March 04, 2003
A great new London building

Yes, a great new London building. My heading does not lie. And it's nearing completion. These things are a matter of taste, I know. Different steeples for different peoples, and so on and so forth. But I love it.

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The new Swiss Re ("Re" stands for reinsurance) building, otherwise known as 30 Saint Mary Axe, is a five hundred foot tower shaped, we Londoners are fond of saying, like a gherkin. To be more polite, it looks like an elegant, carefully tended coniferous tree, or maybe a big christmas light bulb. Or maybe a bulb of the vegetable sort, for it looks as if it has indeed sprung up, rather than merely been constructed.

Last week I took a few pictures of it, and here they are. Do what you like with them so long as your lawyers don't turn around and tell me that they aren't mine any more.

The usual "story" of architecture these days is that unrepentant modernists like Sir Norman Foster, the designer of this new tower, are at one end of the spectrum, while at the other end are to found the practitioners of neo-classical revivalism. But what I find interesting is how much both ends of this spectrum have in common, underneath their mutual loathing and feuding.

Both believe in a building being beautiful and stylish. Both want us regular people to say "wow I do like that" when we first set eyes on one of their efforts. And they both want their buildings to fit in well with the buildings or landscapes around them. They merely quarrel a little about how to do these kinds of things.

Does fitting in mean harking back to the styles of the past and the styles of nearby buildings, or does it mean placing an unrepentantly modern building next to older ones, with each setting the other off, and emphasising each other's particular style and nature? Does beauty mean embracing and celebrating the latest technology, or keeping it at arms length? The answers vary, but these are now the questions.

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When the Modern Movement in Architecture first peaked in the nineteen sixties, the buildings were not trying to be beautiful or to fit in, and they most certainly were not trying to be "stylish" – certainly not in London. Modernism was not a "style" – a word that your True Modernists could never use without a sneer. Modernism was no mere celebration of the superficial. It was a total rejection of the past not just in the form of its styles, but in the form of a serious intention to destroy the actual buildings of the past! (It's hard to believe, but that really was the idea.) Modern buildings weren't there to nod politely at their surroundings, to make a nice stir and a nice contribution to an already much loved landscape, or to turn an ordinary landscape into a loveable one. Modern buildings were going to rebuild the entire world in their own brutally honest image, with no polite nods, and with the uncompromising honesty of a panzer regiment. Modernism no more accommodated itself to or contributed to the pre-existing architectural setting than a total political revolution nods politely towards existing power structures and worries about how to fit in with them.

There was no theoretical limit to size and scope of a Sixties Modern Movement building. The edge of the site was not a true boundary; it was a mere cease-fire line, a temporary dotted line on a campaign map. A "building" was not a single shape; it was a plan that was in principle infinitely extendable, like a repeating wallpaper or textile pattern.

Sixties Modernism made a point of exposing the structure, and making the surface of the building totally transparent. How should a building look? It should look how it was! It should proclaim its internal structure to the world. Sixties Modernism rejoiced in totally transparent glass, for it wanted the barrier between the interior and the exterior to be as invisible and insignificant as possible.

Yet the economic logic of modern technology (never mind the demands of aesthetics) says that it is far easier to build a structure in accordance with structural logic, and then cover it up with a surface that protects that structure and which protects the internal environment which teh structure supports and which is its purpose, and which, as a separate project, also looks nice. To regard the outer skin of the building as no more than an interruption to "honesty" caused by those silly clients not wanting not to be exposed to the elements is to ask for environmental and for aesthetic disaster.

The outer glass skin of 30 Saint Mary Axe is a decorative feature, as is the diagonal-based structure which supports it, with the twirls on the surface of the building now having been adopted as the logo of the building. Sixties Modernists must be twirling in their rotting concrete graves.

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My only worry about this, I now believe, wonderful building is that when the cranes have gone, it may lose something of its present charm. There is now something outer-space-like and science-fictional to the way in which the determinedly utilitarian cranes now minister to the vast other-worldly pod, like worker insects serving their queen, or like space engineers maintaining a visiting spaceship. When the cranes are gone, will the thing look rather – I scarcely dare to ask this but I must – dull?

I'll keep you posted.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:38 PM
Category: Architecture