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Critique of 30 St Mary Axe (for Architecture Today)

Critique of 30 St Mary Axe
Originally published in issue 149 of `Architecture Today’ June 2004
© Ian Ritchie

The quote by Lord Foster of Thames Bank in the front page of the 30 St Mary Axe brochure reads­ “This is a radical building, technically, architecturally, socially and spatially. Both from the outside and within it is unlike any office building so far conceived.”

So does the building reveal these radical attributes? Is it radical in the sense of going to the roots or fundamentals of building, building typology or of architecture? The traditional office tower has a central core, a ground floor lobby with public café and/or shop, a special room or suite at the top and a piazza public space in front or around it. At first reading this office building does not seem to be radical, but follows tradition.

If we consider the idea of its structural exoskeleton, then this is radical in the sense that it applies three dimensional geometry associated with geodesic domes and `horizontal’ `diagrid’ shell structural enclosures to a vertical one.

The use of computing techniques (e.g. parametric modelling), available to other industries for the last twenty years or so, enables such forms to be analysed and tweaked relatively easily and quickly at design and construction stages. There is no other apparent radical building aspect. The outer cladding employs a ventilating double façade (arguably necessary to help move the solar gain away from the offices quickly when the designers have decided that the façade envelope will be all glass). It has traditional floor construction and other construction elements are all standard ­ only the particular geometry of its form has produced construction challenges.

From the outside it appears to be technically competent – indeed a very well executed structure and glazed skin given its challenging geometry. Perhaps the most ingenious elements are the two façade cleaning systems developed by StreetCrane Express and integrating the high level garage space for them within the building. Architecturally the form is the building’s most powerful expression. It is slimmer and of better proportion than an earlier rather obese version although one suspects that the economic driver of net to gross ratio suffered. From a distance the building’s profile curves away over its entire height whereas seen from its own piazza and adjacent streets it appears foreshortened and bulky ­ its 57m diameter waistline dominating the view. Interestingly, an extruded square profile of sides about 44m would achieve the same floor space over the same height.