London’s Cheeky Skyscrapers

· Jan. 7, 2014, 11:57 am

I arrived in London a few days ago for my new NPR assignment. As an unofficial part of my orientation, I decided to take a guided walking tour of the old city.

Yes, the history was fascinating. Yes, the city is beautiful. Well, most of it. Parts are not exactly my taste.

But what really struck me about the tour was the sheer number of cheeky, irreverent names that Londoners give their 21st-century skyscrapers. Some of the names have clear origins. Others seem to rise up out of the collective consciousness.

They include The Shard, the work of architect Renzo Piano, completed in 2012. At 87 stories, the Shard (shown at the top of the page) is the tallest skyscraper in the European Union. People who didn’t want the building constructed protested that it would be a “shard of glass” tearing into the London skyline. The team behind the project embraced their adversaries, and The Shard is now the building’s official name.

Here are a few more:


Architect: Foster & Partners, completed in 2003.

This building’s official name is “30 St. Mary Axe.” No wonder people started calling it the Gherkin. You must admit, it does look like a small pickle. The building also has a less family-friendly nickname. Consult your favorite search engine if you’re curious.


Architect: Richard Rogers. Still under construction.

As an architect, Rogers is best known for putting a building’s “guts” on the exterior. The Pompidou Center in Paris may be the most famous example of this technique. His Leadenhall building, as it is officially known, narrows at the top to allow unobstructed views of St. Paul’s from Fleet Street. But the triangular shape reminded Londoners of, well, a cheese grater.


Architect: Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners. Still under construction.

This building was initially dubbed “The Walkie Talkie,” for its distinctive bulbous shape. Then the skyscraper’s curves started focusing sunlight so intensely that cars on the street melted. Someone literally fried an egg on the pavement. Hence the new name.


Architect: Jean Nouvel, completed in 2010.

The Stealth Bomber is mostly a shopping center. It sits right next to St. Paul’s, so the roof provides spectacular views. The designers had to deal with strict sight line rules around the cathedral (see: The Cheese Grater), so they tried to achieve an “under the radar” design, like a stealth bomber. The official name of the complex is One New Change, which may sound lofty but is actually just the building’s address.


Architect: Foster & Partners, completed in 2008.

The Willis Building is named after its biggest occupant, the insurance broker Willis. The design features three curved and terraced towers. The structure was reportedly inspired by the interlocking segments of a prawn’s shell. Clearly in the U.S., this building would be called The Shrimp.

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