Sorting through some old photos in my cellar a few months ago I came across a snapshot of the London skyline I took, as a callow 17-year-old, in the autumn of 1991. Out of curiosity, in late 2014 I went back to the exact spot from which I had taken the photo in 1991 (on the Queen’s Walk on the south bank of the Thames, about halfway between HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge) and took another shot.
My 1991 snapshot, seen on the left above, is not a great photo technically (though less blurred than most of the others I took that year). But it tells a fascinating story. Two things leap out: firstly that the early 90s recession meant that there are hardly any construction cranes (two can be glimpsed to the immediate right of 20 Fenchurch Street, the large silvery block towards the left of the photo, but there are no others). The second, of course, is the dominance of the NatWest Tower (now called Tower 42), the tallest building standing dead centre.
Looking at the same view in 2014, on the right, it’s immediately obvious how much the City of London has changed. At first glance the dominance of the Walkie Talkie and the other new buildings might even make you think I’ve got it wrong, and this is a photo of a completely different part of London – or at least taken from a vantage point very different from where I snapped away in 1991. Tower 42 has gone from being easily the tallest tower to being one of the shortest.
Let’s look at the towers in the background of the 1991 shot from left to right.
STILL STANDING IN 2014
1 Spire of the Church of St Mary At Hill (Sir Christopher Wren, 1677)
2 20 Gracechurch Street—originally called 54 Lombard Street (GMW Architects, 1990-92)
3 London Stock Exchange Tower (Trollope & Colls, 1967-72)
4 Nordic Bank House (Fitzroy Robinson and Partners, 1974)
5 Custom House (David Laing and Sir Robert Smirke, 1817-25). Under scaffolding in 1991
6 Spire of the Guild Church of St Margaret Pattens (Sir Christopher Wren, 1684-87)
7 NatWest Tower—now known officially as Tower 42 (Richard Seifert , 1971-80)
8 Minster Court (GMW Partnership, 1988-91)
9 St Helen’s-formerly known as the Commercial Union Building (GMW Partnership, 1968-69)
10 Spire of the church of All Hallows by the Tower (partly 15th century with a 7th-century doorway; rebuilt internally after second world war bomb damage)
11 (Flank wall of 50 Mark Lane (Trehearne Architects,1988-90)
12 New London House (Elsom Pack and Roberts, 1977)
13 16 Byward Street (George Sherrin, 1909), which housed the entrance to Mark Lane tube station until its closure in 1967, and to its immediate right, 15 Trinity Square (E.B I’Anson,1908-9)
14 Middle Tower—A gatehouse of the Tower of London first built between 1275 and 1281 and altered in 1717-1719 .
15 Tower of London Pump House (Anthony Salvin, 1863)
DEMOLISHED SINCE 1991
1 Bowring Tower (left) and Bowring Building (right), (both by Basil Spence, 1966). Demolished in 1999 to make way for Tower Place West (Foster + Partners, 2002)
2 Sugar Quay (Terry Farrell, 1976-77). An office block built for Tate & Lyle, currently being demolished in 2014 to make way for a block of luxury flats by Foster + Partners for the Candy Brothers
3 20 Fenchurch Street (William H. Rogers, 1968) – demolished in 2007-8 and replaced with the ‘Walkie-Talkie’
4 Three Quays House (Brian O’Rorke for the former General Steam Navigation Company, 1955-59). Demolished in 2010 to make way for Cheval Three Quays, a luxury apartment block
5 Memorial Building (Ronald Ward and Partners, 1954-57). Home of the Institute of Marine Engineers. Demolished in 1999 and now occupied by 58 Fenchurch Street (Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, 1999-2002), the European Headquarters of American Insurance group (AIG)
6 Tower Pier. The older structures were mostly replaced when the Pier was remodelled and renamed as Tower Millennium Pier in 2000
The tower with the arched top on the far left is 20 Gracechurch Street (or 54 Lombard Street as it was known before its original occupier, Barclays Bank, moved its HQ to Canary Wharf in the early 2000s) – designed by Gollins Melvin Ward Partnership (GMW for short) and still under construction in 1991, though ongoing building work isn’t visible in my photo. Just to its right you can glimpse a small part of the London Stock Exchange’s tower, designed by Trollope and Colls and built 1967-72.
Next is the square bulk of 20 Fenchurch Street, a 25-storey tower built in 1968 by the City of London Real Property Company (latter swallowed up by Land Securities) to designs by William H. Rogers. Formerly occupied by Dresdner Kleinwort, it was one of the first skyscrapers ever built in the City of London and had a distinctive, hatlike roof. Then there is a squat, reddish-brown concrete block of 1966, called the Bowring Tower (its consultant architect was Sir Basil Spence, famous for his Coventry Cathedral, the Home Office and the University of Sussex, but here having an off day).
Then there’s the distinctive pin-striped Tower 42, designed by Richard Seifert and Partners in 1971-1980 for National Westminster Bank (back in 1991 it was still called the NatWest Tower). Directly in front of Tower 42 is the spiky Minster Court, a gothic Post-modern extravaganza by GMW Partnership and completed in 1991, just as my teenage photo was taken.
Next (just behind the blue copper spire of the 15th century church of All Hallows by the Tower, and the yellow flank wall of 50 Mark Lane, a block built by Trehearne Architects in 1988-90) is a big black glass edifice. Previously known as the Aviva Tower or the Commercial Union building and now called St. Helen’s, it’s a 118-metre, 23 floor skyscraper built in 1968-69 and designed by the same GMW Partnership who designed Minster Court and 54 Lombard Street 20-plus years later. But this one is in the International Style: the stark rectilinear geometry was influenced by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and is similar to Mies’ Seagram Building in New York City. It’s supposedly one of only four high-rise buildings in London using a “top-down” engineering design whereby lower office floors are suspended from above rather than supported from below (in 1992, a year after my photo was taken, the building was heavily damaged in the Baltic Exchange bombing and had to be substantially renovated).
Next is the Portland-Stone clad Memorial Building, the headquarters of the Institute of Marine Engineers, a post-war office block designed by Ronald Ward and Partners. It looks nondescript in 1991, but was a source of some pride when officially opened in September 1957 by the then Admiral of the Fleet, Earl Mountbatten of Burma, with a cutting-edge lecture theatre, bronze bosses, and an elliptical stair with walls of Venetian glass mosaic. To its right is an even lumpier concrete block just by Fenchurch Street Station – New London House, designed by Elsom Pack and Roberts in 1977.
In the foreground of the 1991 photo there’s a sequence of large, modern riverside buildings. At the far left, behind the eastern end of Custom House (built in 1817-25 to designs of David Laing and Sir Robert Smirke, and under scaffolding in 1991), there’s the grey mesh of Nordic Bank House, a classic mid-1970s concrete office block by Fitzroy Robinson and Partners. Then there’s a long, low office block with bands of white concrete, its upper floor stepped back from the river: Sugar Quay, built for Tate and Lyle and designed by the young Terry Farrell in 1976-77. To its right, in the dead centre of the photo, is a large Portland Stone building, Three Quays House (often wrongly assumed to be a late 1960s building, but in fact designed in 1954-55 by Brian O’Rorke for the General Steam Navigation Company. It won a civic trust award in 1961).
To its right, behind Anthony Salvin’s gabled Tower of London Pump House building, is a dark brown concrete block, Bowring House – sister of Bowring Tower – also designed by Sir Basil Spence. At the very far right, just behind the crenellations of the Middle Tower gatehouse, can be glimpsed an Edwardian building, 16 Byward Street, built in 1909 by a London Underground Architect, George Sherrin (the building housed the entrance to Mark Lane tube station until it was replaced by Tower Hill station in 1967). Alongside it is a similar piece of Edwardian baroque, E.B l’Anson’s 15 Trinity Square of 1908-09.
Let’s now turn to the 2014 photo of the same view.
ALREADY BUILT BY 1991
1 Spire of the Church of St Mary At Hill (Sir Christopher Wren, 1677)
2 20 Gracechurch Street—originally called 54 Lombard Street (Gollins Melvin Ward Partnership, 1990-92). Reclad in Portland stone by Orms Architecture Design in 2004
3 Nordic Bank House (Fitzroy Robinson and partners, 1974). Planning permission for alterations submitted in 2014 and awaiting decision
4 Custom House (David Laing and Sir Robert Smirke, 1817-25). Mostly obscured by trees in this photo
5 Sugar Quay (Terry Farrell, 1976-77). An office block built for Tate & Lyle, currently being demolished in 2014 to make way for a block of luxury flats, by Foster + Partners, for the Candy Brothers
6 NatWest Tower—now known officially as Tower 42 (Richard Seifert, 1971-80)
7 Minster Court (GMW Partnership, 1988-91)
8 Spire of the Guild Church of St Margaret Pattens (Sir Christopher Wren, 1684-87)
9 St Helen’s-formerly known as the Commercial Union Building (GMW Partnership, 1968-69). Substantially renovated after an IRA bomb in 1992 and its redevelopment has been mooted in recent years
10 Tower of London Pump House (Anthony Salvin, 1863). Remodelled and extended as part Stanton Williams’ works to the Tower of London environs in 2004-5
11 New London House (Elsom Pack and Roberts, 1977). Still standing, but reclad by Allies and Morrison in 1992 and remodelled further in 2014
12 Spire of the church of All Hallows by the Tower (partly 15th century with a 7th-century doorway; rebuilt internally after second world war bomb damage)
13 16 Byward Street (George Sherrin, 1909), which housed the entrance to Mark Lane tube station until its closure in 1967, and to its immediate right, 15 Trinity Square (E.B I’Anson,1908-9). Both still standing in 2014
14 Middle Tower—A gatehouse of the Tower of London first built between 1275 and 1281 and altered in 1717-1719 . Still standing in 2014
BUILT SINCE 1991
1 20 Fenchurch Street (the ‘Walkie-Talkie’) ( Rafael Viñoly, 2009-14). Built in place of William H. Rogers’ tower of 1968
2 Plantation Place (Arup Associates, 2002-04). Built in place of Plantation House, a neo-classical block of 1935
3 Leadenhall Building (Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, 2011-13). Built on the site of 122 Leadenhall Street, a 14-storey block (GMW Partnership, 1969)
4 Willis Building (Foster + Partners, 2004-2008)
5 Cheval Three Quays, a luxury apartment block (3D Reid and Axis Architects, 2012-2014)
6 Tower Millennium Pier (2000)
7 Tower Place West (Foster + Partners, 2002)
8 70 Mark Lane (Bennetts Associates, 2013-14). Still under construction
9 Heron Tower (officially 110 Bishopsgate) (Kohn Pedersen Fox, 2007-11)
10 30 St Mary Axe (aka the Swiss re Tower or the ‘Gherkin’) (Foster + Partners, 2001-03). Built on the site of the Baltic Exchange
11 Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, Richard Rogers Building (Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, 1995-2000).
At the far left 20 Gracechurch Street, reclad in Portland Stone and transformed into a “modern art deco” building in 2004 by Orms Architecture Design, is still visible – but only just. In front of it is the huge bulk of Rafael Viñoly’s “Walkie Talkie” , and much larger than 1968 tower that it replaced (confusingly, the Walkie Talkie’s official name is still plain 20 Fenchurch Street). Fittingly, the old tower’s architect William Rogers died in July 2008, aged 94, just as it was being demolished.
At 160 m (525 ft) tall, the Walkie Talkie is now the fifth-tallest building in the City of London. But 20 Fenchurch Street’s proximity to the river makes it look easily the tallest in the 2014 photo, and less like a walkie talkie than a thumbnail, a buggy canopy, a slinky, or a Venetian blind lying on its side and liable to topple into the Thames.
The Walkie Talkie now blocks any view of the London Stock Exchange (in any case, Trollope and Colls’ tower was completely reclad by Grimshaws in 2008 and renamed 125 Old Broad Street, after the Stock Exchange moved to Paternoster Square a mile to the west). The Walkie Talkie’s plan is a bit like Millbank Tower (a deformed square with alternate concave and convex sides) but its biggest feature if the top-heavy form which appears to burst upward and outward, and a concave, south-facing side that magnifies sunlight (in August 2013 a Jaguar car buckled in the reflected sunlight, and new screens to reduce the reflection were being fitted when my 2014 photo was taken).
Next is a much lower, but still huge building: Plantation Place, built by Arup and Partners in 2002-04 in place of a 1935 neo-classical block, A.W. Moore’s Plantation House (too low to be visible in the 1991 photo and described as a “remarkable, incoherent” building by Pevsner – a description that can’t be applied to the glass boxes that now stand in its place).
On the far right of the 2014 photo are two more huge new towers: 30 St Mary Axe, (yet another Foster + Partners building and commonly known as the Swiss Re Tower, or the Gherkin) and directly behind it the Heron Tower (Kohn Pederson Fox, 2007-11). Just in front of the Gherkin is the sloped roof of Bennetts Associates’ 70 Mark Lane, still under construction in 2014. The Institute of Marine Engineers would not now be visible among this cluster of new buildings (in any case, it was demolished in 2007 and replaced by an office block called 58 Fenchurch Street, now home to American Insurance Group).
Behind Tower 42 and Minster Court is another unmistakable addition to the London skyline: the distinctive wedge of the ‘Cheeesegrater’, officially called 122 Leadenhall Street, a 225 m building by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. Still under construction, its falling rivets have become almost as much of a cause celebre as the concave glass of the Walkie Talkie. In front of it is a lower, 125-metre tower, Foster + Partners’ Willis Building of 2008 (when completed in 2008, before either the Cheesegrater or the Walkie Talkie, it was London’s fourth-tallest building: a lot can change in six years). Standing opposite the Lloyd’s building, built in the late 1980s by Foster’s great rival Richard Rogers, the Willis Building has a “stepped” design with setbacks 97m and 68m, intended to resemble the shell of a crustacean. But the fancy design cannot disguise its vast size: its 475,000 square feet of office floor-space was mostly pre-let to the insurance broker Willis, after which it is named.
The riverside buildings in the foreground have changed even more than those on the skyline. On the far left Nordic Bank House and Sugar Quay still stand, but the latter is already partly obscured by scaffolding: by autumn 2014 it was being knocked down. In its place Foster + Partners are now building a new block of exclusive flats, still called Sugar Quay, for the appropriately-named Candy brothers.
These riverside plots were all offices in the 1990s but today they are increasingly giving way to residential use: just to the east of Sugar Quay is Cheval Three Quays, a curvilinear luxury apartment block built by 3D Reid and Axis Architects in 2012-14 in place of Three Quays House. Just behind it, the Bowring building has also been torn down – in its place is a well-behaved office block, Foster + Partners’ Tower Place West of 2002, behind which only the very top of the spire of All Hallows’ church can now be seen. At the edge of the photo, just right of the remodelled New London House, can be glimpsed another new addition: Richard Roger’s Lloyd’s Register of Shipping building of 1995-2000 (not to be confused with the nearby Lloyd’s of London Building, designed by Rogers ten years before).
Even the Tower of London has undergone big changes: Salvin’s Pump House was substantially remodelled and extended by Stanton Williams in 2004 to cater for the Tower’s ever rising tourist numbers (the rear extension is not visible in my 2014 photo). In front of everything, on the Thames itself, still floats the Port of London Authority’s Tower Pier: but this too was largely rebuilt in 2000 and renamed Tower Millennium Pier. The white paint of the jetties in 1991 has been replaced by dark metal.
With the exception of the NatWest Tower (now called Tower 42) standing dead centre, and the Tower of London glimpsed to the right, almost all the buildings in my 1991 snapshot have either been pulled down, condemned or obscured by new developments in front of them.
Of 21 identifiable buildings in my 1991 photo, six of the largest had been demolished, one substantially reclad and another three obscured from view by 2014. The top of the spires of two Wren Churches – St Mary at Hill and St Margaret Pattens – are still visible in 2014, but only just. It’s a colossal degree of change in just 23 years, at least as great as the change during the 23 years up to 1991.
An architect might argue that essentially the view is the same – a cluster of tall buildings around Tower 42 – but now most of them are taller than Tower 42, not lower. Despite the shock of the Cheesegrater, the Walkie Talkie and the Gherkin, the cluster of towers still lies to the east of the Bank of England (not to the west, where St Paul’s Cathedral’s ‘view corridors’ prohibit very tall buildings). Tall buildings, both in 1991 and today, are individually designed and apart from the Walkie Talkie they’re still all clustered around Broad Street and Bishopsgate, well away from the river. Today, as in 1991, all the buildings that directly face the Thames are no higher than ten storeys. And a lot of the buildings visible in both photos were all designed by the same small group of architects: GMW Partnership, Kohn Pederson and Fox, Seifert, Rogers and Foster. The Uruguayan Rafael Viñoly is the only new kid on the block who hasn’t designed a major building in the City before.
It could also be argued that the many of the new buildings are an improvement. Some might say that the new riverside buildings address the Thames better than those they replaced: it’s clear from my 1991 snapshot that Sugar Quay had an undercroft offering no active frontage to the riverside path, while Three Quays House’s office windows seems to have had yellow curtains obstructing the river view. The legendary Peter Rees, the City of London’s Chief Planning Officer from 1985 to 2014 – whose career is arguably laid out in these two photos – argued strenuously for better public realm, high- quality design, and insisted that the City of London’s medieval street pattern survived. In a retirement interview with the Financial Times, he argued that the City of London was a “vegetable garden”, in which “Buildings are planted to deliver the goods, then harvested and replaced when their time comes”.
In 1991 most office blocks were entirely private spaces: by contrast the Walkie Talkie was only granted consent on condition that the Sky gardens on its top three floors would be open to the public at certain times. At ground level, the City of London has paving, planting and seating that is the envy of the rest of London. Many of the Victorian and Edwardian buildings in the City are listed and have been redeveloped behind retained facades.
The new wave of skyscrapers only got started in the new Millennium. Paradoxically, after the completion of the NatWest Tower in 1980 – built amid the economic stagnation of the 1970s – very few tall buildings were constructed in London in the 1980s. Despite the Big Bang, and the huge growth of financial services in the UK in the 1990s, there was a remarkable period of more than 20 years – from the completion of Richard Seifert’s NatWest Tower in 1980 to the opening of the Swiss Re Tower in 2003 – in which no new tall buildings were built in the City of London. Most of the new buildings constructed in the late 1980s and early 1990s were low-rise groundscrapers, not skyscrapers: the “Big Bang” deregulation of 1987 boosted demand for wide trading floors, not narrow stories of offices piled on top of each other.
The NatWest Tower remained London’s – and the UK’s – tallest building right up until the completion of the Canary Wharf Tower in 1991, in the middle of an economic recession. Tellingly, the NatWest Tower still remained the tallest building in the City of London until the Heron Tower, on the very northern fringes of the City, was topped out in 2010.
At street level the City’s huge changes are not as visible as from a distance. But there’s no denying how utterly the City of London has changed in just 23 years. The change has not been gradual: most of the new buildings in the 2014 photo were completed after the City was struck by the banking crisis of 2008, not before.
The NatWest Tower still stands today, but was recently rejected for listing (too little of its original interior survives, English Heritage said) and its future is far from certain. Maybe it will be knocked down before long, along with most of the other buildings seen in my 1991 photo. Just behind the Willis Building the St Helen’s Building can also still be glimpsed, but for how much longer? St Helens was sold in 2003 by the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority to property developer Simon Halabi. In May 2007 it was reported that Halabi was considering plans to demolish the building and replace it with a much taller tower, a plan abandoned because of the recession that began the following year. In 2011 the building was sold to an undisclosed Far Eastern private investor for £288 million: it may be only a matter of time before redevelopment plans are revived and this too is replaced by a larger tower.
The 5,000 word “extended essay” that my 1991 photo accompanied is excruciating reading today: it made the simplistic conclusion (already arrived at by dozens of cultural commentators in the late 1980s and early 90s) that post-modernism was an architectural cul-de-sac, a fin de siècle style that insulted the rest of the 20th century, and that it was not a patch on modernism.
The only part of the essay I am really proud of is the bit I wrote about Broadgate, a mid-1980s office development by Liverpool Street not visible in my 1991 photo: I predicted that its post-modern façades would not stand the test of time. How right I was: just 25 years after its completion, a Broadgate office block by Peter Foggo has just been demolished to make way for a new headquarters building for UBS, designed by Ken Shuttleworth. A heated debate about its demolition ended as suddenly as Foggo’s building was rejected for listed in 2011, and then pulled down in2012.
London is now onto its third wave of rebuilding since World War two: many of its 1950s and 1960s office blocks were redeveloped in the eighties and nineties, and many of these are now being redeveloped all over again. Lots of money is lavished on new buildings, or refurbishments of old ones, that are knocked down only a decade or two later (as Kenneth Powell notes in his New London Architecture guide, the 1930s Plantation House had a £20m refurb in 1992, just seven years before it was demolished).
If I recall correctly, the main reason I took that photo back in the autumn of 1991 was to demonstrate the huge size and prominence of Minster Court – then a highly unusual post-modern Gothic building, and the object of some ridicule. But while Minister Court still stands today it now seems relatively modest. It dominated the view in 1991, but almost blends into the background today. Post-modern buildings that shocked or amused us in 1991 new seem blasé compared to the bold sculpted forms of the Walkie Talkie, Gherkin or Shard (Renzo Piano’s 309m tower, now Europe’s tallest, by London Bridge station just south of the Thames).
I don’t think the City of London is a planning disaster by any means. The skyline is now a lot more varied – if more cluttered – than it was in the early 1990s. But a lot of the buildings that have been knocked down were worthwhile architecture and can’t be just dismissed as 1960s monstrosities. Office blocks of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are becoming an endangered species in London and other big cities: many have already been knocked down or made unrecognisable by recladding.
Three Quays House, for example – the Portland Stone block that is front and centre of my 1991 photo – was described by Historic Royal Palaces (the Quango that runs the Tower of London next door) as “designed with sensitivity for the setting of the Tower, conscious that it would form the backdrop to views on leaving the Tower through Middle Gate” (A fine photo of its staircase can be found on the RIBA photo archive). According to the City of London’s own appraisal of riverside buildings in 2002, “the design approach and the choice of materials of Portland Stone and slate tend to reduce the apparent scale of the building.” None of this praise prevented Three Quays House from being town down without any public outcry in 2010. The apartment block that replaced it is not half bad, but it’s much bulkier than its predecessor and can hardly be said to “reduce its apparent scale”.
London has come full-circle. In the early 1990s, tall office buildings had fallen from fashion and many post-modern “groundscrapers” were built in the early 1990s, as I was snapping away with my 35mm Canon. But some of these are now being pulled down and replaced with new towers, much higher than anything built in the 60s or 70s, while on riverside sites offices are giving way to expensive flats. Just as the City of London’s heritage is cherished and visited more than ever before, its historic churches are now less visible from the south bank of the Thames than they were in 1991. London’s skyline has become more cacophonous, more glitzy, more cluttered – but the jury is still out on whether it has got better.