Once the cheeky darling of the London skyline, the Gherkin has become increasingly crowded by a dense thicket of chunky towers and steroidal slabs. Hemmed in and overshadowed, the mischievous silhouette of 30 St Mary Axe now barely registers on most views of the city, merging into a lumpen glass heap of financial capital.
Now its architect wants to put that right. In one of the most extraordinary planning applications the City of London has ever seen, Norman Foster has proposed to build a Mini-Me version of the Gherkin right next to it, hoisted up on a great pole above the city for all to see.
Like a cocktail cornichon raised aloft on its own Nelson’s Column, this proposed observation tower would be the tallest structure in the City, rising to 305.3 metres, almost twice the height of its 40-storey parent. It would be less than half a metre taller than the proposed 1 Undershaft nearby, although around five metres shorter than the Shard across the river. Dubbed the Tulip, the project would see a 12-storey glass bubble erected on top of a concrete stem, filled with bars, restaurants and a viewing gallery, along with a free educational facility to help lubricate it through the planning system.
The proposal was submitted on Monday by the Safra Group, the company controlled by Brazilian billionaire banker Joseph Safra, which bought the Gherkin in 2014 for £726m (shortly after acquiring the Chiquita banana empire, cementing a penchant for phallic fruit). Safra initially asked Foster to convert the Gherkin’s conical summit into a visitor attraction, but the space was deemed too tight, so the architect came back with an idea for a free-standing appendage, jacked-up higher than anything around. It is a parody of architectural hubris, a cloned miniature of his original icon, poking up above the skyline like the leggy tendril of a plant starved of light, desperately waving for attention.
If the 12-storey dining capsule in the clouds wasn’t enough, the great glass egg will be encased by three protruding vertical “spoons”, in which vertiginous sky bridges will skirt the walls of plunging atria (in a very similar form to Astana’s “Death Star” expo pavilion), while a transparent slide will allow punters to whoosh between the floors. Crowning the experience, each of these protruding spoons will be encircled by a rotating gondola ride. Visitors will be herded into three-metre wide glass spheres that will take them on an eight-minute journey in an elliptical loop, up and down the middle seven storeys of the flower, recalling the ferris wheel-in-building typology usually reserved for more lightly regulated climes, such as Macau’s Studio City casino, or the golden wheel bolted on to the Batumi Tower in Georgia.
The architects may have been aiming for a tulip, but the structure is more reminiscent of a coconut shy, or an egg perched at the top of an exiguous egg-cup. The structural spoons, meanwhile, have the inescapable look of obstetrical forceps, brandishing the freshly extracted Gherkin baby towards the clouds.
It is one of the strangest proposals to emerge from Foster’s office, a surreal mashup of the BT Tower, the London Eye and the slide of the ArcelorMittal Orbit – all of London’s whimsies packed into one pointless aerial capsule. It is the kind of spectacle-hungry trinket worthy of London’s former mayor cum novelty infrastructure tsar, Boris Johnson, who spent his mayoralty trying to turn the capital into a theme park of vanity projects.
It is the accidental spawn of the many vagaries of the City of London’s planning office, too, a department that has always taken ad hoc approach to whatever the market wants to throw at it. It has long cultivated a haphazard notion of a “cluster” of tall buildings, climbing to a central peak where the bloated slab of 22 Bishopsgate is now rising, but with the various slopes and “foothills” negotiated on a case-by-case basis. Extra bulk is sometimes allowed where it generally shouldn’t be when buildings are deemed to be “giving something back”, with public access to the upper levels now a chief priority. The Walkie-Talkie is the most glaring example of this Faustian bargain.
The Tulip, then, is a curious byproduct. It is a public top of bars and restaurants without the building underneath it. It is an aerial leisure-capsule for views and lucrative private events that could change London’s skyline for ever, all brought about because the Gherkin’s new owner couldn’t monetise the top of their pickle as much as they had hoped.