Why I’m on a mission to open up London’s iconic skyscrapers to the public

Victoria Thornton
The City now boasts many tall buildings (Source: Getty Images)

This is an exciting time for Londoners; we live in one of the world’s great cities, and one that is changing more rapidly than at any time in its history. This change is evident all around us, as new places and spaces appear, new buildings replace old, and London’s parameters are re-defined.

I launched Open House in 1992, with the objective of improving public awareness and appreciation of the capital’s building design and architecture. I wanted to encourage debate on London’s built environment, to help Londoners become more knowledgeable about architecture, and to understand the fabric of this wonderful city. Each year, buildings across the capital offer free and open access to the public and, today, the event attracts up to 250,000 people, showing just how passionate Londoners have become about the buildings around them.

In recent years, public interest has centred on London’s growing collection of tall buildings. Until the development of Canary Wharf in the late 1980s and early 1990s – a concept and design imported from New York – London was not a “high-rise” city. Just over ten years later, 30 St Mary Axe, better known as The Gherkin, was completed and drew thousands of visitors at that year’s Open House. Fast forward another decade, and there are a proposed 230 tall buildings to be built over the next ten years, and London’s ever-changing skyline is a source of fierce debate.

The Gherkin
The Gherkin drew thousands of visitors when it was part of Open House (Source: Getty Images)

The skyline debate is essentially about quality. Quality is of course subjective, and should not be defined purely by architects and other experts. So if we are to have an informed public discussion about London’s skyline, we need to engender a wide understanding of what these buildings are, and how they contribute to making London a liveable city. That is why I’m thrilled that British Land and Oxford Properties have agreed to open The Cheesegrater for the first time as part of this year’s Open House.

This building is the last of its generation; most of the next wave of skyscrapers in London will be outside the City and mostly residential. Visitors in September will learn that the building’s unusual slanted shape was designed to protect views of St Paul’s Cathedral from The Cheshire Cheese pub on Fleet Street. On arriving, they will realise that this tower is just as recognisable at street level, where it gives back half an acre of public space to the City, an area that will serve as one of the Square Mile’s main meeting points.

The Cheesegrater may become a symbol of the City of London

Tall buildings invariably have a fantastic story to tell. Many will wonder how a building the size of The Cheesegrater has been built in such a tight space on Leadenhall Street. The answer is that it wasn’t. The vast majority of the construction took place off-site, with 18,000 tonnes of steel transported to the site and assembled like a giant Mechano set. The Cheesegrater may come to be seen as a symbol of the City of London, but it is equally a symbol of British ingenuity.

The Cheesegrater, like the Gherkin before it, sets the standard for the next wave of tall buildings. By understanding and appreciating these London landmarks, we can better determine what we want from the next generation of towers.

Canary Wharf
The concept behind Canary Wharf was imported from New York (Source: Getty Images)

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

Related articles