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The New Review: Critics: Architecture: A tower of no small ambition: Overlook, if you can, its crass shape and enjoy instead the dazzling details that elevate Richard Rogers's Cheesegrater: 122 Leadenhall Street London EC3

August 24, 2014

Rowan Moore



Someone has told the bouncers to be nice. It is now standard for architectural anoraks like myself to find ourselves challenged by smile-less security as we go about our blameless business - no loitering, no photography, no looking, as if al-Qaida scouts would do their dastardly work in this way or as if, years after the invention of the camera phone, photography can be controlled as it could in the age of the tripod. But not at the base of the Cheesegrater. Here, you can ride the escalators, take snaps and engage the wardrobe-shouldered gentlemen in conversations about architecture.

Which is just as well, as much of the Cheesegrater's claim to be special, to be more than just another commercial tower, rests on the zone beneath its overhanging mass, described as a "public space". Accuracy requires it to be pointed out that it is not in fact public space, being controlled by the developers British Land and Oxford Properties, but privately owned, publicly accessible space, which might now be called Popas for short. Still, it is something most skyscrapers don't offer, and a few arsey guards would wreck the positivity generated by this gift of valuable cubic metres and its expensive landscaping.

As of a few days ago the hoardings have come down sufficiently for the public to enter this zone. It is, first of all, magnificent, a steel hypostyle in which the weight of the tower above your head comes to earth through a grove of graceful struts. They frame new views of surrounding buildings - the Gherkin, the medieval/Tudor church of St Andrew Undershaft, and the Lloyd's building, which, like the Cheesegrater, was designed by Richard Rogers's practice, now called Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners. Lloyd's, a Grade I listed 80s classic, looks steampunk next to the newcomer's greater refinement.

Its generosity is less in pavement area than in volume. This void is several storeys high, a chunk of space that, in the 1930s, would have been enough to fit a banking palazzo in Portland stone. If, as the medieval German proverb had it, city air makes you free, City air is expensive, and it's an unfamiliar experience to get this much room in the Square Mile, outside St Paul's Cathedral or a livery hall. Drama is added by escalators and lifts that, in ways beloved of these architects, both plunge through the space and display the wheels, rods and wires that make them work. As a homage to their 1970s selves, when Piano and Rogers designed the Pompidou Centre in Paris, big, fat air ducts rise from the ground.

You certainly know that this is Popas, not public space. The switch in paving on the boundary line tells you so, as do the interesting species of tree, the ultra-green of the grass and the patrolling (friendly) security. But Popas, as long as you are clear in your terms, does not have to be a bad thing. The Cheesegrater's version avoids the common Popas habit of being a shopping mall in disguise - the signs are up announcing opportunities for buying macaroons and smoothies, all pastel against the grey steel, but they don't dominate.

It is more in danger of being an office lobby with the walls left off, and there's a bit of confusion about how much it is corporate and how much social. The escalators are not quite the liberating devices they were on the Pompidou Centre, where they took citizens on a free ride to the sky, but take you to a smallish landing beyond which (unless you have business in the building) you cannot go. So you have to turn round and go back down.

The general splendour is gravely threatened by some bum notes. For when it comes to being in the space as opposed to looking at it, it gets more awkward. Those exciting escalators chew up room, such that the places for sitting and passing the time of day feel left over - whatever could be squeezed in after the architecture has had its fun. They are further compromised by some seriously strange and intrusive glass screens. (Windbreaks? Security? Preparation for the day when the owners want, after all, to close the place off a bit more?) Clumsy balustrades, to stop you banging your head on the underside of the escalators, don't help either.

So the Cheesegrater's Popas is a combination of the very good and the not good that is familiar to students of the hi-tech style, of which this is a late flowering. The lift machinery is dazzling, but the places to sit are pretty dreadful. Something similar could be said of the flawed glory of the Lloyd's building across the street.

It could also be said of the exterior of, to give it its official name, the Leadenhall building. For the exterior is, much of the time, really beautiful. Where most new buildings wrap themselves in cladding, this selectively reveals its structure and workings, in a way that allows different degrees of scale, and of strength and delicacy, from sheer glass to robust steel, to the filigree workings of lifts. There is joy in its making, with visible bolts and junctions that are considered in relation to the whole. It is a building with detail, scale, light and shadow. It offers different appearances to different aspects. It is big, but adapts itself to the street.

Above all, it has layers of transparency, reflection and depth. Rather than an opaque carapace, it offers continually changing glimpses through and across its surfaces that, as well as creating simple visual fascination, communicate a sense of its inner life. It's a giant machine that shows itself to be a living, if not exactly a breathing, thing. Perhaps its greatest moment is its back, or northern elevation, sheer vertical, where more fun is had with lifts. It is a 700ft ballet of precisely considered mechanisms, where even the counterweights, set within coloured frames, resemble works of art. It's a celebration of technical civilisation that invites you to be amazed at the things that people can do.

But then there's the shape. Why is it a wedge? What is good or interesting about it? The official explanation is that it's shaped this way to get out of the backdrop of views of St Paul's, when seen down Fleet Street, but this ignores the other 359 degrees from which views might be had, and its relationships with other buildings, which are plain clumsy. There were other ways than a crude triangle to deal with the Fleet Street view.

The Cheesegrater, in fact, is the reverse of the Gherkin, which looks good on the skyline but gets dumber as you get closer. It is also likely to be the best of the new London towers: it was conceived more than a decade ago, when building tall was still considered such a privilege that planners, like medieval priests selling indulgences, could demand such things from developers as the generous Popas and general quality of design. The 200-plus towers now on the way face no such rigour. So, despite its faults, we should appreciate its considerable qualities. They won't make them like they used to.

Captions:

'Strength and delicacy': the Leadenhall building reveals its workings to offer 'continually changing glimpses' of its inner life. The 'public space' at the foot of the tower is a rare example of large-scale landscaping in the City. Photographs by Sonja Horsman for the Observer


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Source: Observer (UK)


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