This rocket-ship shaped glass skyscraper made its mark on the City of London skyline in the early Noughties after plans to build a much taller building on the site were shelved.

The award-winning building stands on the site of what was the late Victorian-era Baltic Exchange which was extensively damaged by an IRA bomb which went off in the neighbouring street, St Mary Axe (for more on the origins of the street name, see our earlier post here), in 1992.

It was initially proposed that a 92 storey building, to be known as Millennium Tower, be built on the site – it would have been the tallest building in Europe. But the plan was shelved after both Heathrow and London City Airports objected to the interference it would have on flight paths while others pointed to the rather dramatic impact it would have on the City skyline.

The site was subsequently sold to reinsurance giant Swiss Re who then commissioned Sir Norman Foster (Foster + Partners) to design a building for its UK headquarters. The resulting 41 storey, 180 metre (591 foot) tall skyscraper – which features some 24,000 square metres of glass and was said to be the first environmentally sustainable skyscraper in London – was eventually completed in late 2003 and opened in 2004.

The glass dome which sits at the top of the building offers panoramic, 360 degree views of the surrounds and is said to be a reference to the glass dome that once sat over part of the ground floor of the Baltic Exchange.

Interestingly, the nickname for the building, The Gherkin, is actually an abbreviated form of a name first coined by some design critics  who described the building as an “erotic gherkin”, according to The Guardian. Some wags have also used the nickname ‘Towering Innuendo’ for the property.

PICTURES: Top – Samuel Zeller/Unsplash; Right – David Adams.

 

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The-Leadenhall-Building• Open House London is finally here with some 800 buildings across the city – some of them rarely accessible to the public – open for free this weekend, from grand historical institutions and modern skyscrapers through to ‘green’ schools, engineering projects, parks and gardens, and private homes. The weekend – which is being run this year under the theme of ‘revealing’ – also includes a programme of walks, engineering and landscape tours, cycle rides, a bus tour, childrens’ activities and expert talks as well as a moonlit ‘culture crawl’ through London on Friday night and into Saturday morning (a fundraiser for Maggie’s Centres). Among the buildings opening their doors in the festival – created by London-based architecture organisation Open-City – are the ever popular 30 St Mary Axe (aka ‘The Gherkin’), the Foreign and India Office in Whitehall, the Bank of England, Portcullis House and City Hall along with everything from The Leadenhall Building (aka ‘The Cheesegrater’ – pictured), and Temple Church in the City to the Admiral’s House in Greenwich, the Dutch Embassy in Kensington and the steam coaster, the SS Robin, in Tower Hamlets. As mentioned in a previous week, some visits required pre-booking so make sure you check the programme before heading out. For a full copy of the programme of events, see www.londonopenhouse.org. PICTURE: © R Bryant.

A major new exhibition focusing on China during the “pivotal” 50 years of Ming Dynasty rule between 1400-1450 opens at the British Museum in Bloomsbury today. Ming: 50 years that changed China features some of the finest objects ever made in China – loaned from institutions in China and elsewhere – as it explores some of the “great social and cultural changes” that saw Beijing established as the capital and the building of the Forbidden City. It includes objects from the imperial courts along with finds from three regional “princely tombs”. Four emperors ruled during the period and the display will feature the sword of Yongle Emperor, “the warrior”, the handwriting of the Hongxi emperor, “the bureaucrat”, the paintings of the Xuande emperor, “the aesthete”, and portraits of the regents who ruled while the Zhengtong emperor was a boy. The exhibition runs until 4th January. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.britishmuseum.org.

The work of 19th century artist John Constable and its debt to 17th century masters is the focus of a new exhibition opening at the V&A on Saturday. Constable: The Making of a Master – which features more than 150 works including celebrated pieces by Constable like The Hay Wain (1821), The Cornfield (1826) and Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831) as well as oil sketches, drawings, watercolours and engravings – will juxtapose his works with those of 17th century landscape masters like Ruisdael, Rubens and Claude. Among those of their works on display will be Rubens’ Moonlight Landscape (1635-1640) and Ruisdael’s Windmills near Haarlem (c.1650-62). The exhibition runs until 11th January. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.vam.ac.uk/constable.

And don’t forget, Totally Thames continues to run throughout this month which an extensive programme of river-related events. Those on during the coming week include Londonist Afloat: Terrific Tales of the Thames, a series of discussion sessions on aspects of the River Thames being held aboard the HMS President and London’s River – The City’s Ebb and Flow, a guided walk along the river (held on every Saturday and Monday during September), and Hospital and Troop Ships – Transporting the walking and wounded in the First World War, an exhibition held aboard the HQS Wellington (open Sundays and Mondays in September). For the full programme of events, see www.totallythames.org.

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A former car breaker’s yard in Hackney has reopened as a “pocket park” of “installations and hidden spaces” following an extensive transformation project. Located next to the National Trust’s Tudor manor house, Sutton House, Breaker’s Yard incorporates elements from the site’s history including car tyres, a bus greenhouse, bespoke metal gates made out of more than 1,000 toy cars donated by celebrities, locals and artists, and a multi-storey caravan sculpture, The Grange, created by landscape designer Daniel Lobb who also designed the park in collaboration with arts-based educational charity, The House of Fairy Tales. The flower-filled park also features an ice-cream van, decorated by Rose Blake – daughter of Sir Peter Blake, which will act as a “playful shop”. The park is one of a 100 ‘pocket parks’ created under a $2 programme by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, in this case in collaboration with the National Trust and a host of volunteers. Entry to the park is free but admission charge applies to the house. For more on the park and Sutton House, see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sutton-house/.

A photographic exhibition, Exploring London’s First World War Memorials, is running at City Hall near Tower Bridge in Southwark. Organised by the Mayor of London with aid from the War Memorials Trust, English Heritage and others, the exhibition is centred on new images of war memorials by London-based photographer James O Jenkins. As well as more traditional monuments, the memorials take the form of everything from fountains to paintings, buildings and landscape features. Entry is free. Runs until 12th September. For more, see www.london.gov.uk/events. Meanwhile, the Guildhall Library is showcasing images taken by photographer Simon Gregor for the Remembrance Image Project. Runs until 12th November and is part of a series of World War I commemorative events the library is running. Others include an installation by artist Rebecca Louise Law called Poppy made up of 8,000 paper poppies from the Royal British Legion. For more on World War I commemorative events at the Guildhall LIbrary follow this link.

Open House London’s programme is available for download from tomorrow (Friday, 15th August). The event, which will be held over the weekend of 20th and 21st September, will this year be conducted under the theme of ‘revealing’ and will feature more than 800 buildings, from Open House “favourites” like The Gherkin (aka 30 St Mary Axe) and the Foreign and India Office through to lesser known properties like Wandsworth’s Quaker Meeting House or the Butcher’s Hall in the City (some of which have to be booked before the weekend). There will also be a free programme of neighbourhood walks, engineering and landscape tours, cycle rides and talks by experts. To see the programme, head to www.openhouselondon.org.uk.

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There’s several stories behind the rather odd name given to this narrow street which runs between Houndsditch and Leadenhall Street in the City of London – now famous for the gherkin-shaped skyscraper located within it.

St-Mary-AxeIt’s generally agreed that street’s name comes – at least partly – from a former church which it has been suggested once stood where the building known as Fitzwilliam House now stands.

Known as the Church of St Mary Axe (although its full name was apparently the somewhat longer Church of St Mary, St Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins), the medieval building was apparently demolished in the 1560s and the parish united with that of St Andrew Undershaft (this church still sits on the corner of St Mary Axe and Leadenhall Street).

The reasons for the church to be so named remain a matter of speculation. The most interesting version (and the one that would explain the church’s longer name) has it that the name was given due to an axe that was once on display in the church.

The axe had apparently come from Europe where legend says it was one of three axes used by the Huns (some say the three included Atilla himself) to slaughter 11,000 handmaidens who had been travelling in Europe with St Ursula. St Ursula herself was fatally shot with arrows by the Huns’ leader.

How and why the axe came to be on display in this particular church remains something of a mystery but so well did the church become identified with the gruesome relic that it became known as the church of St Mary Axe.

Another version we’ve come across states that the church took on the name because its patrons were the the Skinners’ Company who used such axes. Yet another suggests that the street was named after the church of St Mary and that of a nearby tavern which operated under a sign bearing the image of an axe (but it’s possible the tavern had such a sign because of its proximity to the church in the first place).

These days, as well as being the location of St Andrew Undershaft (now part of the parish of St Helen’s Bishopsgate) and the building known as the Gherkin (it’s official name is 30 St Mary Axe), St Mary Axe is also the place where, on 10th April, 1992, an IRA bomb exploded outside the Baltic Exchange, killing three people.

PICTURE: The Gherkin with St Andrew Undershaft in the foreground.