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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 November, 2004, 16:22 GMT
Pretty vacant skyscrapers?

By Gillian Lacey-Solymar
Correspondent, Newsnight

Swiss Re Tower
The Swiss Re Tower is still standing half empty

One of London's tallest and perhaps best-loved skyscrapers, the Swiss Re Tower, has been a resounding critical success. But it's also standing half-empty.

Why can't it rent its vacant office space?

Think of ground-breaking, sky scraping architecture and Manhattan or Kuala Lumpur spring to mind. London does not even make it on to the shortlist.

But that's about to change. By 2010 the capital will house Europe's tallest building and a raft of competitors, all tall, all innovative.

The first of these structures has already thrust its way on to the London skyline - the much hyped Swiss Re building, or Erotic Gherkin, as it's more colourfully labelled.

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The building certainly makes the boldest of statements and has picked up architectural accolades aplenty, including the prestigious Stirling prize.

Looking up at it, it's bizarre to think, given its elegant curves, that the tower has only one curved piece of glass -the one at its very pinnacle. Otherwise all the panes are straight.

Empty Gherkin

So it's surprising that the building is still standing half empty.

Inside the Swiss Re Tower

The owners, insurance company Swiss Re, occupy a quarter of a million square feet, but that leaves a space of similar size which is entirely vacant. Astronomical City rents mean the company is foregoing 100 per working minute.

So why won't it rent and will this commercial anomaly jeopardise the planned skyscrapers, which may have been granted planning permission, but have not yet left the drawing board.

It seems that the owners misjudged the demand for office space when the tower was under construction.

Graham Coles, Vice-President of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors believes "they packaged up the space in units of 100,000 square ft which seemed a good idea at the time, but when the building was finished, the demand for rentals of that size had evaporated."

It has taken a significant rethink to carve up the space into smaller units, but the problem of anticipating demand is not a new one. Peter Rogers, founding director of Stanhope Property Development says that constant research is required regarding location and tenants.

Changing market

Even so a market can change enormously in the several years it takes to go from drawing to brick and mortar - or should I say steel and glass -reality. Especially so, as the commercial property market in London is notoriously cyclical.

Another factor for the vacancy is Swiss Re's insistence that anyone renting space in their tower should be of the highest pedigree.

Peter Rees, planning officer at the Corporation of London thinks their inflexibility is understandable. "If you were renting a room in your own house and the market was a little soft, you wouldn't take anyone. So it is for Swiss Re."

He points out that when a building houses an owner occupier, the demands are more stringent, but equally, the architecture can be more adventurous.

Bishopsgate night view - rendering by Hayes Davidson
London Mayor Ken Livingstone wants more skyscrapers
Mr Rees draws a parallel between the Gherkin and the Victorian head office of the Prudential, which at the time was considered outrageously different. Had it been built as a purely commercial development, rather than as a home for the insurance giant, Mr Rees feels it would have been far less innovative.

But the equation between innovation and owner-occupancy seems to break down with the new towers on the horizon. London Bridge Tower, or the Shard of Glass (each of the new constructs comes complete with exotic sobriquet) is anything but conservative.

It will be the tallest building in Europe and its pinnacle will consist of sculpted panes of glass reaching up to the sky.

Commercially it will also be breaking new ground. The building will be a virtual city with office space, shops, flats and a hotel contained within the pyramid.

Risk

Copyright: Cityscape
London Bridge Tower (aka the Shard of Glass) will be Europe's tallest building
It sounds a risky enterprise and it is. Potentially costing up to 1bn, the developers told us that they are unable to go ahead unless 35-40% of the building is pre-let.

Others we talked to thought it would be a tall order and doubted whether it would ever go ahead.

The Heron tower is another developer-led project. Fred Pilbrow of architects Kohn Pederson Fox Associates told us that the way they are seeking to avoid the commercial pitfalls suffered by the Gherkin is to segment the space into small flexible spaces.

"We are building villages of three floors each which will make it unlike any other large tower in London. The space will be far more sociable."

Sociable or not, the new towers are being scrutinised for how they will affect the London skyline. English Heritage's Philip Davies is at pains to point out it has nothing against tall buildings per se, but that they mustn't interfere with "strategic views" of St Paul's Cathedral.

Nor should they affect the space on the ground adversely. Mr Davies believes" You have to be very careful with a tall building as it can suck out the life of a City for generations to come."

Copyright: Cityscape
How London's skyline should look by 2010
And yet, given the space restrictions on the ground - especially in the square mile - it seems logical for buildings to get taller and taller. London's Mayor Ken Livingstone thinks the City learned its lesson when large companies started to desert it for Canary Wharf.

In any case, the economic argument is only half the tale. There is more to these towers than simply rent, yields and capital value.

Developers, planners and architects alike believe that for London to maintain its image as one of the key capitals of the world it must have ground breaking architecture.

But as George Ferguson, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) puts it " that does not mean that London becomes an architectural zoo. What we need is not height for the sake of it, but fantastic structures that people can enjoy, especially at ground level."

Only then will the social and commercial elements come together and another Gherkin pickle be avoided.


Gillian Lacey-Solymar's report was screened on Tuesday, 23 November, 2004.

Newsnight is broadcast on BBC Two at 2230 BST every weeknight in the UK.




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