The United Kingdom isn’t traditionally thought of as a place to house gigantic skyscrapers in the way that the likes of New York, Dubai and Shanghai are known for—but take a look at the modern skyline of London, and you’d be surprised at just how many of the shiny, gleaming monoliths there are. As today (August 10) is Skyscraper Appreciation Day (in honor of the birthday of Brooklyn-born architect William van Alen, who designed the Chrysler Building), here’s a look at some of the tallest buildings in the British capital, and where you might have seen them.
St Paul’s Cathedral
Okay, so this isn’t, strictly-speaking, a “skyscraper,” but it’s still the most distinctive feature of London’s skyline, and the area around it forms a “protected view” that is one of the reasons the construction of taller buildings in the city was restricted for so long. Designed, of course, by Sir Christopher Wren, the cathedral was built in the early 1700s to replace the earlier building that was destroyed in the Great Fire of London, and at 111 meters tall (364 ft.) it stood as the tallest building in the capital for an impressive two-and-a-half centuries. So until the 1960s, it really was the closest thing the city had to a skyscraper.
Topped out in 1964, this telecommunications tower, originally known as the Post Office Tower, overtook St Paul’s as London’s tallest building in 1962. Despite being the most prominent landmark in central London, however, its status as a communication hub meant that it was an Official Secret until 1993, and didn’t even appear on Ordnance Survey maps until then. The tower stands at 191 meters (625 ft.) and survived an IRA bomb attack in 1971. It’s made several famous appearances in TV and film, including the 1966 Doctor Who story “The War Machines” and the 2005 movie V For Vendetta.
Walk through the central shopping areas of London’s Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road, and you can’t avoid this 117-meters-high (384 ft.) concrete monolith. Although completed in 1966, the whims of its owner meant that it stayed unoccupied until the mid-1970s. It’s never been a hugely popular part of the skyline—Neil Gaiman‘s 1996 novel Neverwhere states that “the view from the top was without compare, and, furthermore, the top of Centre Point was one of the few places in the West End of London where you did not have to look at Centre Point itself”—but it is one of the most distinctive. Currently the building is undergoing a massive redevelopment, and it will house 82 exclusive residential flats.
The Shanghai World Financial Center surely holds the title of “skyscraper that looks most like a bottle opener.” But with its distinctive tapered roof housing three wind turbines, this 148-meters-high (486 ft.) residential building runs it close. Opened in 2010, more than a thousand people live on its 43 floors, and it’s become a popular site for flyover shots of London in films and TV shows.
30 St Mary Axe
The building that started the trend for London skyscrapers to be nicknamed after objects, this 180 meter (591 ft.) tower was previously known officially as the Swiss Re Building, but will surely be forever referred to by all Londoners simply as “The Gherkin.” Which might make more sense if you know that a “gherkin” is the British name for a pickle. At the time of its completion in 2004, the Norman Foster-designed tower was a breath of fresh air in the somewhat staid surroundings of the City of London financial district, and to this day remains one of the city’s most iconic structures. You might remember its distinctive glass facade being shattered by the arrival of the Sycorax spaceship in Doctor Who‘s “The Christmas Invasion.”
20 Fenchurch Street
Another building with an everyday nickname, this one is known as the “Walkie-Talkie” due to its distinctive top-heavy shape. The thinking behind this is allegedly to increase the amount of available space on the upper floors, and thus be able to charge a top-level premium in rent to more people. Whatever the thinking, this 2014 addition to the skyline is one of the most instantly memorable, and might have been even more so had the original plans for a 200-meter (656 ft.) tower not been forcibly scaled back to its eventual 160 meters (525 ft.). The building is also notable for the “sky garden” on its uppermost floors.
The Leadenhall Building
Here’s another building that opened in 2014, and another one with a nickname based on an object, the “Cheese Grater.” Unlike the Walkie-Talkie, Leadenhall was allowed to be built to a greater height due to its location, and so it stands at 225 meters (738 ft.) as the fourth-tallest tower in both London and the U.K.
For a building that’s been the third-tallest in Britain since 2011, it’s surprising that the Heron Tower has never really made much of an impact. Despite being taller, at 230 meters (755 ft.), than all the others in the area around it (the two that top it are in different parts of the city), its rectangular design slightly blends into its surroundings. If only it had the decency to be shaped like an everyday household object, perhaps it would be more loved.
One Canada Square
The tower popularly known as “Canary Wharf” (which is actually the name of the area of land on which it stands) was the country’s tallest building upon its completion in 1991, and stands as the centerpiece of an island of towers in the eastern Docklands. The 240 meter (787 ft.) iconic tower, with its pyramid roof and flashing light, has made many appearances in TV and film, perhaps most notably when it served as the Torchwood headquarters in the 2006 Doctor Who two-parter “Army of Ghosts”/”Doomsday.” It has also been used for several years in establishing shots during the U.K. version of The Apprentice, implying that Lord Alan Sugar‘s climactic boardroom meetings with the contestants take place inside its shiny steel facade, rather than in a studio in West London.
The new king of British—and European—skyscrapers, The Shard’s 309-meter (1,016 ft.) height dwarfs that of One Canada Square. Unlike the other “nickname” buildings, the Shard is actually its official name, as it was always intended to look like a shard of glass rising out of the London Bridge area. The path to constructing such a large tower in London was a long and controversial one, and the government would only approve a tower of this height if the design was considered “exceptional,” which the Shard certainly turned out to be. It’s arguably the most iconic addition to the city’s skyline since the London Eye and has already passed one major cultural test by playing a significant role in a Doctor Who episode, “The Bells of St. John,” which aired in 2013 only a month after the building had opened.
Have you visited any of these buildings? Which is your favorite London skyscraper?Read More