When I arrived in London it was not a high rise city like New York. That felt rather disappointing.
We had Centrepoint, a white elephant of a building, built by Harry Hyams who, rather notoriously used to keep places empty until he achieved the sort of lettings he wanted. It felt like an indulgence that only a rapacious property developer would be allowed to consider.
The Nat West Tower, now Tower 42, which was built in the shape of the Nat West logo and completed in 1980 was the new tallest building the year after I came.
The reason was plain. The planning authority for the City of London wanted to keep London the way it had been for years.
There were restrictions on heights of buildings in certain protected corridors that preserved the views of St Paul’s Cathedral but this was a blanket ban.
Back then the City did things its way, like it had always done. It gave jobs to those it had always given jobs to – white, privately educated men broadly. It was quite happy being reasonably successful and if upstarts like New York and Hong Kong, and increasingly, at that time, Tokyo wanted to be more brash, more pushy then, well, old boy, they would wouldn’t they? That just showed a lack of class.
And then along came Mrs Thatcher. I caused a bit a reaction the other day when I said she was a curate’s egg, rather than wholly bad. In respect to how she broke open the City she was classlessness personified. She hated old boys’ networks just as much as unions (which she saw as one and the same – unelected oligarchies).
The ridiculous, self interested stock markets were forced to reform, ending the closed shops of stockers and jobbers and brokers. In their pace can a new environment. Not always better but the barriers to entry were removed.
The outcome for the built environment was immediate. The consolidation and the ending of open outcry trading (where people stand and shout at each other to make trades) meant new, much larger buildings were needed. The planners, as ever, were slow to react and fought a rear-guard to stop huge buildings, arguing they would change the character of London.
And there it might have stayed, with resistant planners fighting frustrated trading houses and an ever dwindling role for London in the race to be part of a world economy. But Mrs T wasn’t done. Through an initiative of her Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine a regeneration policy was adopted – the creation of Enterprise Zones (EZ) that gave landowners and developers tax breaks and relaxed planning controls if they built new industrial and commercial premises in areas devastated by business closures. One such was Canary Wharf a derelict and polluted part of the old London Docklands that had been in terminal decline since the 1960s with the final closing occurring in 1980.
In 1982 this became an EZ under the auspices of the London Docklands Development corporation and work soon began on new, state of the art offices that included huge trading floors. Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley took buildings there and the Canada Square Tower was started which, at 50 floors dwarfed anything else in London. So tall was it, it needed a navigation light on the top.
There were problems. Getting to Canary Wharf was via a new lightweight railway – the Docklands Light Railway or DLR. It was dubbed the Toytown railway so small a capacity and so frequent its stoppages. So much so that the first new tube to be built in many a year was begun to bring the Jubilee line to Canary Wharf.
The City woke up. Panicked at what it saw as an existential threat it changed its planning policies and allowed new offices to be built, over tube and railway stations (Broadgate and at Ludgate Hill) and roads (Alban Gate over London Wall). The resulting oversupply by 1990 led to the financial collapse of the company that owned Canary Wharf and for some four years development stalled.
Boom follows bust follows boom as we know only too well. So on the next up wave, in 1995 Canary Wharf rose from the ashes.
That was when I first became involved in its development, acting for the American banking giant Citigroup where we helped develop, over ten years, 1.6 million square foot of European HQ offices. For the next 15 years I spent a lot of time sweatily negotiating developments for the likes of HSBC, Credit Suisse, Lehman Brothers, Clifford Chance and others there. It was hard, fun, tiring and many times laugh out loud absurd.
Now the cluster that is Canary Wharf is a mini Manhattan in its own right and the success of large buildings has rubbed off on the City. And the City has learned another lesson.
If you are going to build then let us, at least have something special. Not a slab of sheer glass walls which is the common sight at Canary Wharf, but tubes and slopes and curves and twists.
Not every tower works, not all will be iconic.
The Shard is disproportionately big to my eyes.
There are still too many bland buildings.
But the fact that the media can still come up with nick names for the best new buildings gives me hope: The Shard, the Cheese-grater,
The Walkie talkie – temporarily renamed the Scorchie Talkie when the sun’s summer rays were so concentrated onto the road below that someone’s car melted in the heat – the Gherkin and, soon, I hope the Helter-Skelter.
Even the City Hall, though it doesn’t conform to the skyscraper motif, had its own name for a while – the Glass Testicle. Maybe you think that’s fair? Whatever, I do like our range of buildings thought for me the best is this, a little down the river near Waterloo
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