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New rise of London

A bold design invites praise and opposition in a city that, like its buildings, is moving up.

May 12, 2003|William Wallace | Special to The Times

London — London

Cast an eye in either direction along the Thames River from Waterloo Bridge -- easily the best view of the city -- and it quickly becomes evident the 21st century is getting a grip on London's jumbled skyline.

Dozens of cranes trawl the riverbank, the mark of a building spurt unseen in the centuries since Christopher Wren supervised London's reconstruction after the Great Fire of 1666. This is a city where the skyline is defined in imagination if not always in practice by Wren's magnificent domes, a place where Georgian architecture lies down with Victorian, ancient ruins with the odd medieval jewel.

It does not appear to be the sort of place for an architect to wade in clutching computer models and ambitions to build the tallest tower in Europe.

But up is where Renzo Piano wants to take London. The Genoa-born, Paris-based architect was invited by one of the city's flush developers to dream a future for the southern end of fabled London Bridge. Irvine Sellar, a property tycoon who began in business selling gloves in the swinging London of the '60s, bought the site in 1998 with two partners, declaring his intention to knock down one of the city's uglier architectural efforts and build an 87-story tower on the site.

That was quickly vetoed by aviation authorities -- the route down the Thames is on the flight path to Heathrow Airport. So Sellar lowered his target and turned Piano's imagination loose. Two years later, the Italian produced a model for a 66-story, 1,016-foot glass tower that will knife the air above the Thames.

It is a bold design of glass shards, its irregular geometry sweeping breezily skyward until, as Piano says, "it disappears into the sky like the mast of a tall ship." About 7,500 people a day are expected to use its offices, hotel and 14 apartments, but Piano promises the building's transparency and tilted reflections of sky will give his building an airy feel. "It is very light, very elegant," the 65-year-old architect said in an interview from his Paris office. "The breeze will blow through the top. You will see the birds on the other side."

There are, on the other hand, those who don't want to see it built at all.

"London is under siege from tall buildings and tall building proposals," says Nick Antram of English Heritage, the organization leading the fight to ground Piano's tower. Antram has nothing against Piano's design itself. "We do feel a bit conflicted opposing something so wonderful," he admitted during a walk around the chaotic London Bridge neighborhood to point out where the tower would intrude. "Piano's design is exciting. It's just the wrong scale in the wrong place."

Right time, though. The London Bridge Tower has come along as the city is throwing off its architectural shyness about height and sprouting skyscrapers (although the heights being contemplated are actually modest by comparison to the rest of the world: Europe's current tallest building, the 850-foot-high Commerzbank Tower in Frankfurt, doesn't even crack the world's top-50 list).

The boom has been triggered by good times in London, which has asserted itself in the last decade as the unchallenged financial center of Europe -- even if much of the action takes place downriver at Canary Wharf, where another cluster of towers keeps getting fatter. The height is necessary, advocates say, to offer enough office space and to accommodate all those cables carrying electronic traffic.

But there is also a mood in London political circles that a bona fide 21st century "world city" pedigree requires nothing less than a few good skyscrapers. Fifteen, in fact, says Ken Livingstone, the city's socialist mayor who presides happily over the current explosion of construction.

Livingstone himself now settles into a mayor's chair in a spanking new Norman Foster-designed city hall, its glass front bulging out like a beer belly over the river just east of London Bridge. Looking west, he can watch the last panes of glass being fitted to Foster's Swiss Re building, finishing the distinctive conical design that has made it popularly known as the Gherkin (or, to some, the Erotic Gherkin). And work should begin soon on the 42-story Heron Tower, the Kohn Pederson Fox Associates building that is meant to be the heart of the central business district.

To Livingstone, skyscraper critics such as English Heritage and that fusty, interfering Prince Charles are nothing less than a conservationist "Taliban." After all, English Heritage opposed the London Eye, the tilted Ferris wheel built for the millennium. Derided as kitsch before it was built, the Eye has become a fixture of the new London skyline. Even English Heritage came around to support extending its life by 25 years.

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