Photography Series #13, Swiss Re (The Gherkin) Site Study
To understand a building is to be aware of its many intricacies, to know its character and to appreciate the qualities and failings. To do this you need to study it, which can sometimes be tough, especially if getting to the building is difficult for you. In our Building Study series we are going to use photos to help express buildings, from the tiniest details to their place within the urban fabric.
It seems like forever ago now, but way back in November we produced a quick photography study of St Paul’s cathedral. The purpose of the piece was to provide a visual summary of the building, to present it from many angles, both near and far to better allow those interested in it to understand its aesthetics.
In todays Photography Series we are presenting the history, in photos of the site of the Swiss Re Building, also known as ‘The Gherkin’. With a tumultuous past, the sites history may be unknown to many who walk past the building on a daily basis.
The building that existed on the site prior to the The Gherkin was the Baltic Exchange, a 1903 maritime market floor by architects Smith & Wimble. It was one of grandeur, with a heavy focus on ostentatious Victorian architecture. The design of the building harked back to a period when Britain had a global Empire, when her power was exerted across the worlds seas and oceans. Within the building they provided maritime market information for trading purposes, a practice still undertaken today by the company.
The history of the site over the last 20 years is one defined largely by terror. In 1992 the Provisional IRA bombed the building, causing the death of 3 people: Paul Butt, 29, Baltic Exchange employee, Thomas Casey, 49, and 15-year old Danielle Carter. The damage to the building was extensive, with significant structural failure in the basement.
“Architectural conservationists wanted to reconstruct what remained from the bombing, as it was the last remaining exchange floor in the City of London. English Heritage, the government’s statutory conservation adviser, and the City of London Corporation insisted that any redevelopment must restore the building’s old façade on to St Mary Axe”, – Wikipedia
In 1998, the then planning minister John Prescott gave permission for the remainder of the building to be razed, much to the dislike of preservation societies such as Save Britain’s Heritage. The original concept for the now empty site was the 386m Millenium Tower. At the time, the building would have become the 6th tallest building in the world. Designed by Foster & Partners, at the time of the designs realise, The Guardian newspaper described it as an ‘erotic gherkin’. The name took hold in popular media, and has stuck until this day, despite the change in design. The Millenium Tower was rejected due to its height and proximity to flight paths into London City and Heathrow airports.
Today, much of its tortuous past has been forgotten. The site is home to the towering, iconic Swiss Re building, 30 St Mary Axe or The Gherkin, depending on how you like to refer to it. It is home to a financial powerhouse, and part of the beating economic heart of The City. It has served as an important stepping stone socially between the 2 millennia, healing the damage of an ongoing war, helping The City to heal; it represents the process of rebuilding. Architecturally, it was the beginning of a building boom within London that is still underway.
The Gherkin holds an important place within the cities short term history, and even though it wasn’t present during the bombing, it carries a poignant memorial to those that lost their lives. It owes its very existence to an act of terrorism that took their lives, and its a burden it carries on its domed shoulders.