A Quest for the Skyline: London’s Never-ending Project

The Dome of St. Paul with cranes rising in the background, highlights the changing skyline of London.
Photographs: Darshit Nakrani

Only a few cities in the world can boast about a historically rich, architecturally diverse and cinematic skyline. Of them, none would come even close to the city on the Thames. London on its river offers not just majestic views of its skyline but also tells stories of the city itself. Some whisper with timid grace from atop magnificent gothic spires, while others scream from sleek sky-reflecting facades of modern towers. Few of them are merely the re-tellings of the city’s past glory, which never fail to amuse hordes of tourists crowding the river bank. Other stories are rife with struggles and controversies.

A Quest For The Skyline” is the story of the city trying to hold onto its past as it embraces new developments. It is the story of London’s efforts to balance its past and future. The story of power and politics, passion and persistence, and the race to find a spot in the city’s skyline. To unravel this story, one must walk along the Thames’ north and south banks. 

20th Century London Skyline.

London’s skyline, until the last quarter of the 20th century, was defined by the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. When one caught a glimpse of Wren’s masterpiece amidst a hundred other spires and found themselves lost in the commotion on a bustling river, they were in London. This cityscape, as captured by Venetian painter Canaletto, remained unchanged for a long time. The building height restriction imposed by the London Building Act of 1894, ensured no building could go higher than 80ft. However, the lifting of these regulations in the 1960s invited new waves of development. For the first time in its history, London welcomed tall buildings. (PS: Londoners prefer to use the term tall building, whereas skyscraper is used across the Atlantic. 

The first tall building to come up in the city’s square mile in the early 1980s was a 183m tall NatWest Tower (now London Tower 42). It was soon followed by Richard Roger’s iconic Lloyd’s Building on Lime Street, which replaced the East India House. Distinct for its ‘inside-out’ design, the banking giant’s office also became a trendsetter for architects to bring artistic and architectural compositions to the city’s changing skyline. The next entrant to the city’s skyline on the Thames’ South bank, was the London Eye. Designed to celebrate the beginning of a new millennium, the giant Ferris Wheel became an instant hit with Londoners. Today, it is to London what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. 

At the turn of the century, London’s skyline shifted from a religious and historical one (dominated by St. Paul and Westminster) to a corporate one (represented by Canary Wharf and Bishopsgate), thereby intensifying the race to make it to the city’s skyline. Within a span of 10 years, tall buildings have sprouted in various pockets across the city. Rising between 100 and 300 metres, and designed in architectural styles ranging from art deco and brutalist to post-modern and futuristic, London’s tall buildings signalled the beginning of a new era.

21st Century Obsession with Tall Buildings.

21st-century London’s optimism for development and enthusiasm for a new architectural identity is epitomised by Foster and Partner’s 30 St. Mary Axe (commonly called “The Gherkin”). Opened in 2003, it replaced the Baltic Exchange building, which was severely damaged in the IRA bombings of 1992. Despite the controversy surrounding its construction, the distinct stretched egg-shaped structure made it to the city’s skyline. Next came Kohn Pederson Fox’s Heron Tower, rising 230m like a bunch of vertically placed rectangular glass blocks. By early 2014, London’s skyline had two more additions. The controversial Walkie-Talkie (160m), infamous for melting the road, and the Cheesegrater. Besides their distinct form, London’s tall buildings also became famous as brands in themselves. So one must ask, “What’s in the name?”

With the completion of The Scalpel in 2018, visual drama in the city’s skyline intensified. Razor-sharp angles pointing towards the sky testified what architects could do to find their name on the city’s canvas. Next came PLP Architecture’s 22 Bishopsgate building. At a height of 278m, it became the tallest building in the square mile, dwarfing even the Cheesegrater.

The Shard and Tower Bridge as viewed from St. Katherine Dock.
Photographs: Darshit Nakrani

On the South bank, stands London City Hall, yet another Foster and Partner icon. Its unique architectural form: a reclining sliced sphere gave it a place on the skyline. To its West, stands Renzo Piano’s Shard, a visible symbol of London’s love affair with tall buildings. Its glass splinter pinnacle, modelled on a ship’s mast commands the view of the city and is an unmissable feature of London’s skyline. The Shard, despite many controversies, rose in the city’s skyline to win the accolade of being the tallest building in the European Union. 

Despite harbouring 122 tall buildings, London’s obsession with building higher doesn’t seem to stop. Plans are already in motion to add new “skyscrapers” to the city’s skyline in Southwark, Vauxhall, City of London, Canary Wharf and Stratford. A glimpse of the city from the river bank puts it in perspective: London’s skyline is a project that has no end. As cranes go up, so do buildings. So why not take a walk along the Thames and enjoy watching London romancing with its new-found love for tall buildings?

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