The Gherkin | 30 St Mary Axe (London, England)

The Gherkin
Photo by Gary Campbell-Hall

Known around the world as “The Gherkin”, one of London’s most recognizable buildings, 30 St Mary Axe is famous for its beautiful design and the stark contrast it offers against the historic city’s skyline. Previously known as the Swiss Re Building, it has taken on the moniker The Gherkin simply because its shape is so similar to a gherkin. As one of London’s most well-known towers, the Gherkin is a commercial skyscraper with more that 500,000 square feet of floor space.

The commercial skyscraper in London’s primary financial district was completed in December 2003 and opened in April 2004. With its 41 floors and 180 meters (591 ft) of height, the Gherkin stands at only half the originally proposed Millennium Tower. The building we know and love today was designed by Norman Foster and Arup Group after plans for Millennium Tower were dropped.

The Gherkin as seen through Tower Bridge
The Gherkin as seen through Tower Bridge – Photo by Gordon Wrigley

Just a short distance from Tower Bridge, the site of the Gherkin is surrounded by historic architecture and was once the site of two important historic buildings. The Baltic Exchange and Chamber of Shipping, the two buildings that previously stood at the site of 30 St Mary Axe were damaged in the Baltic Exchange bombing in 1992. The bombing took place the day after John Major was reelected as Prime Minister, when the Provisional IRA placed a one-ton explosive device in a large white truck in an attempt to cripple Britain’s financial district. Killing three and injuring 91, it was the single largest bomb since WWII detonated on mainland Britain but failed to have the intended affect.

The Baltic Exchange was such a celebrated and beloved fixture of the shipping market that the United Kingdom government’s statutory adviser on the historic environment, the City of London’s governing body, and the City of London Corporation, were adamant that redevelopment of the site must preserve and restore the Baltic Exchange’s old façade onto the new construction of St Mary Axe. Eventually, the city planners realized that the exchange was not recoverable and were forced to relax the building restraints at the site.

There is a restaurant on the 39th floor, and private dining rooms on the 38th. The top floor (the 40th), there is a bar for tenants and their guests, with a panoramic view of London. The tower’s topmost panoramic dome, known as The Lens pays tribute to the historic glass dome that covered part of the ground floor of the Baltic Exchange. The original dome is now on display at the National Maritime Museum.

During early stages of construction of the Gherkin, the grave of a young Roman girl was discovered. In order to honor her and her final resting place, the young girl was preserved at The Museum of London throughout the construction and she was re-buried at the base of the tower once it was completed.

30 St Mary Axe is widely recognized as one of the world’s best examples of contemporary architecture and has won a number of awards for architecture.

The Gherkin Facts

  • The high power lifts are capable of traveling at speeds of 6m per second with a cargo of 378 people.
  • The Gherkin nickname has been around since as early as 1999, almost five years before the building was opened to the public.
  • It took 24,000 sq meters of glass to wrap the uniquely shaped building. Enough glass to cover the surface area of five football pitches.
  • It required more than 35km of steel to construct the Gherkin.
  • One of the windows mysteriously fell out of its brackets and fell 28 stories before crashing on the ground. The April 2005 event led to lengthy safety checks and increased scrutiny of the buildings sustainable credentials.
  • The Gherkin’s has been referred to as “the most civilised skyscraper in the world”.
  • In 2004, the architect was awarded Stirling Prize. The first time in the prize’s history, the judges were unanimous.
  • In 2006 BD World Architecture 200 voted the tower as the most admired new building in the world.
  • Many energy-saving methods allow it to use half the power that similarly sized towers normally consume.
  • The top two floors of the tower are available to rent for private special events.

Movies That Feature The Gherkin

  • Match Point (2005)
  • A Good Year (2006)
  • Basic Instinct 2 (2006)
  • Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (2009)
  • Thor: The Dark World (2013)
  • Piranha (2014)