was a breakthrough in the evolution of the City skyline in London
as it started to move from old and stagnant, wracked by conservatism,
to the something newer and more vibrant that was finally throwing
off it's modernist and often brutalist look. This is that story.
Britannic House was the former headquarters of British Petroleum
and the tallest building in the London Wall area of the City. Completed
in 1967 it was 399ft / 122m and their main headquarters, not to
mention part of the original core of towers for the City. Time passed
and the building became increasingly unfashionable whilst property
prices in the area started to rocket in the late 90s. Faced with
an expensive reclad job like CGU had done for their own tower of
similar height or selling the site on at a price of a whopping £300
million for redevelopment they opted for the latter and bailed out.
CityPoint was about to be born.
Were 'a Changing.
Wates City, the prominent developers who had been foiled with a
similar plot to completely makeover Winchester House into a 150m/500ft
tower were the guys writing the £300 million cheque. Their
previous big project which fell through in 1988 was a victim of
the concern at the time over the uglification of London that had
been led vocally by Prince Charles, a firm defender of stagnancy
in the skyline.
With the Prince now discredited thanks to his barmy ideas and extramarital
affiars, and enough water under the bridge from the 80s outrage,
they had a plan figuring that London was ready for a new tower of
height for the first time since Natwest had finished the pinnacle
of the skyline in 1979.
They were further bolstered by Norman Foster's own ambitious plans
for the site of the bombed out Baltic Exchange which were of a tower
over 360m tall which had not been met with quite the howls of public
complaint some people had hoped for, not to mention HSBCs attempts
at finding land to build their own 200m tower on in the City.
The successful transformation of Natwest's bomb damaged HQ into
Tower 42 thanks to its complete refit, had proved that there was
a big market for old towers made new again with small but rich City
If the planners were seriously discussing skyscrapers elsewhere
they would, the logic went, also consider one at Britannic House.
To win them over they would not only need a site, which they had
now secured but also an architect of top international quality.
Eyes quickly turned to the Iberian Peninsula and Santiago Calatrava,
one of the rock stars of modern architecture was hired to design
something daring and new that would make a true mark on London.
The Man with the Plan.
was new, well new to London.
Never before had a building been given such a complete makeover
as what he had in mind.
First there was a partial demolition that would transform the existing
modernist block into a sleeker thinner tower whilst increasing the
specification of the tower giving more space between floors which
would allow the latest high tech equipment to be installed.
Despite being thinned, floorspace would increase with the top floor
knocked up in height to increase the roof height. With it's new
look and the latest technology it would be an attractive location
to do business in.
Most audaciously of all, there was to be a massive spire placed
on the top with an overhanging top floor which would bolster the
sharpness of the look that Calatrava was trying to produce with
his design. This fin would boost the building's height to just over
200m and provide a rival counterpoint to Fosters Millenium Tower
that would act as framing St Pauls inbetween the two.
This, it was hoped, would also provide the same monumentality that
was finally drawing clients to Canary Wharf but it was a gamble
that was to raise eyebrows.
Fin too Far.
Whilst Foster's plans had started the debate the planning system
was still much as it was ten years before. The idea of refitting
Britannic House, and even increasing the height a bit was not an
issue but when it came to sticking a 70m tall spire on the top there
were murmurings of discontent.
Predictably the heritage lobby starting screaming loudly that it
would stab through the heart of London and the views of St Paul's
Cathedral would be ruined forever. At first Wate's City put their
hands in their ears and pretended not to listen but it was soon
becoming clear that the planning department in the Corporation of
London was also uneasy and securing planning permission would be
At the same time the plans for the Millenium Tower were being scaled
into the much loved Gherkin we have today and HSBC, frustrated by
their attempts at finding a new tower finally decided to move to
Canary Wharf. The existence of the Swiss RE plans showed climate
had changed, but not enough - there was no option but to start again
with a shorter plan.
Calatrava however stuck to his guns, it was either what he designed
or nothing. Faced with an intractable architect Wates City parted
company with him and started the process all over again.
This time their eyes looked to Britain and they found the reliable
Sheppard Robson, a slightly more conservative practise but one who
was more than willing to bend to the wills of their client. A new
partnership was born.
Kids Design the Block.
With their more restrained approach and a lack of flamboyancy Shepard
Robson were a smart choice to build on what had already been designed.
Much of Calatrava's external look was preserved in some form. The
massing of the building stayed the same with only a slightly more
curved appearance on it's bow with a similar curve now added to
the stern. The shape of the podium was also retained, however a
second wing of this was added when previously Calatrava had preferred
a sheer wall up the north side of the building to present stunning
vertical views, this second wing had the advantage of reducing down-drafts
on this side.
Predictably, there were radical changes to the pinnacle. The fin,
which some wags had said made the building look like a rubbish bin,
had been completely removed and replaced with a flat top surrounded
bordered by overhanging bracing whilst the overhanging top floor
was also completely gone. Instead there was a slightly rounded roof,
creating a gentler but less exciting shape.
The cladding was toned down with the go-faster strips from the bow
of the building completely removed whilst the glass had both transparency
and refraction increased.
The end result was blander and smoother but to its advantage it
was also safer.
The revised design marked a compromise between what Wates had set
out to do and what the planners were happy to live with.
The only subtle increase in height placated English Heritage who
would drop their complaints about the effect on the skyline whilst
the Corporation of London would finally get some high spec office
space in a new tower so they could at least start to compete with
Canary Wharf. Everyone was happy.
By 2002 Citypoint was complete had become the second tallest building
in the City, a title it was soon to lose to Swiss RE's new headquarters
at 30 St Mary's Axe.
It's now a massive success, which operates on the same formula as
tower 42 with 100% occupancy of mostly small firms but wealthy dealing
in finance, insurance, law and accountancy which want a standout
property. To this day it remains the largest rentable building in
the City, a title it soon looks like losing.
Calatrava's design was outrageous but only a few years ahead of
it's time and a victim of the last gasp of conservative architecture
in the City, a place that is now actively seeking outrageous, original
and landmark ideas for towers.
These days it would hardly have caused a blink of an eye, the planning
rules have changed, precedents for height have been set by public
inquiries, and a building of similar height (200m), Ropemaker Place
was actively encouraged by the powers that be only next door.
London sadly remains without a single building by Calatrava, whilst
Shepard Robson have gone on to become the restoration specialists
of office blocks in London lately working on the refit of the Empress
State Building and designed the wonderful sloping tower originally
planned for Ropemaker place.
The environment may not have been quite right for the original design,
but CityPoint remains a mark of things to come in London that only
now are coming into fruition. A new skyline.