The Architects’ Journal recently published an enigmatic set of renderings, displaying what architect Richard Weston describes as a new genre of high-rise building: the "contextual tower."
The angular skyscraper — officially named after its address, 1 Undershaft — is intended to correlate closely with its surroundings, its form dictated by a careful analysis of adjacent masses to create a structure that combines maximum leasable floor space with the lowest possible visual impact. As low an impact as you can achieve with a 250-meter high building, at least…
Designed by Brian Avery of Avery Associates, the skyscraper’s wedge-shaped silhouette is informed primarily by protected viewing corridors towards Christopher Wren’s historic St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the nearby Leadenhall Building, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. In fact, it appears to have taken substantial design cues from RSHP's landmark tower, affectionately nicknamed the Cheesegrater: As well as massing and orientation, its lattice of structural steelwork and glazing makes it a stylistic extension of the tower next door.
The head of planning for London’s Square Mile for the past 30 years, Peter Rees has likened the City’s skyline to a mountain range, and the cluster’s ‘Everest’ was intended to be the 304-meter-high Pinnacle, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox. However, with its core partially constructed, the Pinnacle has been stalled due to its developer’s post-recession financial woes. Now, Avery’s second Cheesegrater could sneak in through the back door to become the City’s crowning peak.
The reaction of high-rise connoisseurs on skyscrapercity.com has generally been positive, with many excited at the prospect of context-sensitive architecture on a previously unseen scale. This is arguably the first real attempt at critical regionalism in the heart of a commercial business district, blending the principles of modernism with a rigorous analysis and response to surrounding formal and cultural factors.
However, they raise two primary concerns, which Avery will have to answer to in the months ahead. Firstly, there are numerous advocates for the site’s existing St. Helen’s Tower, with many saying that the office block — a rare example of the international style in the UK — should be listed and protected for its architectural and historic value.
Secondly, numerous commentators have pointed out that in attempting to balance the skyline’s composition, Avery neglected to include a key skyscraper adjacent to the site, set for completion in 2017: 52-54 Lime Street, designed by the same architects behind the Pinnacle, has been nicknamed the ‘Scalpel’ because of its distinctive sharp-edged form.
How would the Scalpel affect views of Avery’s tower from across the River Thames? Forum member Zin5ki kindly Photoshopped 1 Undershaft into this visual, with the Scalpel directly in front.
Via Skyscraper City
Commenter Steve Keiretsu feels this angle hints at an excess of similar forms on the skyline — he fears that the addition of both 1 Undershaft and 52-54 Lime Street will “over-egg the pointy pudding.” Mixed metaphor aside, the views from further down the river will be very different, and the contextual tower appears markedly more graceful than Viñoly’s broad-shouldered Walkie-Talkie skyscraper just to the west.
Skyscrapers, by their very nature, have a history of showboating, announcing themselves on the skyline with gusto: Their distinctive silhouettes traditionally form the basis for a city’s unique collective identity. The term "contextual tower" therefore appears to be a classic oxymoron, suggesting that a would-be icon deferring to its surroundings like the world’s largest chameleon.
Paul Raftery and Dan Lowe recently released this time-lapse video of the construction of the Leadenhall Building.
If this new typology proves successful, we could soon see a forest of contextual towers growing in the heart of metropolises across the globe. Some of the most famous skylines might begin to resemble curious crystalline formations, the antithesis of the novelty high-rise chaos planned for urban centers such as Daniel Libeskind’s Yongsan business district in Seoul.
Would such a turn of events be beneficial to your home city? I’ll leave that for you to decide…
The Angry Architect