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The Gherkins – London Skyscrapers Essay

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Updated: May 7th, 2019


The aim of this paper was to report on the construction of the 30 St. Mary AXE (Gherkin) in London and how a similar skyscraper would be constructed in modern times. The Gherkin was designed by the Foster and Partners and constructed by the Skanska group from 2001-2003.

The building occupies the former site of the Baltic exchange that was destroyed in 1992 by a bomb explosion. The Gherkin is one of the environmental friendly skyscrapers of the 21st century. However, the construction of a similar skyscraper today would entail more modification such as the use of recycled glass.


The built environment has undergone tremendous changes in the twenty first century. A number of appealing contributions have been made to the built environment. For instance, modern cities around the world have constructed modern structures such canals, subway systems, bridges, and skyscrapers by the use of modern technology. The advancement in the built environment is attributed to superior cultures and civilizations, which have emerged over the years.

In the twenty first century the Western culture and civilization has greatly influenced the type of buildings constructed in Europe, United States of America and other parts of the world. For instance, the city of London boasts of having one of the magnificent skyscrapers known as the 30 St. Mary AXE or the Gherkin. The 30 St. Mary AXE is “located in London’s financial district and stands on the site formally occupied by the Baltic Exchange, which was destroyed in 1992 by a bomb explosion” (Yudelson 46).

The architects of the 30 St. Mary AXE were Norman Foster and Partners while the main constructor of the skyscraper was Skanska. The building was constructed from 2001-2003 after which it was commercialized in 2004. The 30 St. Mary AXE has 40 floors and a height of 591ft. This paper explores how the Gherkin was constructed, the civilization and culture prevalent during its construction, as well as, how a similar skyscraper could be constructed today.

Place, Period, and Size of the 30 St. Mary AXE

The destruction of the Baltic Exchange in 1992 by an explosion led to the need to reconstruct the site that the Baltic Exchange had occupied. The government of the United Kingdom had hoped to reconstruct the site because “the Exchange hall was a celebrated fixture of the ship trading company” (Yudelson 46).

However, this dream was never to be realized following the extensive damage that the 1992 explosion had caused to the Baltic Exchange. As a result, in 1995 the Baltic Exchange sold the site to the Trafalgar House, which proposed the construction of the Millennium Tower.

However, the plan to construct the Millennium Tower was “dropped because it was totally out of scale with the city of London and the building would also disrupt flight paths for both the City and Heathrow airports” (Wells 30-31). Therefore, in 1997 the Swiss Re managed to acquire the Baltic Exchange site after which the Swiss Re sought the service of Foster and Partners to design a building that would maintain the traditional streetscape of London City (Wells 30).

After the authorization of the Foster and Partners design, the Skanska embarked on the construction of the building in 2001 at the Baltic Exchange site. The construction of 30 St. Mary AXE took a period of three years. The Gherkin was opened the following year on 28 April 2004 with the Swiss Re as the primary occupant (Yudelson 46). The building has forty floors and a height of 180 meters (591ft).

The Gherkin consumes less energy as compared to other skyscrapers of similar size. The lower floors of the building are broader whereas from the sixteenth floor the sizes of the upper floors gradually reduce. The unique design of the Gherkin makes it to have a slender outlook as compared to skyscrapers of similar size. Additionally, the design of the 30 St. Mary AXE makes it more suitable to its location.

The lower floors of the building mainly function as offices while the top most floors act as private dining rooms, restaurant, and a bar that serves the tenants and guests. The top most floors enable guests and tenants to have a full view of the city of London. Similarly, the building is “visible over long distances, for instance, the building is visible from M11 Motorway and from the statue of George III in Windsor Great Park” (Wells 32).

Due to its enormous size the building has twenty three lifts, which are categorized as follows: “sixteen passenger lifts (6 high rise, 5 mid rise and 5 low rise), two lifts for goods, two fire fighters lifts, two shuttle lifts for top floor, and one car park lift” (Wells 34). The lifts are very efficient because they can carry more than 300 people at a particular time.

However, “the main lift for the building reaches the 34th floor while the push-from-below lift provide service to users up to the 39th floor hence creating a room for a bar at the 40th floor” (Wells 35).

The Prevalent Civilization and Culture during the Construction of the 30 St. Mary AXE

Civilization refers to “the material and instrumental side of human cultures that are complex in terms of technology, science, and division of labor” (Solomon 128). However, the term civilization has been viewed as controversial because it can be used to refer to superiority or inferiority. Similarly, the term civilization may also refer to culture of a particular group of people.

A number of factors such as transportation systems, political structures, urbanization, and architecture indicate the level of civilization of a particular society. The Western culture and civilization has remained dominant in the 21st century. A number of architectural structures in the 21st century have resulted from innovations brought about by Western civilization and culture. Therefore, Western civilization and culture was prevalent during the construction of the 30 St. Mary AXE.

Western civilization is a term, which “broadly refers to a heritage of social norms, ethnical values, traditional customs, beliefs systems, political systems, and technologies that originated from Europe” (Solomon 130).

Due to globalization Western culture and civilization has spread to different parts of the world, thereby influencing socio-economic, political, and technologies in various parts of the world. For instance, in most cities around the world architectural structures depict elements of Western culture and civilization such as straight lines, simple, and undecorated planes (Solomon 156-157).

One of the structures that clearly emphasize the characteristics of Western architecture is the skyscraper such as the 30 St. Mary AXE in London. A skyscraper refers to “any building that protrudes beyond its built environment and changes the overall skyline” (Richards 79-81). However, over the years the heights of skyscrapers have greatly increased due to modern techniques of construction.

A good number of cities of the twenty first century are characterized by skyscrapers of similar size as the Gherkin, which distinguish them and define the cities’ identities. In most cities around the world, skyscrapers are constructed because they are economical in terms of space, thereby ensuring optimum use of space within city centers where there is limited land.

The need to conserve space influenced the construction of the 30 St. Mary AXE building, which is one of the magnificent pieces of Western architecture. Fazlur Rahman Khan, who is a Bangladeshi-American structural engineer, is credited to have developed an engineering principle known as tubular design, which has influenced the construction of skyscrapers (Wells 17-19).

Since 2000, several cities such as Chicago, New York, London, Shanghai, and Dubai have registered increase in the number of skyscrapers. This has been made possible due to the tubular design technique. The principle of tubular design is both economical and efficient because it reduces the quantity of construction materials used, as well as, enabling buildings to have several floors.

The construction of skyscrapers should ensure safety of occupants against calamities such as earthquakes, wind, and fire (Yudelson 18). Skyscrapers ought to be accessible and fitted with facilities that enable occupants to operate with a lot of ease.

The construction of most skyscrapers entail the use of “steel frameworks from which curtain walls are suspended rather than load bearing walls used in conventional construction” (Richards 137). The steel frameworks help in the construction of tall buildings with windows of large surface areas.

The use of steel frames in construction emerged during the industrial revolution, which begun in the 19th century in Europe. Therefore, the concept of skyscrapers like the 30 St. Mary AXE emerged because of Western civilization characterized by industrialization in various fields. As a result, Western civilization and culture led to the invention of more efficient and effective building techniques and construction materials, which have enabled the construction of buildings such as the skyscrapers.

Therefore, the construction of the 30 St. Mary AXE that depicts elements of Western architecture made a significant contribution to the built environment. The unique design of the building makes it to stand out from the surrounding buildings. The innovation of the design team has proved that with the new technologies and techniques of building, a number of structures can be constructed without interfering with a city’s layout, thereby positively contributing to the built environment.

The Construction of the 30 St. Mary AXE

The 1992 explosion that destroyed the Baltic Exchange center created a need for reconstruction of a similar building in order to maintain London’s cultural heritage of shipping technology.

However, the reconstruction of the Baltic Exchange proved futile after the United Kingdom government authorities realized that the destruction caused by the explosion was massive. Therefore, attempts were made to design a building that would suit the former location of the Baltic Exchange. Consequently, the Swiss Reinsurance Company commissioned Foster and Partners to design a suitable building for the site.

Fortunately, the government endorsed the design created by Foster and Partners due to its unique and spectacular design. In 2001, the Skanska constructors embarked on the construction process. Being a skyscraper of the 21st century, its construction entailed new technologies and techniques of construction. Additionally, the materials used were sophisticated and modern.

The 30 St. Mary AXE was constructed using steel frames joined together at triangular nodes in order to provide support for the weight of outer part of the structure. In order to ensure the success of using the steel nodes in the construction of the building, the designers conducted a number of tests through mock-up structures and computation (Wells 35).

The design allowed for continuity of the interior parts of the building while connecting the floors in a manner that would ensure maximum ventilation in the entire building. Similarly, the egg shape design of the building enables it to reduce wind intensity at the lower floors while at the same time ensuring that there is adequate air circulation in the building. The designers also provided for gaps in every floor to provide natural ventilation of the building.

The gaps left in every floor create shafts, which allow cool air to be drawn inside the building, as well as, warming the building through fitted passive solar gain (Richards 113). “Blinds located within the cavity of the ventilated double skin façade intercept solar gain before it enters the office environment after which the intercepted heat is reclaimed or rejected depending on the requirement for heating or cooling” (Yudelson 46).

Therefore, the construction of the 30 St. Mary AXE ensured that the building would have maximum natural ventilation that saves energy use by approximately 50% lower than buildings of similar size. The various systems within the building use gas as the major source of energy and supplemented by electricity.

The construction of the 30 St. Mary AXE also entails a double wall system whereby the outer walls of the building consist of several glass windows of triangular shapes whereas the inner walls have sliding glass doors. The building’s façade is composed of a column casing of aluminum, glass screen, which is operable and a façade frame made of extruded aluminum.

Floors that mainly serve as offices have a double-glazed outer layer whereas the inner layer has a single glazed screen. On the other hand, the space between the layers has a central ventilation system that regulates the amount of heat and coldness in the building depending on the season.

The cladding system of the building majorly consists of non-curved glass despite the building’s egg shape. The glasses used in cladding are arranged in diamond triangular panes. The all-glass cladding system enables occupants of the building to benefit from maximum sunlight exposure necessary for their operations, thereby enabling the occupants to save energy (Richards 145-148). The building was also fitted with an effective and efficient plumbing system.

The building has an electric heat tracing system that ensures circulation of hot water throughout the building. The electric heat tracing system is advantageous in several ways. For example, the system helps in conservation of energy and maintenance cost as compared to conventional plumbing systems that uses re-circulation.

Due to the several floors that the building has, the construction consumed much glass, steel, concrete, and energy. For instance, in order for the constructors to lift the building materials to the upper floors much energy was required. Similarly, the construction process entailed skilled labor force that ensured the construction was a success. As compared to the earlier centuries, the construction of the Gherkin benefited from the upsurge of skilled labor force in the architectural field.

For example, the architects were experts who created the unique design of the building by exploiting new technologies and methodologies that have emerged in the architectural field over the years. Therefore, the labor force that participated in the construction of the building was not only skilled but also creative. Consequently, the labor force ensured that the building stood out as a splendid piece of architecture from the buildings that surround it.

However, despite the skilled work force that led to the realization of the project a number of shortcomings have been recorded about the building, which may have resulted from the construction process.

For example, a year later (2005) after the opening of the building for public use, “the press reported that a glass panel had fallen to the plaza beneath the building” (Solomon 197-199). Fortunately, there were no serious injuries reported because of the glass panel that had fallen off. Consequently, the incident led to the closure of the plaza and several other windows as the investigations over the incident went on.

Reports made concerning the incident shows that one of the window’s opening device had worn out. Additionally, a number of critics have considered the design of the Gherkin uneconomical in terms of space due to the various facilities fitted in the building such as the light wells and the central lift.

The critics also argue that the floor design of the Gherkin does not favor confidentiality especially in businesses that entail discussions with clients. As a result, some tenants have partitioned their offices in order to enhance their confidentiality, thereby hindering natural air circulation and lighting. Similarly, the light wells encourage transfer of sound between the floors.

Despite some of the shortcomings associated with the construction of the Gherkin, the building has attracted numerous tourists and defined London’s skyline. The construction of the Gherkin has inspired the construction of environmentally friendly buildings not only in London but also in other parts of the world where attempts have been made to construct similar skyscrapers. The sleek design of the building has also provided a plaza for public use, as well as, reducing wind deflection.

Based on some of the shortcomings of the construction of the Gherkin, a number of changes and improvements can be made if a similar structure was constructed today. However, this does not dispute the fact that the Gherkin is a magnificent piece of architecture of the 21st century.

Due to advancements in technology in construction today, a similar building as the Gherkin would use recycled glass panels in order to promote environmental conservation. Additionally, a similar skyscraper would have several roof gardens fitted for the purpose of environmental conservation. In order to enhance space and confidentiality the floors would have opaque demarcated offices and the natural lighting enhanced by artificial lighting powered by solar panels especially during summer.

This would help to enhance conservation of energy and help to reduce air pollution because solar energy is environmental friendly. The construction of a similar building as the Gherkin today, would entail a water recycling system that promote conservation of water. Additionally, the building would have a swimming pool fitted in the 39th or the 40th floor, as well as, gym facilities, which would provide the tenants and their guests with a variety of recreational facilities apart from the bar.

Since the main aim of constructing skyscrapers is to maximize the use of space within the building, a similar skyscraper as the Gherkin in modern time would have a sky lobby to enhance movements between the floors. A sky lobby refers to “an intermediate interchange floor, which enables the users of an elevator system to change from an express elevator that only stops at the sky lobby to a local elevator that stops at every floor within a segment of the building” (Richards 87).

The sky lobby would have a number of facilities that serve the tenants. For instance, the sky lobby would have dry cleaner services for the tenants, mailboxes for companies operating in the building, library facilities, a relaxing zone, and a polling center where the tenants can vote during elections.

These facilities are crucial because they enable the tenants to save time because they will have access to a number of services within the same building. Construction of the Gherkin in modern times would also entail facilities such as a double-deck elevator that allows users to use the elevator simultaneously, thereby reducing traffic caused by lifts that stop at every floor.


The advancement of construction methodologies and technology in the architectural field has led to the construction of various skyscrapers around the world. The Gherkin is one of the magnificent skyscrapers in London. The unique design of the building has made it a tourist attraction, as well as, an inspiration for other nations to design similar buildings that would protect the environment.

The design of the Gherkin enables it to maximize the use of natural lighting and clean gas energy. Despite the shortcomings associated with the building, the Gherkin still standout as one of the significant pieces of architecture of the 21st century. Therefore, cities around the world should shift their attention towards construction of skyscrapers that promote environmental conservation. Architects of modern skyscrapers should utilize modern technologies in order to promote green building trends.

Works Cited

Richards, Brent. New Glass Architecture. London: Lawrence King Publishing, 2006. Print.

Solomon, Nancy. Architecture: Celebrating the Past, Designing the Future. New York: Visual Reference Publications, 2008. Print.

Wells, Mathew. Skyscrapers: Structure and Design. London: Lawrance King Publishing, 2005. Print.

Yudelson, Jerry. Green Building Trends: Europe. London: Island Press, 2009. Print.

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