4. Going to work in tall buildings: An unexpected downtown

My brother-in-law visited Canary Wharf not so long ago and concluded he would never want to work there. ‘It’s too urban,’ he said, although I’d argue that it’s pretend urban, or maybe pretend hyper-urban, something out of a movie set in a nearish future. (Or maybe, like the recent film version of JG Ballard’s High-Rise, in a past version of the future). What’s strange, and interesting (to me, at least) is how unlikely a thing this version of Canary Wharf, the vertical downtown, was when it was dreamt up.

In retrospect, Canary Wharf seems like an obvious product of the 1980s we are told happened in Britain, the noisy, shiny, Loadsamoney Thatcher years. Surely all those bankers in their braces and foot-tall mobile phones would want to be piling out of the tallest, most aggressively phallic buildings possible?

In fact, for most of the Thatcher years, the architectural trends were very far from inclined towards anything that looked like CW’s signature high rise, One Canada Square, and even further from the buildings that now surround it. There had been a huge backlash in England against the architecture and town planning of the 1950s and 1960s: concrete was out, but steel-and-glass was also regarded with huge suspicion. High-rises were associated with council flats – which were regarded as having failed – or offices with low ceilings and ‘sick building syndrome’. (Alice Coleman, an academic whose ideas Thatcher adored, genuinely believed that Brits were psychologically unsuited to living in anything other than houses.)

Brick was back, Portland stone if you needed anything grander. Pitched roofs were back, too – not just on new buildings, they were plonked on to flat-roofed modernist ones, too, supposedly because of issues caused by rain water, although now flat roofs are fashionable again, that doesn’t seem to matter any more. The crucial thing was that buildings looked like they had a connection with something older than the past few decades. Thatcher herself bought a house in gated development of (very tacky looking) faux-Georgian houses. Even supermarkets and multi-storey carparks were being built with brick cladding and reassuring retro details.(The Lloyd’s building, London’s most high-profile bit of non-retro architecture to be completed in the 1980s, was actually designed in the ’70s).


One thing the developers of 1980s and the ’60s planners agreed about was that the car had won. In the ’60s, the solution to this was to try to separate out people and cars by taking pedestrians one storey up or one storey down – instead of pavements, there were now to be concrete ‘pedways’ above street level (I have fond memories of being able to walk from Waterloo Station to the Hayward Gallery without descending to the ground at any point) or underpasses.

The ’80s vision was different: you’d only ever worry about walking when you got somewhere. You’d start off from your suburban cul de sac and drive to work – not in a congested Victorian city, but in a business park with lots of parking space*, and shop out of town, too. This vision went across political boundaries: Liverpool’s Trotskyite council enthusiastically demolished blocks of flats and built suburban-style houses in their place**.

And so when the London Docklands were being redeveloped from the early 1980s, this was largely the style it too. There were strange backward-hinting shopping colonnades and bridge houses:



Millwall docks



This is a ‘business village’ on the Isle Of Dogs, just south of Canary Wharf – note the way the whole design is dominated by the idea that it is crucial to park right in front of the building:


Truly, the Thatcherite dream can be found nearby at the Asda superstore (1983)  – the first big project in the redevelopment of the Isle Of Dogs – whose carpark seems to go on forever:


At best, the Docklands reused what was already there, as at Butler’s Wharf, and later at West India Quay (below). But of course, most of the working London docks hadn’t been made up of attractive 19th-century warehouses suitable for conversion:


So what happened? A shift from housing to offices for Docklands development (the opposite of what is currently taking place). This came because of the ‘Big Bang’ deregulating finance in 1986, and developers rushed to meet the anticipated need for large, up-to-date London office space. And that’s when Canary Wharf…

…well, actually Canary Wharf was just beaten to the punch. The first monster office complex in the area was Harbour Exchange on Millwall Inner Dock, completed in 1989. If Canada Square was someone’s fantasy of Chicago, then Harbour Exchange looked like it had been ordered by some who had watched the opening credits to Dallas on TV. Unrelentingly black, it is more obnoxious than anything that was to be built by the next docks up.


But here’s where the relationship between architecture and urban design, and what those involved want to call placemaking, comes in. Because Harbour Exchange may be a big bully, but it’s surrounded by reassuring brick landscaping, street-level parking and modest retail sites by the dock – the effect is business-park-on-a-marina, rather than urban centre.



Walk a little further south to the Northern & Shell Tower (1993), and you’ll find ground-level parking taking up valuable waterfront space!

One Canada Square, the building many Londoners used to refer to as ‘Canary Wharf tower’ was completed in 1991, by which time the original development had gone bust as the economy crashed. For years, it was the only tall building on the site, and seemed visible from most parts of London, in the way that the Shard does now. It’s a curious thing that as Canary Wharf has become bigger, it is harder to spot from afar.

By the time construction of Canary Wharf resumed in the late ’90s, fashion was swinging in its favour – under New Labour, suburban was out, dense urban space was back in. Parking was kept firmly out of site, and there was no shame in arriving by public transport, which was transformed by the completion of the Jubilee Line extension in 1999.


While the first wave of Canary Wharf buildings nodded back to the 1920s, the 1900s and even Victorian architecture (above), that changed as the style in the 2000s switched to glass-and-steel.

25 Bank Street, the JP Morgan building (2003), for instance, is essentially a recreation of a 1950s International Style***corporate HQ, fitting for the Don Draper-inspired suits the younger bankers would be wearing by the 2010s.

In time, Canary Wharf even had a pedway or two…

*To take a particularly ugly example, Rupert Murdoch’s Sky empire sprawls across several acres of far West London demonstrating a whole range of bad architecture.

**Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (Verso, 2010)

***25 Bank, 2000s-does-1950s, is the work of architect Cesar Pelli, who also designed One Canada Square, 1980s-does-1920s. You could view Pelli’s firm as corporate hacks with no taste of their own or, alternately, as professionals who design what their clients ask for.

For the history of Docklands, I’m heavily indebted to Professor Matthew Carmona’s The Isle of Dogs: Four Development Waves, Five Planning Models, Twelve Plans, Thirty-five Years, And A Renaissance… Of Sorts (Progress in Planning 71 (2009). Any factual mistakes, prejudices and ill-considered opinions are all mine, however.


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