Much of modern London has been built by architects who most Londoners will never have heard of: offices by corporate companies such as Aecom, HOK and Aukett Swanke, or housing projects by specialists such as Squire & Partners. Architectural celebrities such as Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano are asked to tackle the fancy sugar-work: the Gherkins, the Cheesegraters, the Shards.
Which is why Eric Parry being commissioned to design the tallest skyscraper in the City of London makes you sit up and take notice. Parry, an intellectual architect’s architect, is known for his interest in craft techniques — ceramics, woodwork, stitched leather. Earlier in his career he was designing artists’ studios and self-confessed “eccentric things in France”.
Admittedly the studios were for the likes of Antony Gormley, and the French project was a château in Albi, but these are not the big shiny things office developers tend to plump for.
Yet Parry’s 1 Undershaft, should it get approval at a planning meeting in September, will see the capital’s tower cluster crowned with an elegant 73-storey square column of white enamel louvres framed within rusted steel cross-braces. It will match the Shard in height (309.6m) and be topped with a free viewing gallery that, if discussions are fruitful, will include school classrooms run by the Museum of London. Architecturally it’s a statement of solidity rather than faux- transparency.
In the Undershaft’s putative shadow are two other City projects by Parry, a just-completed livery hall for The Worshipful Company of Leathersellers and 10 Fenchurch Avenue — an iridescent prism of offices under construction where another public roof garden is planned.
The Leathersellers’ Hall is classic Parry, featuring a lobby with leather-lined seating niches stitched by Bill Amberg, a white reception room trimmed with black ceramic architraves (like a giant Jo Malone box), and beautiful heather-coloured faience bricks. These are on the outside wall facing St Helen’s Bishopsgate, the medieval church which is, literally, within arm’s reach of the ground floor windows.
An odd touch, however, is the use of broken pilasters rescued from the sixth hall (the Leathersellers seem to have been extraordinarily profligate with their halls since forming in 1444) which have been incorporated as a collage above the new hall’s staircase.
So how did crafty Parry come to the attention of the financiers? He recalls a chance meeting in the street with Vincent Wang, an acquaintance who was then working for developer Sir Stuart Lipton. An introduction followed and Parry went on to design buildings for Lipton — as well as Lipton’s own house. Twice.
A breakthrough moment came in the late Nineties with Parry’s scheme to replace a historic bank building on Finsbury Square. Conservationists were adamant that it must remain but Parry convinced the planners to accept his proposal to replace it with a block that, in a radical departure for contemporary offices, featured a load-bearing limestone façade rather than the usual bolt-on cladding. The building went on to be shortlisted for the Stirling Prize in 2003.
Commercial schemes across central London have followed. These often feature crafted elements or incorporate artworks, such as the multicoloured ceramic cornice by sculptor Richard Deacon for Parry’s One Eagle Place on Piccadilly. His success has largely been under the radar but Parry now employs more than 90 people in his Old Street offices plus more in Singapore.
Surprisingly, the inspiration for 1 Undershaft hasn’t come from the historic masonry skyscrapers of Chicago, New York, or indeed Liverpool. Instead it comes from the unlikely combination of Norman Foster’s clever 1997 Commerzbank HQ in Frankfurt and the early 20th-century German cooling towers depicted by celebrated photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher.
The question remains, though, whether 1 Undershaft and other Parry schemes will be built post-Brexit. A good chunk of the money has been put up by environment-ravaging palm oil company Wilmar International, an investor in the tower’s Singaporean developer Aroland Holdings (London’s gain is the orangutan’s loss). And these projects are for the City of London’s insurance industry, which is taking a hammering right now.
Undershaft will be built on the site of the current Aviva tower, and an important tenant for Fenchurch Avenue is M&G. Both companies’ property funds suspended trading for a period this month. Parry admits Brexit is a worry but says he has seen out the oil crisis, the recession of the Nineties and the slump of 2008. “There may be a slowdown,” he concedes, “but the city will need a lot more office space by 2030.” Even if office rentals fall in the short-term, Parry thinks London will still have sufficient budgets to allow for treats such as the office block with a Cor-Ten steel exo-skeleton that he designed for Argent at King’s Cross (“they didn’t blink”).
Parry’s design for Undershaft has an intrinsic beauty and it is at the heart of an established cluster of towers. But the cluster has come at the cost of the historic character of this part of the Square Mile, where only the marooned churches have been spared, their towers the scale of toothpicks among telegraph poles. This is surprising from an architect who is so interested in context that he’s written a book about it and has repeatedly demonstrated his sensitivity to it elsewhere. Quality writ large is still large.
And while all the public roof gardens are ostensibly a good thing, they are only absolutely necessary when the streets below are being turned in to shadowy canyons. These might be welcome under the iron fist of a summer sun in Sydney or Manhattan but not on the soggy edge of Europe. The magnolia trees planted in the (private) public park at the foot of the Cheesegrater are already dying.
City developers only seem concerned about this issue when another tower steals the light from their own — hence the complaints about upcoming 22 Bishopsgate, which is almost as tall as 1 Undershaft. In contrast with Parry’s work, however, it is a dreary slab of corporate glass by PLP Architecture.
This is a question for planners and politicians as much as architects: London’s sky-high predicament comes from seeking to concentrate its wealth in a few enclaves. The whole of Tower Hamlets from Aldgate to Canary Wharf could have been regenerated by now if investment had spread the love instead of being confined to the City and development corporation land.
A short cooling-off period for commercial architecture may no be bad thing, giving time for the new Mayor to finish his review of London’s tall- building policy.
Eric Parry might be at the top of his architectural game but the City, and London, looks like it is at a game-changing moment.