearance, and servicing, reflecting the work of a large and multidisciplinary team of experts at Foster + Partners and many other firms who developed formidably complex solutions to problems of structure, cladding, and environmental control. The Gherkin won numerous local, national, and international awards for its planning, design, innovation, use of steel, and reinterpretation of the skyscraper type, including the Stirling Prize, granted to the most outstanding building built or designed in Britain over the preceding year. Nearly a decade after it opened, 30 St Mary Axe merits a second look based not on promotional statements and initial critical assessment but on firsthand observation, documentary and archival research, and interviews with developers, owners, planners, architects, consultants, and managers involved in its creation and operation. [2]

Like any icon, the building carries many meanings. As the Back the Bid poster suggests, prominent among these are risk and its management. Most generally, “risk” denotes the effect of uncertainty on objectives. More commonly, the term describes the quantification of uncertainty through the probabilistic calculation of likelihood for any kind of negative outcome. Risk was once a technical concept specific to maritime insurance. In the coffee houses and early exchanges of London’s nascent financial district it described the commodity that insurers sold and shippers bought to manage the economic danger posed by the uncertain conditions of travel by sea. As capitalism, with its dynamic of continual change, introduced ever more uncertainty into daily life ashore, over the course of the 19th century risk became part of broader Anglo-American economy and culture. Once located exclusively in nature, risk came to be recognized as a dimension of human conduct and society. Assuming risks became part of the freedom and self-mastery that characterizes modern liberal subjectivity. [3]

The expanding corporate economy rationalized contingency by generating new financial instruments of risk management: savings accounts; markets in bonds, futures, and stocks; insurance policies. In the 20th century, advanced industrial nations socialized certain kinds of risk through regulation, state health coverage, and social insurance. In constituting the nation as a risk community, these measures diminished the prevalence of risk as a framework for individual action. Since the 1970s, however, these large-scale risk communities have weakened and responsibility for risk management has increasingly returned to individuals and corporations. Sociologists and political theorists have identified risk as a major currency of governance and self-governance in neoliberal society. [4]

Since it entails imagining uncertainties and projecting potential futures, risk is always in some sense imaginary. It is “a construction of an observer,” in the words of sociologist Niklas Luhmann. [5] The unique design of 30 St Mary Axe addresses the ways we imagine the risks associated with climate change, terrorism, and financial globalization. Spiraling atriums with windows that open to allow natural ventilation suggest that innovative design can help highly technological societies use less energy and slow down potentially catastrophic human-induced climate change. Protective barriers, security cameras, and a diagrid structure enclosing shops along a public arcade and plaza suggest that resilient design can secure the open society by making even a prominent terrorism target accessible and welcoming. A handsome new skyscraper in the City of London, the quasi-autonomous financial district at the heart of the British capital, suggests that quality design can enlarge the supply of prestige office space for global businesses without jeopardizing the visual appeal of London’s townscape for residents and tourists.

The Gherkin’s prominence as an urban icon stems in part from its success at engaging what we might call risk imaginaries: the discourses, representations, and practices through which we understand and conceptualize risks. For reinsurance companies, architects, and urban governance coalitions alike, risk presents opportunity for reward. The Gherkin reimagined salient risks so successfully that it seemed to diminish the likelihood of dreaded outcomes: flooding drowns London’s streets; bombings raise insurance premiums to prohibitive levels; scarcity of prestige office space sends multinationals to Frankfurt. By seeming to show that design could manage risks posed by climate change, terrorism, and financial globalization, the Gherkin leveraged perceptions of risk to generate profits, promote economic growth, and raise the currency of design expertise. In the process, it changed the social construction and impact of those risks.

By reshaping salient risk imaginaries, the building mediated significant changes in the City of London’s spatial form, economy, and governance. The Gherkin’s development established a new cluster of branded high-rise office towers that expanded economic activity in London’s financial district by changing its physical and urban character. Its planning and design provided a framework for revisions to planning regulations that favored the interests of landowners, developers, and multinational financial services firms over those of heritage conservationists—changes linked to a restructuring of governance that diminished the autonomy of the City Corporation, the City’s distinctive and traditionally insular government. The design and construction of 30 St Mary Axe are a smaller-scale instance of what Arindam Dutta calls “metaengineering”: the design of entire economies through intertwined architectural, urban, and policy intervention. [6]

Design is a complex practice that involves intuition, aesthetic judgment, and convention along with considerations of technology, construction, law, finance, and many other factors. Foregrounding the role of risk and its management in the design of the Gherkin shows how the distinctive features that made this building an icon were overdetermined by their efficacy at engaging the risk imaginaries associated with climate change, terrorism, and financial globalization. As its multiple risk management efficacies converged into a single design, they made the building the mediator of a new risk management regime. By mediation I mean that the building manifests broader forces in political economy and that in doing so it realizes, shapes, and conditions those forces—giving them their specific character and quality as it brings them into existence. Architecture is not simply generated by economics and politics. A medium for production and everyday life, it reciprocally conditions economics and politics as design instantiates power. The Gherkin is not just the marker of transformations in governance through risk; it has also been an agent in those transformations. Examining the building through the lens of risk highlights the agency of design in mediating change.

Future installments of this serialized article will examine in turn how the Gherkin engaged the risk imaginaries associated with climate change, terrorism, and globalization.

Architect and historian Jonathan Massey is Laura J. and L. Douglas Meredith Professor for Teaching Excellence at Syracuse University, where he has chaired the Bachelor of Architecture program and the University Senate. A founder of the Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative and co-editor of its online journal, Massey is deeply engaged in shaping the ways we research architecture and its history. His book Crystal and Arabesque (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009) showed how American modernist architects engaged new media, audiences and problems of mass society. His work on topics ranging from ornament and organicism to risk management and sustainable design has appeared in many journals and essay collections, including Governing by Design: Architecture, Economy, and Politics in the 20th Century (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012).

Diagram/Gif by Andrew Weigand.
Andrew Weigand is a young New-York-based designer focused on how design affects the social and civil support systems underlying society. He operates at the intersection of public space with art, ecology, and infrastructure, working collaboratively across scales ranging from didactic graphics to architecture, urbanism, and landscape. Recent projects include a proposal for an infrastructural park in Queens, a habitat for meditation, furniture for an art education facility, a summer art pavilion, and a variety of illustrations.

Cite this piece as Jonathan Massey, “Risk Design,” The Aggregate website (Transparent Peer Reviewed),

1 Critics and scholars have examined the iconographic resonances of 30 St Mary Axe, notably in Charles Jencks,The Iconic Building (New York: Rizzoli, 2005), 185-193; Jencks, “The Iconic Building Is Here to Stay,” Hunch11 (2006-07 Winter): 48-61; Jencks, “The Cosmic Skyscraper,” in Norman Foster Works5, ed. David Jenkins (Munich: Prestel, 2009), 538-545; Alejandro Zaera-Polo, “30 St. Mary Axe: Form Isn’t Facile,”Log4 (Winter 2005): 103-106; and Sylvia Lavin, “Practice Makes Perfect,” Hunch11 (2006-07 Winter): 106-113. Zaera-Polo has developed an affect-based reading of the building in “The Politics of the Envelope,”Log13-14 (Fall 2008): 193-207; “The Politics of the Envelope, Part II,” Log16 (Spring/Summer 2009): 97-132; and “The Politics of the Envelope: A Political Critique of Materialism,” Volume17 (November 2008): 76-105. The most comprehensive account of the development, planning, design, construction, and reception of 30 St Mary Axe is Kenneth Powell, 30 St Mary Axe: A Tower for London(London: Merrell, 2006); see also Building the Gherkin, dir. Mirjam van Arx (London: British Film Institute, Koninck Films, and Channel Four, 2005) DVD, 52 min. On urban icons, see Philip J. Ethington and Vanessa R. Schwartz, “Introduction: An Atlas of the Urban Icons Project,”Urban History33:1 (2006): 5-21

2 The analysis developed in this paper is based on firsthand observation, extensive reading in the architectural and general press; archival research, including research in the archives of Foster + Partners; and interviews with many of the architects, consultants, developers, owners, and managers of 30 St Mary Axe, including: City of London planners Peter Wynne Rees (24 October 2011) and Annie Hampson (24 October 2011); development team members Carla Picardi, formerly of Swiss Re (22 September 2011), Keith Clarke, formerly of Trafalgar House / Kvaerner / Skanska (28 September 2011), and Sara Fox, formerly of Swiss Re (5 October 2011); current or former Foster + Partners staff Hugh Whitehead (27 September 2011), Xavier de Kestelier (27 September 2011), Rob Harrison (6 October 2011), Alistair Lazenby (18 October 2011), Robin Partington (3 October 2011), and Michael Gentz (12 October 2011); consultants Sinisa Stankovic of BDSP Partnership (27 September 2011), Matthew Kitson of Hilson Moran (7 October 2011), Richard Beastall of TP Bennett (19 October 2011), Mark Major of Speirs + Major (29 September 2011), Richard Coleman of Richard Coleman Citydesigner (3 October 2011), and Barnaby Collins, formerly of Montagu Evans (12 October 2011); owners and managers David Gibson of IVG UK (27 September 2011), facilities manager Richard Stead (27 September 2011), Simon Laker and David Binder of Evans Randall (28 September 2011). Other experts interviewed include Gordon Woo of RMS (26 September 2011), and Guy Nordenson of Guy Nordenson and Associates (27 October 2011). For assistance in conducting research at Foster + Partners, I thank Katy Harris, Rebecca Roke, and especially Karyn Stuckey.

3 The definition of risk as “the effect of uncertainty on objectives” is from International Organization for Standardization, ISO 31000:2009 Risk Management—Principles and Guidelines (Geneva: ISO, 2009).

4 Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1992); and Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens, and Scott Lash, Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition, and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994); Nikolas Rose and Peter Miller, “Political Power beyond the State: Problematics of Government,” British Journal of Sociology 43, no. 2 (June 1992): 173–205; Louise Amoore and Marieke de Goede, eds., Risk and the War on Terror (London: Routledge, 2008); Richard V. Ericson, Aaron Doyle, and Dean Barry, Insurance as Governance (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003); and Tom Baker and Jonathan Simon, eds., Embracing Risk: The Changing Culture of Insurance and Responsibility (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002). For additional theorizations of risk, see Jonathan Levy, Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), esp. 1–6; Francois Ewald, “Two Infinities of Risk,” in Politics of Everyday Fear, ed. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 221–228; and Caitlin Zaloom, “The Productive Life of Risk,” Cultural Anthropology 19, no. 3 (2004): 365–391.

5 Niklas Luhmann, Modern Society Shocked by Its Risks, Social Sciences Research Centre Occasional Paper 17 (Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong, 1996), 5.

6 Arindam Dutta, “Marginality and Metaengineering: Keynes and Arup,” in Governing by Design: Architecture, Economy, and Politics in the Twentieth Century, ed. Aggregate (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012), 237–267.

About this author
Cite: Jonathan Massey. "The Gherkin: How London's Famous Tower Leveraged Risk and Became an Icon " 05 Nov 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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