There were a lot of misleading headlines in the British press last week when it became known that one of the city’s most iconic skyscrapers had gone into receivership. Many leapt to the assumption that it was empty (it’s not), unloved (it isn’t) or badly managed (no real sign of that either). It turned out that 30 St Mary Axe (known to everyone as the Gherkin because it is shaped a bit like the pickled vegetable) was in trouble because of currency fluctuations hitting its loans.
The building by Foster + Partners was completed in 2003 and sits on the eastern fringes of London’s money pot, the City of London. From the start it’s been a divisive landmark and it was clear from many of the reports that some people were hopeful that the latest news would let them chant, “We told you it would fail!”
Actually the story is still important, just a bit different. As a landmark the Gherkin kind of works – I cite as evidence every illustrator’s silhouette of the city in the past decade that places it alongside the London Eye and Tower of London. As a thing to look at, it’s been a success. To work in? Well, many have complained that the floors are cramped and that the interior detail never matched the external swagger. But it’s hardly an eyesore and in comparison with a skyscraper in Dubai its proportions are more akin to a beach cottage
But the reason that the Gherkin triggers so many headlines is that the building has found itself caught up in, and emblematic of, numerous heartfelt debates happening in London. Firstly its whacky shape heralded the arrival of a slew of other daftly shaped buildings, some truly glaringly ugly: 20 Fenchurch Street, aka the Walkie-Talkie, by Rafael Viñoly, will scar us for a long time. Yes, this trend needs to stop. The erection is also on the borders of a part of London – Spitalfields – that rightly feels challenged by the march east of the city’s commercial core. And then there’s just the fact that many Londoners would prefer to live in a city where nothing is taller than St Paul’s Cathedral. But that’s a battle lost.
The Gherkin, however, is set to remain a lightning rod for all these swirling concerns. Perhaps until we build the Pickled Onion next to it to take some of the heat. But for now its detractors are going to have to forget their dreams of the wrecking ball arriving any day soon.
Andrew Tuck is editor of Monocle.