Can London’s newest skyscraper be both a wonder and a blunder? Academic James Woudhuysen has it both ways
My wonder is the collective organisation that transformed London’s skyline with the Swiss Re building. The list starts with Swiss Re’s faith in Foster and Partners; continues with engineer Arup’s designs for the steel diagrid, which deals with the forces that put the thin ring beams in massive tension; and also includes subcontractor Waagner Biro which designed, fabricated and installed the superb steel and glass dome that caps the building. The completed project adheres admirably to US architect Louis H Sullivan’s 1896 essay The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered; and to Frank Lloyd Wright’s development of Sullivan’s “form follows function” theory – the idea that architectural beauty can transcend mere function, provided form and function “are one”.
There were blunders too: the protracted planning stage was striking evidence of today’s failure of nerve in all matters constructional and urban; the official insistence that the building be no taller than the precedent set by its near neighbour, Tower 42 – it would have been so efficient to scale it up; the PC bias toward bike parking and showers for sweaty cyclists over parking spaces; and finally, all attempts to justify the building as “sustainable”, rather than as the human triumph it is.
James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, and co-author of Why Is Construction So Backward? (Wiley, £29.99)