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Sadiq Khan is right – the Tulip was another tower London didn’t need

Plans for the Tulip skyscraper have been vetoed by London's Mayor Sadiq Khan
Plans for the Tulip skyscraper have been vetoed by London's Mayor Sadiq Khan Credit: PA

It has been 15 years since work was completed on 30 St Mary Axe, the dramatically bulbous skyscraper designed by the office of Norman Foster and universally known as the Gherkin. It’s one of the defining buildings of 21st-century London, so last year’s revelation that Foster had developed plans for a considerably taller tower just metres away from this seminal project was met with incredulity and dismay. 

Unlike every other tower in the Square Mile, the 305-metre-high Tulip was not envisaged as an office building, merely as a tourist attraction. Shoehorned onto a patch of the Gherkin’s forecourt, it would have comprised a slender structural core that swelled into a series of viewing platforms enclosed in a glass bubble set 100 metres above its neighbour’s peak.

Against the recommendation of Historic England, the City of London granted the project permission earlier this year.  The news that the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has now over-ruled that decision will be widely welcomed.

When the Gherkin was completed in 2004, it rose from the City of London’s medieval street-plan in near isolation.  The fractionally taller Tower 42 stood a few streets away, but 25 years had elapsed since that building’s construction – a period during which the only tall buildings granted permission in London were in the former docklands of Canary Wharf. 

Following a policy change introduced by London’s first elected Mayor, Ken Livingstone, and his architectural advisor Richard Rogers, the Gherkin represented the first evidence of a renewed acceptance of tall buildings in the city centre. Once inescapably visible on the skyline, the Gherkin is today almost entirely absorbed within a cluster of other close-packed towers. As we might gather from their nicknames – the Cheesegrater, the Walkie-Talkie, the Can of Ham – many emulate the sculptural flamboyance that Foster brought to the Gherkin’s design.

The skyscraper was poised to sit next to the Gherkin in the City of London Credit: Fosters and Partners / SWNS.com

The emergence of the City cluster represents one of the more mysterious features of London’s recent development. Following the establishment of Canary Wharf in the late Eighties, the City of London began to fear that many of the financial institutions then based in the Square Mile would relocate to the east. Liberalising the skyline came to be seen as a way of averting that threat, although the more generous floor plates available in the Docklands still lured many of them away. In Paris, the construction of tall buildings remains restricted to the business district of La Défense, thus preserving the historic city’s scale. In London, the wholly avoidable competition between the City and Canary Wharf has seen the skyline transformed beyond recognition in less than 20 years.

The Tulip was the brainchild of the Gherkin’s current owner, the banking giant J Safra Group. It would have represented one of the cluster’s final components, but as the Mayor’s report (quite correctly) claims, it would have resulted in an “unwelcoming, poorly designed public space at street level” and threatened to have “the appearance of a surveillance tower” on the skyline. 

But the Tulip’s shortcomings were more fundamental than such detailed questions of design. London doesn’t lack for elevated viewing platforms: indeed, it’s now policy that all new tall buildings in the City should accommodate roof-level access. The Walkie-Talkie’s bleak and constrained Sky Garden is one best avoided, but the park on the top of the recently completed 10 Fenchurch Street by Eric Parry Architects is among London’s most attractive new public spaces.

Much like the unlamented Garden Bridge – another project that Sadiq Khan happily derailed – the Tulip was simply a building that failed to justify its existence.