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The architecture of the Big Bang

Thirty years ago, Margaret Thatcher’s government unleashed a deregulatory revolution that would transform the UK’s architecture

On the 27th of October 1986, financial activity in the City of London was deregulated to an unprecedented extent, an event known as the ‘Big Bang’. Among other innovations, electronic trading was introduced, bringing an end to ‘open outcry’ floors; foreign investors were given access to the stock exchange for the first time; and the division enforced between brokers and jobbers was brought to an end. These changes had an enormous impact on the politics and economy of Britain, and of the wider world: initially, they made a lot of people very rich, and attracted a number of huge global banks to London, which has arguably been the centre of world finance ever since. But as Nigel Lawson, the Chancellor who oversaw the reforms, remarked in 2010, it also contributed to the credit crunch of 2008 and the ‘Long Recession’ we are still enduring. Electronic trading led to automated, algorithmic trading; contagion could quickly spread between sectors no longer segregated by a cordon sanitaire; and the culture of huge bonuses led to risk-taking, irrationality, and criminality.

The far-reaching ripples of the Big Bang inevitably washed against the shores of architecture. The initial consequences were felt within the City itself, and the capital surrounding it: big banks sought larger floorplates that were not easily provided within the Square Mile, and this contributed to the success of Canary Wharf, then rising in Docklands to the east. The City fought back with the Broadgate development; once the last word in office space, this too has recently been superceded, and large parts of it demolished. And the unregulated financialisation of just about everything was one of the primary causes of the so-called housing crisis. Whether the events of 2008 marked the end of the Big Bang era is not yet apparent; what is clear, however, is that we are all still living with its consequences.

The article reproduced below is from the May 1988 issue of AR, and assesses the first beginnings of Big Bang architecture in London.

Monster emerges from London docks

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Canary Wharf from the south-west (river in the foreground). Pelli’s dumb skyscraper impales the centre of the complex. It looks almost elegant in comparison to its coarse neighbours.

The latest state of Canary Wharf, the projected business centre at the north end of the Isle of Dogs in London’s Dockland, was revealed with PR fanfares last month. Intended by its Canadian developers, Olympia & York, to be the third London business district, Canary Wharf will be designed largely by American commercial architects. SOM are doing the masterplan and, in the first phase (scheduled to be complete in 1990), they will build the first major building, with Kohn Pederson Fox and I. M. Pei coming to the starting gate shortly afterwards (they will be helped by British firms like BDP and Frederick Gibberd Coombes & Partners). Cesar Pelli has been hired to do the skyscraper in the centre of the scheme; this will be the first Manhattan scale (and style) skyscraper in London and the city’s tallest building.

SOM publicity stresses the ‘contextuality’ of their work but it is extremely difficult to see how the sub Beaux-Arts planning responds to any London context, past, present, or previously imagined. As Cesar Pelli has said, ‘there are very few buildings at all’ round Canary Wharf. This is, of course, because the utilitarian but noble buildings at the north end of the Isle of Dogs have been demolished to make way for the new development. Ironically, the only great context to which the tower, and the whole complex, will relate is the great Greenwich vista which will be greatly compromised.

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Elevation of FC2, the first building that will be completed. SOM’s dreary attempt to enliven a hulk by pasting on pre-cast concrete Classicism.

SOM say that their masterplan incorporates the urban qualities of London’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century open spaces and they present Adrian Smith, partner in charge of design in the Chicago office, as a devotee of ‘contextualism to achieve urban continuity’. In fact, in their proportions, the spaces created owe more to a gargantuised American vision of Paris than to the relatively low cross-sectional format of the London square. Detail is, in in some way, supposed to rescue the great hulks of trading floors from anonymity and boredom. Paul Reichmann of Olympia & York says that ‘the limestone base of each building will be set by hand. We intend to deploy the skills of the finest craftsmen to decorate the public spaces with beautiful and original street furniture. We have chosen trees and shrubs which reflect the fine tradition of London’s Royal parks. And we are quite literally searching the world to find sufficient quantities of the highest quality materials with which to construct our buildings.

While it is good to know that craftsmanship will be employed in the project, a handworked limestone base course scarcely compensates for the banality of the precast Classicism of the upper storeys as shown in SOM’s design for the first building to be erected, FC2. Nor is Reichmann’s statement that the architects are searching for planting appropriate for the Royal Parks an assurance that they have understood London: the Parks are chunks of idealised countryside in the city; the squares are different, and they have different vegetation.

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The view from Greenwich: remember that the towers will be much more dominating when seen from ground level.

It is difficult to disagree with Royal Town Planning Institute President Francis Tibbald’s remark that Canary Wharf ‘as a piece of urban design is simply abysmal. A wonderful opportunity to create a new place in London with innovative urban forms has been missed … The layout is simplistic and banal, the architecture lumpy and mediocre – the whole looks like a chunk of some ageing, tired and dreary US downtown dropped from a great height on the Isle of Dogs.’

The best that can be said for this piece of north American cultural colonisation is that it is not quite as bad as La Défense, the second business centre of Paris, where ’60s Modernist planning made a central urban space that can only make sense if the whole of the French army is paraded upon it. But a retreat to an ill-understood variant of Beaux Arts planning is not the answer to creating a vital civic area in the last part of the twentieth century. We shall be returning to this issue.

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Pelli’s tower is an attempt to produce a skyscraper for a city in which the type is virtually unknown. Was it fear or lack of imagination that caused him to design it as if it were an unremarkable part of Manhattan?