A Thrill to View, or an Eyesore on the London Skyline?

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, July 22, 2006

Thrusting skyward in downtown London is a 590-foot-tall, glass-clad office building, completed two years ago and regularly described as looking like a pickle, specifically a gherkin, or a dirigible on its end, or perhaps a cigar wearing fishnet stockings. The hard-to-miss building has noticeably changed the London skyline. But is the change a plus for the skyline and, as has been suggested, a harbinger of future downtown, high-rise architecture?

Foster and Partners, the firm led by noted British architect Norman Foster, (currently designing the glass roof over the courtyard of the Smithsonian's American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery in Washington) designed the 500,000-square-foot building for the reinsurance company Swiss Re. Referred to non-metaphorically by its address, 30 St. Mary Axe, the building was designed to be "green," or environmentally sensitive, and to demonstrate a new model of sustainability for 21st-century urban skyscrapers.

Foster would tell you that the circular plan, phallic profile and sophisticated curtain-wall system -- two layers of glazing with a ventilated cavity in between -- are purposeful, not whimsical. They are intended to conserve energy using technological strategies that include:

· Minimizing the skin-to-floor area ratio to reduce exterior curtain wall surface area and cut winter heat loss and summer heat gain.

· Maximizing glass area and daylight infiltration into the building to naturally illuminate work spaces and decrease use of electric lighting.

· Inducing natural ventilation within the building to improve indoor air quality while further reducing mechanical equipment use and energy consumption.

· Making the plaza at the base of 30 St. Mary Axe more habitable by creating an aerodynamically shaped building to eliminate strong wind gusts, typically deflected downward and swirling around plazas in front of rectilinear high-rises.

· Reducing wind loads on the building, thereby requiring less structural material with less embedded energy, another benefit of aerodynamic form.

I don't doubt that 30 St. Mary Axe meets most if not all of its laudable ecological goals. But doubts do arise as to whether it satisfactorily passes other tests concerning urban design and contextual relationships, architectural scale and aesthetic expression. It might not even pass the economic test.

The building sprouts from the middle of a 250-foot-by-250-foot site in central London, a tightly knit medieval fabric of narrow streets and small blocks. Low- and mid-rise buildings make up much of the neighborhood, with high-rise towers punctuating the skyline periodically. From afar, 30 St. Mary Axe is simply one more member of a loose cluster of punctuating towers and, at a distance, continues a modern London tradition of randomly popping up high-rises.

But the building disregards its site. Perfectly circular and homogeneously clad from top to bottom, it in no way acknowledges differences in orientation or exposure. In its form and facade composition, it takes no notice at all of its neighbors, or of south versus north or east versus west. You could drop this building onto any site anywhere, urban or suburban, in another climate or another continent, and it would fit or not fit just as well.

The taut curtain wall, with its latticework of triangulated framing, clings well to the cigar-like form, but the result is an edifice lacking any sense of architectural scale or dimensional reference, any hierarchy in size, placement and articulation of visible elements such as doors, windows, wall planes or construction details. Six bands of darkly tinted glass, corresponding to multi-floor ventilation voids behind the façade, spiral gradually from the base to the nose-cone-like apex. Yet the repetitively patterned façade remains mute, not unlike the surface of, well, a gherkin.

Seeing the building, with its pointed top and bulging middle, engenders three thoughts: This is something very big, very odd and very intrusive.

Operating costs, primarily electrical power for heating and cooling equipment and lighting systems, will be less than for conventional office buildings of the same size. Yet with its highly customized structural geometry and elaborate exterior skin, 30 St. Mary Axe was not cheap to build. Thus operational savings may be offset by higher-than-normal capital costs.

I predict that the predictors are wrong. This systematically designed but highly idiosyncratic building is unlikely to serve as a template for future high-rise office buildings, whether in London or elsewhere. In fact, its bizarre geometry, lack of site responsiveness and enigmatic scale could set back the cause of green architecture, because some people might believe that making sustainable architecture inevitably yields buildings like 30 St. Mary Axe.

Let Foster try again, next time demonstrating how to create visually charged architecture that is site-responsive, aesthetically lovable and green, although not like a gherkin.

* * *

For more about 30 St. Mary Axe, including photographs, go to http://www.30stmaryaxe.com/ .

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company