An Introduction to Building Structures


15 Gallery Five - Five High Buildings

The United Kingdom isn’t the sort of place you would traditionally associate with skyscrapers. In fact after originally having led the construction of tall buildings at the end of the 19th century planning laws were amended to prevent the construction of tall buildings - this was partly driven by fire safety concerns. A few scattered examples aside this remained the case until the early 1960s when modernism became increasingly attractive to governments as a solution to many of the problems that the massive rebuilding in the wake of World War 2 presented. Driving commercial development has been private companies in the financial and services industries that experienced a post-war boom in demand as the size of their workforce expanded. It offered them the chance to create dense centralised offices housing thousands of workers on one site, particularly in the City of London where they could concentrate on the central core area around the Bank of England and Lloyds of London. From a public perspective, large amounts of housing, as promised by Conservatives and Labour alike in their manifestos, could be built quickly (if not cheaply) using production line techniques of identikit high-rise blocks.

This 'page' was written by James Newman -

Started in 1961 and completed in 1966, Bt Telecom Tower, or Post Office Tower as it was originally known, was to be the symbol of Harold Wilson’s “white hot” revolution of technology. Dictated in height by the need to beam signals over the hills surrounding London, the architect Eric Bedford of the public works department rejected the traditional telecommunications towers seen elsewhere in Europe for something looking more like a regular building. Standing above an 8 floor podium, the main neck of the tower was clad to look like it contained normal floors to cover up what would otherwise be hundreds of feet of bare concrete. The building was also designed to withstand major disaster by having a rocking mechanism between the tower and the podium allowing it to stay standing (or so it’s claimed) after a nuclear blast within a mile. The tower was originally envisaged as a public building as much as a vital piece of secure communications infrastructure. Charity races up the stairs were regular events. The tower contained a souvenir shop and the crown featured a revolving restaurant that remained open well into the 1980s despite being bombed in 1971. After closing for security reasons, the mechanics in the revolving head were left to decay: only recently have they been renovated. Nowadays the building remains shut to the public and the top serves as a private hospitality suite for British Telecom who inherited the building from the Post Office.
There have been few buildings in Britain that have embraced concrete quite as enthusiastically as Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower that soars above Goldbourne Road in West London. Basing his design principles on the famous L'unite d'Habitation, Goldfinger aimed at creating a very human scale to his 99 metre tall slab. The independently constructed service shaft is linked every two floors to the main residential block by corridors designed to be as familiar as possible by being given the same dimensions as a typical train carriage. Filling the main tower was 17 levels of maisonette flats (thus reducing the amount of stops the lifts would have to make). Each maisonette has windows on both sides of the tower and two levels of balconies - creating generous open space for residents and views as far as the South Downs. Such was Goldfinger’s faith in his own work he even lived in the tower himself - but only for a few months once it was finished in 1967. Unfortunately, the economic decline of the seventies turned Trellick Tower into a vertical slum with its corridors becoming a haunt of vandals and muggers. However, with the introduction of the 'right to buy' council homes, many of the flats were bought by the tenants and, as a result of pressure from the occupants, a number of security improvements were carried out in the late 1980s. As property prices rose the tower came to be regarded as highly desirable; the tower itself has become a national landmark and was listed in 1998 (Grade II*).
The tower was originally built as the headquarters of the National Westminster Bank; a company who were looking to having a suitably prominent symbol on the City of London skyline - as befitted their position at the time as Britain’s leading bank. The skyscraper proposal was controversial – local planners were very conservative when it came to high buildings. The plot ratio (area to height) allowed what the planners argued at the time was a building up to 65 metres high (although this would have required the demolition of both the City of London Club and the National Westminster Banking Hall). In the end only the City of London Club was demolished and the architect Seifert persuaded planners to accept his design of 183 metres. The tower was built by Mowlem & Co between 1971 and 1979 and cost over £70 million. It was the tallest building in the UK until One Canada Square was built in Docklands in 1990. The building is constructed around a concrete core: the floors are cantilevered from the core (partly so as not to interfere with the adjacent site). Unfortunately, this structural arrangement limited available floor space. When the tower opened this was not a concern but following the so-called Big Bang, the nature of bank trading changed and the tower's design quickly became obsolete. When viewed from the air the Natwest Tower took on the hexagonal appearance of what looked like the bank’s logo although Seifert always claimed that the similarity was coincidence. The tower was badly damaged by an IRA bomb in 1993. A fairly substantial refurbishment followed and the building was eventually sold and re-branded as Tower 42 (42 floors), a multi-let building occupied by dozens of small firms.
If one building was responsible for changing the stereotypical impression of what a skyscraper is in Britain it is 30 St Mary Axe, the Norman Foster designed headquarters of insurance giant Swiss RE - more popularly known as the Gherkin. The 180 metre tall skyscraper, crowned with a roof-top restaurant, rose out of the remains of the historic Baltic Exchange; almost completely destroyed by the same explosion that so badly damaged the Natwest Tower in 1993. Rejecting the traditional office block shape, Foster designed a free-flowing form and created a spiraling grid of steel clad with glass. To help emphasise the curving nature of the design as well as encourage the flow of natural air, spiraling atriums were originally planned running up the building but fire regulations eventually limited them to every six levels. Using a tapering base was a unique way of increasing the amount of public space around it by reducing the building’s footprint at ground level. The circular form also helped reduce the downdrafts that make many public plazas literally windswept. Construction finally began in 2001 and on completion in 2004 the building became an immediate hit featuring on everything from the cover of Newsweek to publicity materials for London’s Olympic bid with even the usually anti high-rise Evening Standard giving it a good review.
Manchester’s Beetham Tower is the first skyscraper in recent years to be built outside London and the second building in the United Kingdom with 50 or more floors. Designed by Ian Simpson as a hotel and residential tower, it draws heavily on some of the basics of his previous work. As with 1 Deansgate before, it is clad in a double skinned glass curtain wall with the residential units having adjustable louvres and an area between the inner and outer layers of glass that serves as private winter garden areas for residents. The midlevel cantilever helps transform it from a mundane glass slab by supporting the upper half as it juts out by 4 metres. Taking advantage of the sheer views down this level provides, the floor is a public ‘skybar’ that has become a popular drinking location in Manchester. From the side it has one of the greatest height-to-width ratios in the world for a skyscraper, almost ten to one, making it appear exceptionally slender. Not all went well with the design. It is topped by a metal fin that has ended up several metres shorter than originally planned thanks to the need to mitigate the sound of the wind running through it. Despite this slight hiccup the tower has proven popular. ‘selling-out off-plan’; it also hosts a luxury Hilton Hotel.
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