April 28: the towering innuendo

2012/04/28 § Leave a comment

On this day in 2004, 30 St. Mary Axe (formerly the Swiss Re HQ) was completed.

Once in a while even a muse will throw up in her mouth.  Catching sight of this thing does it every time.  Now, do not get us wrong: this is not a broad-brushstroke rant against Modernism or the building’s architect, Sir Norman Foster.  In fact, we sort of like Norman.  He’s no stranger to Clio’s parlor, although he doesn’t ever stay for long and sometimes he leaves with stories that makes me wonder if he was really listening.  But our affection for Norman is like our attraction to driving fast and eating truffles–we know that a little usually leads to a lot, and a lot potentially leads to a lot of regret.  So, while this and this are really kind of OK, 30 St. Mary Axe?  That’s another thing.

The building occupies a tensely significant place, in time and space.  A huge (40 storey) office tower in London’s financial center, its construction began within weeks of the bombing of the World Trade Center, on the former site of the Baltic Exchange Building, which had been irreparably damaged by terrorist bombs not too long before.  So, one wonders at the wisdom of this sort of I DOUBLE DOG DARE YOU architecture right here and right now.

But Clio’s main issue is not so much with the apparent lack of manners about the building as the way it is formally mannered.  Naughty wags (and also even our own Léon Krier, in his admittedly erudite manner) immediately saw an architecturally-scaled opportunity for bathroom humor (this is as good a place as any to catch up with the jokes).  We have always seen it as the horn of a nasty monster from the core of the earth, drilling through the earth’s surface to eat up London.  Then again, if a great beast from below was ever to demolish a chunk of the city, it may as well be that part with all the horrid post-war construction–as long as it steers clear of Wren’s great cathedral, a monument in the neighborhood that Norman should have thought more deeply about.  At least all that boring post-war hodgepodge has the sense to stay rectilinear, even while imposing on St. Paul’s, which was miraculously spared the German bombs.  Foster’s tapering (but not curved, it is faceted) structure is too-near a match to the elegant forms that should be reserved for the buildings of greatest distinction–and we don’t think being the city’s most expensive office building really counts.

This, of course, does not keep it from being the darling of the architecture world, winning prizes for design and energy-savings and whatnot, even if it’s also terrible urbanistically; just look at its street-level design.  It’s also become popularly popular, even featured, we cringe to admit, in our favorite Harry Potter movie.  But, worth noting: when Death Eaters attack, traditional architecture (from Wren’s dome to the Bankside Power Station) holds firm; it’s another Foster structure that goes up in smoke.

Image: The Erotic Gherkin, making even that crappy post-war stuff look not as bad as it is  (from this source)

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You are currently reading April 28: the towering innuendo at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.

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