My Love-Hate Relationship with London’s Skyline

Buildings with nicknames like the Gherkin and the Shard changed the face of London. I used to hate them.

Colleen Sehy

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London’s postmodern architecture includes 20 Fenchurch St. (the Walkie Talkie) on the left, the Leadenhall Building or Cheesegrater (center), and 30 St. Mary or the Gherkin (right). Photo by Frans Ruiter on Unsplash.

The London skyline has changed dramatically over the last 30 years. One Canada Square (1991) and other Canary Wharf skyscrapers; City Hall (2002); 30 St. Mary Axe, better known as the Gherkin (2003); the Shard (2012); the Leadenhall Building, nicknamed the Cheesegrater (2014); and 20 Fenchurch Street, sometimes called the Walkie-Talkie (2015). These are just a sampling of the postmodern and high-tech-style buildings added during that time, each one more odd-looking than the last.

In 1984, Prince Charles famously attacked a proposed addition to the National Gallery as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.” I understand how he felt. These new additions don’t blend into the cityscape. They draw the eye, jumping up and down and shouting, look at me!

I first visited England in 1978. With each successive visit, I found more carbuncles on the landscape. No addition provoked my ire like the London Eye, the mammoth Ferris wheel erected in 1999 to celebrate the new Millennium. For years I harbored a secret hope that Londoners would grow tired of this blot on the landscape and tear it down. Of course, more than 20 years later, it’s one of the city’s most popular attractions.

I’m not quite sure why London’s modern architecture disgruntled me. I’m a native Chicagoan, and I’ve never felt any resentment toward the hulking Sears Tower, the distinctive slanted roofline of 150 N. Michigan Avenue, or the rippling façade of the Aqua Tower.

Then in 2015, I had the unexpected pleasure of spending three months in England’s capital city. I lived in southwest London, across the Thames from Canary Wharf, and I grew accustomed to seeing the Shard standing sentry over the south bank of the Thames. I regularly passed the rotund bulk of City Hall as I made my way to London Bridge Station. At night, I could see the glittering skyscrapers of Canary Wharf from my bedroom window.

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Colleen Sehy

Writer, traveler & Anglophile (www.colleensehy.com). Author of “Finding Shakespeare in America” (2020) and Eating British in America columnist at Anglotopia.net