Swiss Re's project director has until 2004 to get Foster and Partners' "erotic gherkin" built. But neither this ambitious deadline, nor working in a male-dominated industry can ruffle the unflappable Sara Fox.
"What's it like to be the woman responsible for erecting London's biggest phallic symbol?" Sarah Fox smiles wryly, then ventures: "It's always fun to work on a great project … I think a man would give the same answer."

The great project is the "erotic gherkin" – the 41-storey, Foster and Partners-designed, glass tower that will house insurance giant Swiss Re's London headquarters. Fox, a senior vice-president at Swiss Re, took over as project director last September, replacing Carla Picardi. The two were not strangers: Picardi and York worked together on the Canary Wharf tower. "There", says Fox, "they used to call us the iron fist and the velvet glove". Fox, apparently, was the iron fist. She is certainly a forceful character, dismissing an unwelcome query about the budget with: "We do not discuss financial information regarding the project."

The Swiss Re tower, which gained its gherkin nickname during a politically charged 10-month planning battle, has become more than just a corporate headquarters – it has developed into a yardstick for London's tall buildings policy. Unlike a rash of other tower proposals for the City, it succeeded in winning the approval of English Heritage, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, mayor Ken Livingstone and the Corporation of London. All eyes are now on the project, which will result in the second-tallest building in the City after Tower 42, to see if it is that much more beautiful and well-located than the other contenders.

Fox says it was no fluke that it got past EH: "It was carefully planned and studied before a proposal was made, to ensure it would not conflict with the constraints. We were in the middle of a transport grid, we had a sound environmental argument and we thought that the design was worth fighting for."

Fox, who has an economics degree and an MBA from Stanford University, admits she "fell in the back door of construction" in 1988 by way of a project management role at Canary Wharf developer Olympia & York. In fact, she started out in management consultancy, where she remembers changing projects every six weeks, so that "one minute you are trying to predict demand for a new plywood factory and the next you are trying to understand hotel reservation systems". She learned "to be adaptable and pick up information quickly, which is what project management is about".

Now Fox is responsible for getting the project built by the first quarter of 2004, a schedule that, she says, "from the inside often seems like a scarily short time". But she is convinced "it is definitely do-able".

That's just as well: the gherkin's radical design makes for formidable technical, logistical and operational problems. The glazed, circular building will widen as it rises and then taper towards its apex; its walls and roof will dissolve into a continuous triangulated skin around a diagonally braced structure. A series of sky gardens, which spiral up the building in atriums between the radiating fingers of each floor, create a microclimate within an energy-efficient enclosure.

I absolutely believe that there is a place for towers in London. But London is not Manhattan. It should not be packed with high-rises as far as the eye can see

The most interesting technical challenge, she says, was "trying to find a structural system that could respond to the movement of the building as its diameter changes". On the operational side, the key challenges were deciding how to fit out the building and the selection of an interior architect.

"There are lots of issues about how we use the building and maximise the fact that it's naturally ventilated," says Fox. "We want people never to be far from a window, because it makes a difference to how much you enjoy going to work."

For her part, Fox clearly enjoys going to work. She loves the troubleshooting nature of the job and its unpredictability. "When I come in, in the morning, I never know exactly what my day is going to hold, and that is what makes it fun."

And nothing is more fun, she says, than going out on site and seeing the building rise from the ground. "That's what is most fun, to see the physical manifestation of your work on a daily basis."

On the other hand, Fox has a rather personal definition of "unpredictable". "I am very focused, results-oriented and believe extremely strongly in good teamwork. I don't like surprises, good or bad."

She has no qualms about being a woman in construction. "I've always worked in male-dominated industries, including the oil industry. And the construction guys seem pretty relaxed about having a woman around," she says, although she adds that she would like to see as many women in UK construction as there are in the USA.

Personal effects

Who are the cigar-smoking duo behind you? They’re Harry and Spud, my constant companions. I’ve had them in every office I’ve worked in. Where are you from? Born in Germany, I have lived in the USA – on both east and west coasts, France, Iran, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands and the UK. Where do you call home? Fulham, London. What are the best and worst things about living in the UK? The best things are London taxis, because they speak English, and fish and chips. The worst is the Tube. Bob Kiley transformed the New York subway from a snake-pit into something that is brilliant. What is your favourite building? The Pantheon in Rome. What is your favourite city? London, Paris, Rome. I love the centuries of history side by side as you walk through them. What book are you reading? London: the Biography by Peter Ackroyd. What do you do to relax? Friends, travel, wine, food.