London's Tallest Buildings And How They Got Their Names

By M@ Last edited 50 months ago

Last Updated 31 March 2020

London's Tallest Buildings And How They Got Their Names

These are the tallest buildings in the capital in order of height, with explanations of both the official names and nicknames. We've not included the numerous towers that are under construction or in the planning system.

The Shard, 309.6 metres

Western Europe's tallest building toyed with a number of names and nicknames — London Bridge Tower, the Shard of Glass, Shard London Bridge — before settling down on simply The Shard. Its pointy form resembles a glass shard, and is also supposed to remind us of the sail ships and church steeples of ye olde London.

1 Canada Square, 235 metres

Britain's tallest building between 1991 and 2010, the pyramid-topped skyscraper remains the centrepiece of the Canary Wharf estate. Canada Square was originally to be called Docklands Square, then Winston Square, before the North American appellation was settled upon. Why Canada? The site's original developers, Olympia and York, hail from Toronto. The main tower is often referred to as the Canary Wharf tower. This name dates back to the 1930s, when a quay and warehouse were established in the area for fruit trade with the Canary Islands.

The Heron Tower, 230 metres

The City of London's tallest building (for now), the Heron's muse is not ornithological in origin. Instead, it's named after developer Heron. This company is owned by Gerald Ronson, and is truncated from Henry Ronson, his father. The tower is now officially called 110 Bishopsgate, whose street name derives from an old Roman and medieval gate into the City (though why it was associated with bishops is not certain). The skyscraper also goes by the horrendous name of Salesforce Tower, after its principal tenant.

The Cheesegrater or the Leadenhall Building, 225 metres

The City giant's nickname is fairly self-explanatory. Its sloped profile and cross-hatched facade give it the appearance of a giant grater. We've heard, on good authority, that the nickname started with Ruth Rogers, of Hammersmith's River Cafe. Her husband, Richard Rogers, is senior partner of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the firm who designed (and now work in) the Cheesegrater. Its official name of the Leadenhall Building, or 122 Leadenhall Street derives from a medieval hall frequented by lead merchants, which once stood on this street.

8 Canada Square (the HSBC Tower) and 25 Canada Square (the Citigroup Tower), 200 metres

Both are 200 metres tall and both are commonly known after the banks which occupy them. See 1 Canada Square for an explanation of the official names.

Tower 42, 183 metres

You wouldn't guess it to look at the modern skyline, but Tower 42 was once the tallest building in the country. At 183 metres, it is now the seventh tallest in London, and will probably slip to something like 15th by the end of the decade. The Hitchhiker's Guide-riffing name refers to the number of habitable floors in the building — a champagne bar can be found on the 42nd floor. The skyscraper was formerly known as the NatWest Tower after the National Westminster Bank, for whom it was built. Seen from above, the tower's shape resembles the NatWest logo.

St George Wharf Tower, 181 metres

The cylindrical tower at Vauxhall made the news for tragic reasons in 2013 when a helicopter hit its construction crane, resulting in two deaths. It is currently the UK's tallest residential tower. The name, somewhat blandly, comes from developers St George. The tower is part of the wider St George Wharf development, which includes those green and white apartment blocks upstream of Vauxhall Bridge.

The Gherkin or 30 St Mary Axe, 180 metres

Like the Cheesegrater, the Gherkin nickname is easy to fathom. Its cylindrical profile is reminiscent of the maligned pickle. The scheme was originally dubbed the 'erotic gherkin', when plans were first announced in the year 2000. Various internet sources bestow the coinage on The Guardian, who apparently first used the term to describe an earlier incarnation of the tower in 1996.

BT Tower, 177 metres

The Fitzrovia landmark is simply named after the BT Group, which owns it. The tower, once the tallest building in the UK, has enjoyed many previous names, including the General Post Office (or GPO) Tower, and the Telecom Tower. We prefer to call it the Sonic Screwdriver.

Broadgate Tower, 164 metres

Completed in 2008, the Broadgate Tower stands at the very edge of the City of London, a herald for a wave of new skyscrapers that will soon intrude further north into Hackney and Tower Hamlets. Its name comes from the Broadgate Estate, a 1990s office development on the site of the former Broad Street station. Although it sounds like an ancient Roman entrance to the city, there never was a Broadgate before the development of the office estate. The original Broad Street predates the earliest maps of London and is probably a reference to the road being wider than its neighbours.

The Walkie Talkie or 20 Fenchurch Street, 160 metres

The building everyone loves to hate has a distinctive top-heavy profile, which earned it the nickname 'Walkie Talkie'. The sobriquet was apparently first coined on the Skyscrapernews website. It's been called many other names — memorably the Fryscraper and Walkie Scorchie after its concave facade focused the sun's rays and melted bits of cars. The official name of 20 Fenchurch Street might recall a time when this part of the City still had a marshy, fen-like character. Alternatively, it might refer to a hay market that once operated here. The 'church' part of the name probably relates to St Gabriel Fenchurch. This stood on the site where Plantation Place can be found today (there's a glazed blue plaque to say so). The church burnt down in the Great Fire.

We should also note that the Crystal Palace mast would be fifth in this list at 219 metres. It is generally considered to be a 'structure' rather than a building, however.

All images by the author.

See also