The Gherkin transformed London’s skyline – but now is set to disappear from view

The Gherkin under construction
The Gherkin, pictured under construction, would come to symbolise the resilience and supercharged confidence of the City at the beginning of the millennium - Paul Grover

“Other cities had an inferiority complex, desperately trying to catch up by building something interesting,” says Peter Rees, former planning chief for the City of London Corporation. “But in London we knew we were number one.”

Twenty years ago, Rees and architect Ken Shuttleworth, then of Norman Foster’s architectural firm Foster + Partners, were largely responsible for a new, glittering bullet on London’s skyline.

Its first name was the Swiss Re Building (after its main tenant), and later 30 St Mary Axe. But to Londoners it would always be the Gherkin.

After opening in the spring of 2004, the skyscraper quickly became a symbol of resilience and supercharged confidence at the turn of the millennia. Other cities have tried to replicate it: Barcelona with the Torre Glòries and Bangkok’s Pearl Building. 

But Rees says the Gherkin was an accidental star. “It was never meant to be wacky for wacky’s sake,” he says. “All the things that inspired its shape were practical: the barley-sugar twist is for natural ventilation; it is smaller at the top and bottom to make it less oppressive.”

What is certain, looking back, is that the 180-metre skyscraper jump-started a building boom in the heart of the City – some say to its own detriment.

Once the second-tallest building in the Square Mile, standing just three metres shorter than Tower 42, today it is only the 23rd-highest building in the capital.

A cluster of taller, quirkier towers such as the Cheesegrater and the Scalpel are now part of the jumble in the City of London, obscuring views of the Gherkin from many angles as it turns 20. And yet more development is on the way still, threatening to all but obliterate from the skyline by the end of the decade a building that has come to embody the millennium era.

The Gherkin
Conversation starter: The Gherkin won the prestigious Stirling Prize in 2004 but not everyone was initially happy with the design - iStockphoto

The plans have led to philosophical discussions of the kind rarely focused on outposts of high finance: what will be the future for London’s best-loved skyscraper if we can no longer see it? Is it too late to protect its place in the capital’s vistas? Should we even try?

For the architectural profession and the public, the Gherkin has proved itself worthy of such debate. Just months after opening on April 28, 2004, it won the Stirling Prize, the UK’s most prestigious architecture award. A year after that, queues for a public open day stretched for five hours.

At the outset, however, the Gherkin was the building much of London never wanted. It was the first tall structure in the City since the NatWest Tower opened in 1980, replacing the Baltic Exchange, a neoclassical trading hall of cathedral proportions, which was reduced to ruin by an IRA bomb in 1992. The modern, clean ovoid that would supplant a Grade II-listed Edwardian facade was a shock to traditionalists.

Detractors fretted that an enormous glass phallus would loom 591 feet above some of the most dignified churches in London. “The press called it the ‘Erotic Gherkin’, and asked where you put the batteries,” says Rees.

But the nickname that began as a term of abuse quickly turned into a term of endearment, with the building’s radical design becoming visual shorthand for a period of economic growth.

“If a director wanted to say ‘London’, then characters tended to work in the Gherkin and go for lunch at Tate Modern – see the terrible 2005 Woody Allen film Match Point,” says Charles Holland, an architect and author of How to Enjoy Architecture, a new book that aims to encourage readers to look closely at the buildings around them.

The Gherkin
Customers sit at tables outside the Gherkin in 2020 - Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

The skyscraper’s landmark status was sealed when a lookalike Queen Elizabeth II and Daniel Craig as James Bond flew over its domed frame in a helicopter for the opening film for the 2012 Olympic Games.

“It is architecture as pure symbol,” says Holland.

So what persuaded Londoners that the building many had dreaded was, in fact, a masterpiece?  “It holds its own. It is modern but it has a softness and gentleness about it that really gave it its appeal,” says Grant Brooker, head of studio at Foster + Partners.

“One story – which may be apocryphal but is wonderful – is that the tessellating triangular glazing was an intentional nod to the leaded windows of City churches,” says Catherine Croft, director of the Twentieth Century Society, which campaigns to protect modern buildings. “That level of character and originality seems almost completely absent from most high-rise London buildings of the past decade or more.”

“It’s a combination of attention to detail and a compelling big idea, uncompromised by building programme, budget or setting, that makes the Gherkin so memorable.”

Perhaps the best judges of all are the people who work in the building. They often speak of the drama of advancing weather systems and magisterial views, offset on occasions by the Gherkin’s snags.

“The famous blinds which automatically come down were actually activated by heat on the windows rather than sunlight, and the temperature needed to reach a certain level before they worked,” says one woman who worked for a Gherkin-based insurer in the 2000s. “At a certain time each day, I’d be partially blinded.”

“But most of the time it was great – very light, clean and pleasant. And the 360-degree views from the [40th-floor] bar were fantastic.”

Rees remembers a lengthy approval process that brought such views to fruition.

“English Heritage said that if the Baltic Exchange had to come down, it should be replaced by something of high architectural quality, a taller building with space around it,” he says. “Developers started to salivate [like] a hungry pack of canines.”

An early design by Foster + Partners involved a “millennium tower” – twice the height of the eventual Gherkin. “They came into our office with this huge box and they kept lifting the lid, more and more. It had two rabbit-ear things on top. Obviously too shocking, out of scale and out of place, so they withdrew it,” says Rees.

Dozens of test models followed. “Then one day Ken Shuttleworth put a model of a circular building in front of me, rather like a pumpkin. I said, ‘Don’t you think it would be better if it were taller and thinner?’”

The Walkie Talkie
Gherkin neighbour 'the Walkie Talkie' was once voted the ugliest building in Britain - Toby Melville/Reuters

Various accounts of the genesis of the design are on record. But there is no doubt about the building’s popularity today, particularly in relation to others in its immediate neighbourhood such as the Can of Ham and the Walkie Talkie, once voted the ugliest building in Britain.

In his 2022 book Iconicon, the architecture critic John Grindrod described the Gherkin as a building “that makes you happy when you see it – that’s if you’re lucky enough to be still able to from behind the wall of towers that has grown up around it”.

“Jostled into submission by its generally inferior neighbours” is how Croft puts it.

Increasingly crowded out, some have tried to stop the Gherkin from being upstaged altogether in years to come, though it would be unlikely to join the list of London’s 13 protected views of historic buildings, such as St Paul’s and the Palace of Westminster..

Protected status from Historic England would go some way to preserving views of the Gherkin. But buildings under 30 rarely qualify for listing, meaning it’s not anticipated to be eligible for another 10 years.

Instead, campaigners have kept their focus local, albeit without success so far.

“Last year, the City consulted on a new conservation area, and we argued the boundary should be extended by one street to include the Gherkin,” says a spokesman for the Twentieth Century Society. “That would have given more leverage for arguing it was being crowded out. But it was rejected.”

Meanwhile, more towers are on their way. According to the tall buildings survey published by think tank New London Architecture this May, 583 buildings of more than 20 storeys are in London’s planning pipeline, partly in response to demand for premium office space – more than twice as many as the 270 built over the past decade.

That’s despite a general rise in vacancy rates tied to post-pandemic home-working practices, with 12.1 per cent of corporate space in the Square Mile set to be empty by the end of this year, up from 10.8 per cent in 2023, according to CoStar, a research company focused on commercial real estate.

Some say the development boom is a good thing, despite its implications for the Gherkin. “The Gherkin was a marker, but I don’t think it then becomes something that resists further change,” says Brooker. “London has this crazy organic quality, which is symbolically powerful. The Gherkin’s role was to enable that. It said, yes, London can evolve.”

“You can’t protect views of everything,” says Rees. “You could say St Paul’s Cathedral spawned the rival spires to the parish churches. The Gherkin is totemic of a period of change, the gaining of greater strength.”

Lord Foster
Lord Foster inside the Gherkin, one of his most famous designs - Andrew Crowley

Lord Foster himself seems sure of its legacy, regardless of what the future holds.

“There is a nice irony that the nickname of ‘the Gherkin’ was created by the critics as a derogatory term and has since been embraced by the public as one of endorsement,” he says.

As others point out, the Gherkin is unique among skyscrapers in that its nickname was no contrivance. It was awarded by Londoners to the glittering bullet that stole their hearts.

“For buildings to acquire a nickname by common consent they have to gain a place in the popular imagination. The Gherkin has done that,” says Holland.

“You don’t design an icon,” says Brooker. “It’s people who tell you if you have.”