As the Swiss Re tower nears completion, the public is busy picking holes in the design and construction work. Building looks at how the erotic gherkin's dominant presence on the London skyline has inspired a wave of urban myths...
Even before its construction is complete, the Swiss Re Tower has become an icon for the City of London. Built on the site of the old Baltic Exchange, the building's sleek, cigar-shaped profile and curvy good looks have assured the Foster and Partners-designed 40-storey edifice of its landmark status.

But this prestige has come at a cost: since December 2000, when the first spadeful of earth was dug on the high-profile site, the erotic gherkin – as it has affectionately come to be known – has become a magnet for all sorts of rumours relating to problems with its design and construction. Indeed, not since the construction of the Millennium Dome, another hugely iconic scheme, have so many whispers and so much gossip circulated about one building – among the public and construction professionals alike.

Some rumours have even gathered enough momentum to warrant an appearance on the pages of broadsheet papers such as The Times and the Financial Times. "A lot of the rumours are to do with the fact that it is a distinctive landmark building – it goes with the territory," said a spokesperson for Swiss Re.

The building's tiny site, shoe-horned between an assortment of office buildings in the City, has meant that thousands of bored office workers with little knowledge of construction processes have been given an uninterrupted view of the construction team's every move, ensuring the gherkin's status as the main topic of many a fervent lunchtime discussion.

Conversely, some rumours have spread precisely because the public at large does not have a clear view of what is happening on the site. The building's curvaceous form and bulging waist mean that members of the public standing near its base cannot see what work is taking place at its domed pinnacle.

A lot of the rumours are to do with the fact that it is a distinctive landmark building – it goes with the territory

Swiss Re spokesperson

"One of the most ridiculous rumours was that there was nothing happening at the top of the building," says the spokesperson. "It was absurd, because they couldn't see what was happening at the top anyway." A short stroll away from the tower's looming bulk to a better vantage point would have scotched this rumour immediately.

Another piece of tittle-tattle is that the building's midriff has unexpectedly widened. In fact, the tower's unique shape is only possible because of some pioneering structural design. The result of its tapering barrel-like shape is that during construction, as the structure is loaded with the weight of the concrete floors and cladding, the tower will increase in girth slightly at the 26th floor. In fact, the building's structural engineer Arup predicts that it should grow by 50 mm overall while, at the same time, causing the tower's pinnacle to lower by some 125 mm.

With an edict that all press contact with the project team must be through official Swiss Re channels, the cloak of secrecy that surrounds this project will ensure that the steady stream of rumours is set to continue. And with interior fit-out not due for completion until some time in 2004, there is still plenty of time for a few more juicy snippets to emerge. Who knows – some of them may turn out to be true.

Rumour #1: It’s top heavy

“The cap at the top of the building is too heavy so all the glass cladding will have to be replaced with Perspex to reduce its weight.” Rebuttal: “The dome lens will be made of glass – the final panels will be slotted into place soon. The 40-storey structure is designed to cope with the increasing weight of its contents by spreading its girth.”

Rumour #2: They say the air con doesn’t fit

“The air-conditioning has been sized wrongly, and will have to be resized.” Rebuttal: “I am not aware of any problem with the air-conditioning.”

Rumour #3: A sad case of middle-floor spread

“The building has expanded more than it should have done around its middle and all the edge details on the floors will need to be redone.” Rebuttal: “All buildings move when subject to forces such as gravity or wind – they get shorter as they are built due to their self-weight. In addition to the usual shortening movement present in all the buildings, the unique shape of the perimeter structure causes a small outward spread of the lower levels.”

Rumour #4: Did you know it’s sinking?

“The building is sinking into the ground because the glass cladding panels are too heavy for the foundations.” Rebuttal: “Work did stop on the glazing, but this was due to high winds. The origin of the rumour was the headline ‘Gherkin sags’ in a Sunday paper.”

Rumour #5: They can’t hide it – there are panels missing

“There is a problem with the cladding because there are holes in the side of the building where cladding panels have been removed.” Rebuttal: “The tower cranes were attached to the side of the building at various points. To accommodate them, cladding panels were not installed at these points. The holes are left as the cranes are dismantled, cladding panels will be installed to fill these voids.”

Rumour #6: The conspiracy theory

“Many of the rumours have been started by Swiss Re itself to focus attention on the building and improve the chances of letting the surplus office space.” Rebuttal: “That is the first I’ve heard of this one.”