The Gherkin: How London’s Famous Tower Leveraged Risk and Became an Icon (Part 4)

This four part series (originally published on Aggregate’s website) examines the Gherkin, the London office tower designed by Foster + Partners, showing how the urban icon engaged and leveraged perceptions of risk. In part one, author Jonathan Massey introduced the concept of "risk design” to describe how the Gherkin’s design managed the risks posed by climate change, terrorism, and globalization. In parts two and three, Massey examined the building’s treatment of risks associated with climate change and terrorism. In this final installment, Massey concludes by addressing the building’s engagement with risks posed to the City of London by globalization.

Unlike New York and other cities in which zoning codes entitle landowners to some kinds of development “as of right,” the City of London regulates property development through case-by-case review by planning officers, who judge how well the proposed construction conforms to City-wide plans and guidelines regarding factors such as building height, development density, access to transit, and impact on views and the visual character of the area. In order to develop the Gherkin, the property owners and Swiss Re had to secure planning consent from the City Corporation through its chief planning officer, Peter Wynne Rees. The review and permitting process that culminated in the granting of planning consent in August 2000 spanned the planning office as well as the market, the courts, and the press. Rees brokered a multilateral negotiation so intensive that we could almost say the building was designed by bureaucracy. Part of that negotiation entailed imagining and staging risk: climate risk, terrorism risk, and, especially, the financial risks associated with globalization.

As the Olympic bid poster reminds us, the Foster + Partners design for 30 St. Mary Axe helped the City rebrand itself as a center of innovation and investment and so to secure its position within a neoliberal economic geography construed as a competition among cities for global capital and its management. [1] These triumphalist associations mask a more complex history, though. The building brokered a renegotiation of authority, decision-making, and spatial control through which the City Corporation traded a measure of the autonomy it historically possessed in order to retain meaningful sovereignty in a changing world.

A block west of the St. Mary Axe site is the forty-seven-story Tower 42, designed in the late 1960s by Richard Seifert and at 183 meters then the tallest building in the United Kingdom. Since the building’s completion in 1981, the City had enforced an unwritten prohibition on further skyscraper construction, steering developers and architects toward the design and construction of “groundscrapers,” low-rise but horizontally extensive buildings that evoked the neoclassical business palaces of the Edwardian era while providing minimally obstructed floorplates along with the communications cabling and air conditioning required for computing-intensive trading. [2] These large buildings, which emulated North American precursors in providing the large floorplates and open workspaces preferred by multinational corporations and large financial firms, reflected a concession on the part of planners to a transnational range of clients and developers increasingly prevalent in the City office space market after the “Big Bang” banking deregulation of 1986. [3] Construction of the Canary Wharf development in the Docklands had created a second business district a few miles to the east, its American-style skyscrapers drawing some large banks and financial services firms from the City, which was also conscious of competing with Paris and especially Frankfurt for the footloose capital of Europe’s financial services business.

Seen here from the vacant sixteenth floor of 30 St Mary Axe, the large skyscrapers of Canary Wharf constituted a new business district to the east of the City. Photograph by author.

In 1995, shortly after it purchased the St. Mary Axe site, Trafalgar House secured permission to build a new groundscraper incorporating the façade and exchange hall from the damaged Baltic Exchange building and designed by GMW, a firm that had built some of the City’s 1960s office towers. After acquiring Trafalgar House in 1996, the Norwegian engineering and construction services corporation Kværner reconsidered this approach. (By the time the contract with Swiss Re was concluded in 2000, Kværner’s construction division in turn had been bought by Skanska, the Sweden-based multinational that ranks among the world’s largest construction companies.) Based on weak market response to this design, and facing a deep financial crisis, the company pushed for permission to build an office tower capable of realizing greater profit from the rare opportunity presented by a nearly clear site in the City’s insurance district.

For Kværner, a design capable of raising the value of the site by securing permission for a taller and more desirable building was a way to avoid bankruptcy by selling the land at a substantial profit and winning a large construction job, because securing the construction contract was a condition of sale. For English Heritage, SAVE Britain’s Heritage, and other preservation advocates who opposed the initial Foster designs, the prospect of a skyscraper on the Baltic Exchange site risked jeopardizing the visual management framework that regulated development based on a network of protected views toward the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. [4] Negotiating among the various parties to the development process challenged the City Corporation to balance the risk of breaking the conservation-oriented spatial regime it had maintained since the early 1980s against the risk of losing its primacy as a location for financial services. The team that developed the Gherkin for Kværner and Swiss Re had worked together previously in developing Canary Wharf. By suggesting that they would build in the Docklands rather than occupy the consented GMW groundscraper, Swiss Re and Kværner pressured City planners—but also empowered them—to lift the prohibition on tall buildings. This stance was a bluff, but it established one component in the rhetorical framework within which the City ultimately changed the regime regulating its architectural and urban form.

The other component of that framework was design. Kværner hired Foster + Partners in 1996 to draw up an office tower for the Baltic Exchange site. From the start, the task of this design was to realign risk imaginaries so that for Rees and his City Corporation constituency the risk of denying permission for a tall building would seem to exceed the risk of granting it. The Foster firm responded with the Millennium Tower project, an implausible proposal imagining a skyscraper with 1,700,000 square feet of floor space that, at 385 meters tall, would have dwarfed every other building in Europe. This design was a provocative bargaining posture signaling to the heritage lobby and the City Corporation that the new owner expected to be able to build a tower on the Baltic Exchange site. Shortly afterward the Foster firm prepared a more realistic 170-meter version for Kværner to show to prospective occupiers.

ncluded among the documents submitted toward the end of the planning review was this chart showing some of the variant designs considered for 30 St Mary Axe between 1996 and 2000. Foster + Partners, "Swiss Re Environmental Statement, Part IV: Non-Technical Summary, May 2000”: “Fig. 5, Part 4: Design Evolution.” Courtesy of Foster + Partners.

When Swiss Re retained Foster + Partners following its purchase agreement with Kværner, the architects generated a new version of this shorter tower, 100 meters tall, and entered multiparty planning discussions. From February 1998 through summer 2000, Foster + Partners and Swiss Re worked closely with Rees and his staff, in conversations incorporating English Heritage and other interested parties, to generate a series of variations on the design that culminated—following procedural challenges, lawsuits, and debates in the press—in the approval in August 2000 of a design close to the completed building. Rees allowed Swiss Re to develop a large volume of office space in a tower just three meters shorter than the NatWest Tower. In return, he extracted concessions: the building would provide a public plaza, it would accommodate retail uses, and it would achieve a high standard of “design quality.” [5]

The granting of planning consent for 30 St. Mary Axe did not only reflect a shift in policy regarding this particular site; it also initiated a new regime of spatial regulation governing development in the City. Codified two years later in a new unitary development plan, this regime welcomed high-rise towers within “clusters” that deferred in some degree to the view corridors around St Paul’s Cathedral, so long as the new buildings provided public amenities and exemplified quality design.

Drawings like this one from an intermediate planning and design report suggested that the tower would enhance the skyline by completing the “cluster” of towers in the City’s northeastern quadrant. Foster + Partners, Swiss Re House, Record Set of Presentation, 19th and 21st October 1998, 1998: “Consolidation of the City Cluster of High Buildings.” Courtesy of Foster + Partners.

Towers permitted under this new regime include Heron Tower, the Leadenhall Building (the Cheesegrater), Broadgate Tower, the Pinnacle, and 20 Fenchurch Street (the Walkie-Talkie). [6] 

Displayed in fall 2011 at the marketing office for 20 Fenchurch Street, this visualization imagined how the new cluster of skyscrapers around the Gherkin would appear from across the Thames. Photograph by author.

Branded like 30 St. Mary Axe, with signature profiles and nicknames, these skyscrapers maximize the value of City land while using design to raise rents and profits. This regulatory shift has allowed local and multinational landowners, developers, and investors to capitalize on the increased value of City properties, and it reasserts the primacy of the City among the world’s centers of banking, insurance, and finance. Led by the Swiss Re project, these towers have transformed London’s skyline, urban character, and real estate market. A study conducted a couple of years after completion of 30 St. Mary Axe found that the Gherkin had displaced the dome of St Paul’s as the most prominent City landmark in the perception of City workers. [7]

Among the economic sectors benefiting from this wave of construction are architecture, engineering, construction, and related consultancy fields. The design and construction of the Gherkin was globally sourced through a network centering on several London firms, including not only Foster + Partners but the giant engineering and planning firm Arup, environmental consultants BDSP Partnership and Hilson Moran, the interiors firm TP Bennett, lighting designers Speirs and Major, cost consultants Gardiner and Theobald, planning consultancies Montagu Evans and Richard Coleman Citydesigner, and many others. Much as the building showcases Swiss Re’s confidence in the face of risk, it also highlights the advanced expertise in design and construction that makes London a hub in global networks of highly remunerative specialized production. [8]

This is the point of “‘The Gherkin’” one of sixteen Postcards from the Future by Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones that were exhibited in 2010. 

In their “Postcard from the Future” imagining 30 St Mary Axe as a ruined tenement, Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones suggested that sophisticated design expertise could help London avoid negative impacts of climate change. Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones. The Gherkin, 2010. Digital computer file.

The image depicts a six-story segment of the Gherkin in a dingy, quasi-ruined state. Windows are missing. Drab curtains block our view of the dark interior, but in the perimeter zone between the outer and inner curtain walls hang laundry lines like those in photographs documenting the back balconies and fire escapes of Victorian East London. A solitary Union Jack drapes listlessly over the frame between two empty windows. “Refugees from equatorial lands have moved north in search of food,” explains the caption. “They make their homes in the buildings that once drove world finance—before the collapse of the global economy.” [9]

What does climate change mean? Monkeys and camels in Central London. Rice paddies in Whitehall. Shantytowns at Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace. The Thames flooded and frozen. These are some of the ways that Graves and Madoc-Jones imagine the potential impacts of rapid climate change on the British capital as they ask, “Wish you were here?” Charged with ambivalence, the postcards capture beauty as well as squalor, exhilaration as well as discouragement. But the primary message taps anxieties about immigration, multiculturalism, and postimperial decline to warn that climate change puts at risk cherished emblems of a certain Britain.

While most of the older London icons in the series are associated with the royal family, the newer ones emblematize progressive technological innovation. Like the Thames Barrier and City Hall (another Foster + Partners commission), the Gherkin figures here as a memento of warnings unheeded, leads unfollowed. The postcard of the ruined Gherkin—created by architectural visualization specialists with close links to Foster + Partners and other firms involved in developing the building—supports the expertise in architecture, engineering, planning, and development that produced the building by suggesting that ecological modernization can keep Britain rich, comfortable, and white. The series leverages concern about climate change to support the agenda of ecological modernization: mining ecologies for new sources of economic growth and profit.

As a high-performing investment vehicle and real estate development instrument imbued with aesthetic appeal and iconic value, the Gherkin has helped to secure the position of the City—and, with the City, London and the United Kingdom at large—within the economic geography of neoliberalism. This achievement has been marked by triumphalism, with the building celebrated not only in London marketing materials and professional awards but also on postage stamps and in other venues. But as geographer Maria Kaika points out, construction of the Gherkin should also be understood as a defeat for the City Corporation, because achieving these economic gains entailed the loss of a measure of control over the city’s form and appearance. Kaika situates the 2002 unitary development plan in the context of other changes to the structure and governance of the City Corporation—including revision of its own name and brand, changed in the same period to Corporation of London—that reflect an institutional crisis. Pressure from transnational corporations and capital since the Big Bang, she argues, “forced the City to reinvent its spatial identity” in a way that favors skyscrapers over conservation considerations because it generated a form of architectural patronage identified not with the City’s traditional institutions but with transnational capital elites. The towers built since 2002, she concludes, are not the “commitments in stone” of a prior era but rather “functional objects of capital accumulation” that “operate more as branding objects for multinational corporations or as speculative objects for real-estate developers.” [10]

Like the towers that have followed and to some extent eclipsed it, the Gherkin is both a branding device and a speculative venture. But rather than being the first product of the new unitary development plan—the result of institutional restructuring—as Kaika suggests, 30 St. Mary Axe preceded the 2002 plan, and its process of development and design mediated the restructuring of spatial regulation that she describes. The Gherkin brokered this phase in the demise of club government, the rise in Britain of the neoliberal regulatory state, and the City Corporation’s bid to maintain its sovereignty by ceding some of its autonomy—a measure of its control over its spatial form—to transnational capital.[11] By using design to reshape the risk imaginaries associated with climate change, terrorism, and especially financial globalization, 30 St. Mary Axe redesigned the City’s economy and spatial form.

Survey Foster’s London from the private club at the top of the Gherkin. At your feet is the Square Mile, dotted with and fringed by Foster + Partners office buildings: Moor House, the Wallbrook, offices at 10 Gresham Place, and headquarter buildings for Allen & Overy, Bloomberg, and Willis. To the south are buildings at Tower Place and, just across the Thames, the new development of More London, including several more office buildings and the striking City Hall—leased by its private developer to the Greater London Authority. Downriver to the east in Canary Wharf you will see the Citibank tower and the HSBC UK headquarters. With a little imagination you can picture the Canary Wharf Underground station too. Upriver to the west are several more projects, including the Millennium Bridge across the Thames, a redeveloped Trafalgar Square, the National Police Memorial, the roof over the British Museum’s Great Court, buildings at the Imperial College, and Wembley Stadium.

Your view of some of these buildings will be blocked by the even taller skyscrapers that have gone up nearby since 2004 as the cluster has grown. You will still see the river, though, where you might spot one of the Foster-designed YachtPlus 40 powerboats cruising upriver toward the Albion Riverside offices and the Riverside Apartments and Studio in Battersea. This is where the firm is headquartered and where Foster kept his primary residence until 2008, when he transnationalized himself and became a tax exile—footloose rather than place-loyal, a Swiss citizen rather than a British lord. The previous year, Foster had restructured the firm (valued at about £300 million or $593 million) to prepare for eventual succession and cashed out by selling a 40 percent stake in the company to a London-based multinational private equity and venture capital firm. [12]

By building so many prominent commissions associated with millennial London, Foster + Partners has strongly shaped the cast of the contemporary city. [13] Modernist but classically so, favoring self-contained and symmetrical geometries along with a high standard of craft and the deep detailing of high-quality materials, the architecture of Foster + Partners connotes progressive innovation. The firm’s impact on the city has become so extensive that Foster + Partners must be considered, in urban and economic terms, as metaengineering practice. Like Arup—and often, as in the case of 30 St. Mary Axe, in partnership with Arup—the firm designs not only buildings but economies and governance practices.

Foster and the firm he founded have been central to remaking London over the past two decades, because their architecture fits the vision of New Britain put forward by New Labour from the mid-1990s through the 2000s, including neoliberal methods for governing at a distance through risk. [14] Noting that the firm’s buildings more often provide the appearance of rationality than they deliver rational functionality, some critics have concluded that the firm “supplies the look of innovation without the pain of actually changing anything” for a British establishment seeking to maintain its authority by appearing to change. [15] Studying the Gherkin suggests a different conclusion. Addressing the ways we imagine risk and opportunity in climate change, terrorism, and financial globalization, the firm’s buildings sometimes use design to transform economies and governance.

Bryan Scheib, “The Gherkin,” digital computer file, 2013. Created by superimposing dozens of the user-uploaded photographs that rank near the top of a Google Image search, this visualization by Bryan Scheib captured the tension between consistency and variation in visual representation that characterizes urban icons. Courtesy of Bryan Scheib.

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 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.

[1] See, for instance, Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, 2nd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[2] See Stephanie Williams, “The Coming of the Groundscrapers,” in Global Finance and Urban Living: A Study of Metropolitan Change, ed. Leslie Budd and Sam Whimster (London: Routledge, 1992), 246–259.

[3] Michael Pryke, “An International City Going ‘Global’: Spatial Change in the City of London,” Environment and Planning D 9, no. 2 (June 1991): 197–222.

[4] See Robert Tavernor and Gunter Gassner, “Visual Consequences of the Plan: Managing London’s Changing Skyline,” City, Culture and Society 1 (2010): 99–108.

[5] This process is recounted in Powell, 11–104. I draw here also on numerous reports generated by the architects and consultants during the planning review process, as well as on interviews with Peter Wynne Rees (24 October 2011), Annie Hampson (24 October 2011), Carla Picardi (22 September 2011), Keith Clarke (28 September 2011), Sara Fox (5 October 2011), Richard Coleman (3 October 2011), and Barnaby Collins (12 October 2011).

[6] The Heron Tower, also known as 110 Bishopsgate, rises forty-six stories to a height of 242 meters (including its antenna; 203 to the roof). The building was designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox for a development consortium that included Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd of Saudi Arabia, consented in 2002 with revisions in 2006, and built 2008–2011. The Leadenhall Building (known as the Cheesegrater) is a fifty-story, 239-meter tower designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (formerly Richard Rogers Partnership) for Oxford Partners and British Land. Consented in 2005, construction began in 2008 for anticipated completion in 2014. The Broadgate Tower, consented in 2005 and built from 2006 to 2008 by developer British Land to a design by Skidmore Owings and Merrill, rises thirty-three stories to a height of 161 meters. The Pinnacle (formerly Bishopsgate Tower and for a time known as the Helter-Skelter) at 22–24 Bishopsgate is a tower planned to rise sixty-four stories to a height of 288 meters. Designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox and developed by DIFA Fonds, Union Investment Real Estate, and the Saudi Economic Development Corporation, the building was consented in 2006, and construction began in 2008 but is currently on hold. In compiling this list I have synthesized information from many sources, deferring in case of conflicts to the data provided by Emporis,

[7] Maria Kaika, “Architecture and Crisis: Re-inventing the Icon, Re-imagining London and Re-branding the City,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 35 (2010): 453–474. See also Igal Charney, “The Politics of Design: Architecture, Tall Buildings and the Skyline of Central London,” Area 39, no. 2 (2007): 195–205.

[8] Oli Mould, “Mapping London’s Skyline,”, 27 January 2009,

[9] Graves and Madoc-Jones are principals of GMJ, an architectural visualization firm that has worked for many London architects and developers, including Foster + Partners. An exhibition of the series at the Museum of London was funded by Montagu Evans, the real estate and planning consultancy that represented Swiss Re in its pursuit of planning permission for 30 St. Mary Axe. See also “30 St Mary Axe as a Romantic Ruin,” The Soane: The Magazine from Sir John Soane’s Museum 1 (Spring 2013): 8–11. This short essay, attributed to Norman Foster and illustrated by three Postcards from the Future, including “The Gherkin,” imagines a future ruined London in which the Gherkin is “inhabited as a vertical favela” or taken over by the foliage of a “vertical forest.”

[10] Kaika, 455, 467.

[11] On the distinction between sovereignty and autonomy as used here, see Ulrich Beck, “The Terrorist Threat: World Risk Society Revisited,” Theory, Culture, and Society 19, no. 4 (2002): 39–55.

[12] James Murdock, “Foster + Partners Restructures,” Architectural Record, 11 May 2007; and Tom Braithwaite, “Lord Foster to Sell a Stake in Practice to 3i,” Financial Times, 11 May 2007. See also Sudjic, 273–279; and Foster + Partners, Catalogue.

[13] Critic Rowan Moore calls Foster “the most successful British architect in history,” eclipsing Christopher Wren much as the Gherkin has the dome of St Paul’s. See Rowan Moore, “Norman’s Conquest,” Prospect, 20 March 2002, See also Edward Heathcote, “His Bright Materials; Taller, Bigger, More Transparent: What Drives the Architect Norman Foster?” Financial Times Weekend Supplement: Life and Arts, 5 June 2010, 17. Heathcote notes that London is “just an outpost of Foster’s glassy empire.”

[14] Jonathan Glancey, “The River God,” The Guardian, 22 August 1999,; and Rose and Miller.

[15] Moore, “Norman’s Conquest.” See also the concurring assessment of Sudjic, 286.

About this author
Cite: Jonathan Massey. "The Gherkin: How London’s Famous Tower Leveraged Risk and Became an Icon (Part 4)" 26 Nov 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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