Architecture: The Gherkin goes global

First London, and now the world - the curved lines of Lord Foster's much-admired skyscraper are being mimicked by architects in Europe, Asia and the Gulf. Peter Popham reports
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The Independent Online

And intentionally or not, Lord Foster - or his departed ex-associate, Ken Shuttleworth, who says that he was the true author of the design - has in the process provided the world with the first really plausible new form for the high-rise office tower since Mies van der Rohe perfected what the Prince of Wales unkindly called "the glass stump".

It now appears that, in giving birth to the Gherkin, London has fathered, or rather foster-fathered, a whole brood of pickled cucumbers that is set to colonise the world.

Jean Nouvel is no imitator. Like Norman Foster, the French architect is one of the top dozen practitioners of his trade in the world, famed for his ability to fashion modern buildings out of steel and glass and aluminium that seem evanescent and impalpable, as if they were not really there at all. His first great success was L'Institute du Monde Arabe in Paris, with a filligree cladding of photo-optic cells that open and close like the shutter of a camera depending on the intensity of the exterior light, inspired in their intricacy by traditional Moorish screens. His concert hall for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation in Copenhagen, now under construction, is a bald 148ft-high rectangular box, but the glass walls are sometimes transparent and sometimes mutate into screens, and the facade never looks the same from one minute to the next. Nouvel is as much of a dogged individualist as Foster.

So don't call his new Torre Agbar in Barcelona a gherkin, whatever you do. Even though the resemblance is uncanny.

Son of Pickled Cucumber rises in splendid isolation from a dreary section of the Catalan capital known inappropriately as the Glories. The difference between the British and the French practice can be read in the wildly different ways they have arrived at their chosen, and weirdly similar forms: Foster, the Low Church Mancunian, has always believed in honesty of form, and in exposing his hi-tech yet honest-to-goodness internal structures to the world as proof of their virtue, their literal and moral transparency. So London's Gherkin is composed of a diagonal steel grid whose strength and ingenuity are fully on show, like the structures of earlier works such as Stansted Airport or the Hong Kong headquarters of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank.

Nouvel, as French as Foster is English, has no interest in that sort of metaphysic, and at the heart of Torre Agbar is a sturdy, banal concrete fuselage. He wraps it in aluminium, but all his ingenuity and finesse is reserved for the facade, sheathed in multiple layers of profiled metal and glass louvres, each of them tiny, each catching the light in a different way - so that, like his other works, this, too, looks as if it scarcely exists, as if the whole thing is a trick of the changing light. He himself refers to the 474ft monster as "a geyser", a tower of fluid thrusting out of the earth at high and constant pressure.

So the buildings are different philosophically, structurally, in terms of effect. So they were built too close in time - Foster's was finished last year, Nouvel's this - for plagiarism to be an issue. Which makes the similarity of the form even more uncanny. It's like those people who invented the telephone, or discovered nuclear fission, at the same time on opposite sides of the world. It's something in the air. And new ones are set to erupt elsewhere: Nouvel, who doesn't mind repeating himself, has a new version planned for Doha, in Qatar. And the Chinese are hoping to trump the lot with a gherkin-shaped colossus 3,700ft high and 300 storeys, called the Bionic Tower, and home to 100,000 people - which would be much the tallest building in the world. Suddenly the skyscraper-as-gherkin is the New Paradigm.

It is not surprising that this seminal development in the design of the high-rise building should have occurred first in London, because this is the city where the skyscraper was called most profoundly into question. It is easy to make fun of the Prince of Wales's folksy views on the subject, and to get irritated by the way a senior royal with no special knowledge was able to halt an entire profession dead in its tracks. But when he stood up at a dinner thrown by the Royal Institute of British Architects at Hampton Court in 1984 and called the classic minimalist skyscraper bad names, the heavens fell in.

The occasion was to award the institute's Gold Medal, its highest gong, to the Indian architect Charles Correa, who got a few begrudging mentions at the beginning of the speech. Then the Prince was off and away. His first target was the plan by the developer Peter Palumbo to build at Mansion House in the City an office tower designed by Mies van der Rohe, the austere, long-dead German who is regarded as the only begetter of the modern skyscraper that has colonised the world.

Regarding Mansion House, the Prince said: "It would be a tragedy if the character and skyline of our capital city were to be further ruined ... by yet another giant glass stump, better suited to downtown Chicago than the City of London." Next he turned his attention to the new design for the annexe to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square: "a kind of municipal fire station", was how he described the highly respectable Modernist project; "what is proposed is like a carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend."

The trouble was that, as never to the same degree before or since, Charles had chimed with the popular mood. Modern architecture has always been popular with modern architects, and with few other people besides. The public was supposed to like it or lump it. Charles had merely said what a very large number of people thought; and the Modernists lost their nerve.

It was in the backwash to That Speech that the high-rises of Canary Wharf got designed. Without the speech, Canary Wharf itself would surely not have been endowed with a little pitched roof, as if trying bravely to disguise itself as a period dwelling. And the whole of Docklands was quickly littered with such pitched roofs, like so many curtseys to His Majesty. It was a ludicrous and demeaning trend, and produced no buildings one would want to look at twice.

But Charles had thrown down a challenge to architects which none could now ignore: to build for London in a spirit of love, and with one ear cocked for popular reaction. The plan to build Mies's "glass stump" was killed off the next year. The Modernist scheme for the National Gallery was replaced by the now-familiar Post-Modern effort of the American Robert Venturi, "complementing and continuing," as Charles had requested, "the concept of columns and domes".

But what were the architects to do about the historical London skyline, the object of the Prince's eulogy? Leave it alone until he passed away? The answer, 20 years on, is Foster's Gherkin. It is London's first ecologically efficient office building, intended to use half the amount of air conditioning required for a conventional tower of the same size. The building has all the goodies with which Foster always endows his buildings, including agreeable common spaces to make work less tedious, technological innovation, fine detailing. But it is also cute, soft, huggable, qualities not often associated with his lordship before. It is at once ludicrously phallic, a veritable geyser, and yet also somehow feminine, with none of the blunt aggression of the conventional office tower; it is a Wallace and Gromit rocket aimed at the moon, but also a building which is at home in its setting, and enhances it.

The Gherkin 's quality was quickly recognised and it sped through the planning process at unprecedented speed: here at last was a skyscraper the city could live with. The irony is that its very success has opened the floodgates: a host of massive schemes are now going through planning which threaten all over again to suffocate the city's character.

The worst offender is the colossal Bishopsgate tower, an unravelling roll of aluminium foil in appearance, nearly twice the Gherkin's stature and without an ounce of his charm. Twenty years on, it looks like the Prince will have to read the Riot Act all over again.