A target built of steel and glass

What is this place the IRA has twice tried to blow up? A business centre first, but also a vast symbolic monument to Thatcherism, says Jonathan Glancey
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The Independent Online
There are those who would like to blow up Canary Wharf because they think it is a gigantic blot on the London landscape, and there are those who would like to blow up Canary Wharf because it is a vulnerable, high-profile centre of international finance and communications.

Those in the former category make their war with words; those in the latter explode half-ton bombs that kill.

No one who lives in London - and no one who read the newspapers, listened to or watched the news over the weekend - can ignore Canary Wharf. And yet, this titanic Post-Modern Chicago-style office development in the old London Docklands remains remote from most people's lives.

Many of those who work in the Canary Wharf tower, the 800ft, 50-storey showcase at the development's centre, and the tallest building in Britain, were telephoned by friends and relatives on Friday evening, concerned that the bomb might have damaged this skyscraping stainless-steel obelisk. They were right to be concerned, but Canary Wharf is a big place and comprises not just the landmark tower; it is a kind of Gotham City lookalike designed by American architects and built by Canadian developers, brooding in muscular isolation a few miles east of Tower Bridge and the City of London.

Those unfamiliar with the development will wonder what attraction Canary Wharf has for the IRA. It tried before, in 1992, to destroy the place with a massive bomb, but was thwarted. What draws its bombers here is what the Docklands development represents, plus the fact that national newspapers based in the tower, the Independent included, are likely to give greater coverage to attacks here than elsewhere.

Size alone makes Canary Wharf a likely target. Hit this and you make world headlines. Hit this and you damage, embarrass and harass Britain's finance and communications business. Hit this and you strike at the figurative heart of one of your most bitter enemies: Thatcherism.

For Canary Wharf is the biggest and, to date, most enduring physical emanation of that late, unlamented creed. Here, life is run as if designed by the Iron Lady herself: Canary Wharf is a marble-clad ghetto for the representatives of upward-aspiring Enterprise Culture.

People live in Docklands, but no one lives in the Canary Wharf development; there are no homes. Nearly everyone who commutes to the complex is aged between 20 and 60, affluent, nattily dressed and upwardly mobile.

They - we - work in air-conditioned, open-plan offices built on the scale of airport lounges. They spend most of their days indoors in a controlled climate under the glare of fluorescent lights. They shop in pricey boutiques in a glistening mall paved in marble.

What you can buy here are precisely those things that made the Eighties the decade of style- watcher Peter York and Mrs T: Belgian chocolates, Thomas Pink shirts, Mont Blanc fountain pens, champagne and freshly-made cappuccinos. Security staff dressed in uniforms adopted from US mall culture are trained to keep troublesome teenagers, the shabbily undressed and other undesirables at bay.

There is no love lost between Canary Wharf and those who live in the tower blocks and old red-brick estates of Poplar and the Isle of Dogs nearby.

Planned in the mid-Eighties by G Ware Travelstead, a braggadocio American property developer, Canary Wharf was designed as an eastwards extension, and rival, to the City of London, which was then short of the vast dealing- room floors and the space for modern communications and computer technology deemed necessary by finance houses. Travelstead bit off more than he could chew and left the enigmatic Reichmann brothers to build most of what had been proposed, the Canadian brothers having made their fortune with earlier Canary Wharf-like office developments in Toronto and New York.

Incomplete today (the recession hit Canary Wharf hard), the development has acres of vacant office space to rent, although over the past 18 months prestigious banks and other companies have been moving in. The roster of famous names now includes the Telegraph group, Texaco, Eurotunnel, the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, and the bankers Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse.

The buildings are different from those that most British cities know: vast, American-designed office blocks, garbed in thickly encrusted skins of stone, marble and stainless steel. Expensively fitted out - marble- lined lavatories are the norm - they are more Manhattan than Basingstoke in style.

Canary Wharf was designed from the start to be a cut above the fast- track, fast-buck architecture that sprouted from the old London Docks in the early Eighties. The area had been built up, cheaply and inconsequentially, on the basis that cheap rents eastwards along the River Thames would encourage City companies to move inexorably east.

This did not happen, because office development went ahead before roads, buses, riverboats and trains. Fifteen years on, the London Underground has still to open in Docklands and, despite a vast expenditure on roads, communication is not one of the area's virtues.

Nor has the Post-Modern vision of the city along the river done anything to bring together new wealth and the local population, mostly poor and living in third-rate housing. It was the thin windows of high-rise housing near Canary Wharf that caved in, causing damage to people's homes on Friday; the shatter-proof glass of the office buildings crazed but did not splinter.

That the new buildings are solid and broad-shouldered few would disagree with. The scenes of destruction shown through the media over the weekend concentrated on the damage done to one of the early Docklands office blocks (a Seifert-designed Post-Modern block and former home of the Daily Telegraph). This was shattered by the bomb and unlikely to be repaired.

"Our building was all but destroyed," says Pam Barker of Building magazine, the tenant of this early Eighties tinted-glass office block. "The whole building shifted so that the fire doors wouldn't open."

The offices of Canary Wharf proper are bigger and stronger than the South Quay block, but they are not bomb-proof; no building is.

"As far as improving the resilience of buildings for blast safety goes," says a spokesman for Ove Arup & Partners, the leading structural engineers, "there have been measures to make structures more robust; many guidance documents have been published in recent years instructing builders as to what they can do, and much of that comes out of experiences in Northern Ireland as well as in London.

"Achieving 100 per cent safety is obviously difficult, so protecting lives is a matter of implementing the latest measures. In the end, though, what matters most is general vigilance by the occupants of a particular building."

In other words, no one can legislate against the effects of bombs, much as there is no such thing as a building that can stand up to an earthquake beyond a certain point on the Richter scale.

Security will always be a problem as long as we continue to demand office buildings of the type that came into use in the last two decades of the 19th century and which have developed into such monsters as Canary Wharf Tower today.

As far as developers are concerned, the modern office is really little more than a white-collar machine-shop or warehouse. What they seek from architects is the greatest amount of lettable office space from the least amount of essential structure. This is why most office blocks are little more than simple steel frames clad in bolt-on panels comprising wall and windows. In a blast, the latter are likely to drop off.

As demonstrated by the IRA bomb that exploded in the City of London or the terrorist bomb that damaged the World Trade Center, New York, four years ago, modern office buildings are easy targets. They are not absolutely as safe as they can be made, but then developers do not commission office blocks with the idea in mind that they will have to stand up to bomb blasts.

The question that can be asked legitimately is why developments like Canary Wharf exist. Why attempt to shoehorn a significant chunk of the country's finance and communications industries into one constrained site, particularly if this makes them an easy target for terrorists?

The answer is that the developers of Canary Wharf believed that they could provide an environment custom-made for today's high-flying, high- income white collar workers free of the physical and planning constraints of the City of London. In bringing a critical mass of such people together, they would also attract smart shops, restaurants and other white-collar services.

Yet if the office space offered by Canary Wharf were spread across central London, it would offer no clear target for terrorists. If offices were mixed together with housing and other uses, our city centres would be livelier and more attractive places: they would not go to sleep at night and at weekends, as do, to all intents and purposes, the City of London and Canary Wharf. Meanwhile, even the IRA would, presumably, be less inclined to explode bombs where there were homes.

We cannot design our lives around the psychotic behaviour of a few individuals who might carry out such attacks. What we can do is get away from monocentric urban developments like Canary Wharf and aim to build new extensions to our cities that are attractive and life-enhancing. And if such a move provided fewer obvious targets to would-be bombers, then we would enjoy two benefits for the price of one.