The Real Icons Of Modern London: Not What You Might Think

By Londonist Last edited 18 months ago
The Real Icons Of Modern London: Not What You Might Think
The upper third of the Gherkin skyscraper on a beautiful blue afternoon
Image Matt Brown

To coincide with John Grindrod's book ICONICON: A Journey Around the Landmark Buildings of Contemporary Britain, the author highlights some of the capital's true, and often overlooked, icons.

When the UK headquarters for Swiss Re opened at 30 St Mary Axe in 2004 its architect, Norman Foster, had to acknowledge ‘that which has started as a term of abuse has ended up a term of endearment, of affection.’ By ‘that’ he meant ‘the Gherkin’.

Foster said of the nickname, entirely unconvincingly, ‘I’ve mellowed like everyone else.’ The building itself was a sensation, and immediately began appearing on all skyline depictions of London in adverts and on coffee cups, beside the Houses of Parliament, St Paul's, and the London Eye. It was, immediately, an icon of London, its nickname helping connect it to more relatable topics: fish and chip shops, and smutty Carry On films.

A rash of icons

The London skyline with the twin brown towers of Cannon Street station in the foreground and a rash of skyscrapers in the background
Spot the Gherkin. Image Matt Brown

Since then numerous would-be icons have been erected, many of them crowding around the Gherkin like a mob desperate for its autograph. Of them, only the Cheesegrater, Richard Rogers’s Leadenhall Building, has any kind of symbolic power, due to its extraordinary form. The rest are bulky non-entities.

A step away the Walkie Talkie glowers with its infamous heat-ray facade, powerful enough to melt the metal badge on a Jaguar, a super villain spurning the advances of the rest. When the Shard rose up on the opposite bank, the developers were so insecure and desperate for it not to be given an ‘affectionate’ nickname like the Gherkin, that they wrote The Shard on the stumpy concrete core and kept moving it upward as the tower grew. They needn’t have bothered. Nobody was about to say anything affectionate about it.

The former City Hall on the banks of the Thames. Looks like a giant fencing mask facing left. The sun rises to the right
The former City Hall. Image Matt Brown

Not all the modern icons are huge. City Hall (now vacated in favour of a building in the Royal Docks) is a symbol of the Mayoralty, a dinky headlamp facing a much more formidable pair of icons recognisable around the world: the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. In some senses its diminutive size gives an accurate impression of the powers of the job – small and limited, but with a spectacular view. But further along the Thames we are back to supersizing. One Canada Square, the original skyscraper at Canary Wharf, has been crowded out much as the Gherkin has been in the City, all the new giant towers leaning in for a selfie with the one true icon of Docklands.

Why bother trying to create iconic architecture at all?

Famously, this rush for constructing buildings to brand a city goes back to Sydney Opera House in the 1970s, and the Guggenheim Bilbao in the 1990s. Frank Gehry’s art gallery has been such a successful landmark and tourist trap that he often gets asked to design ‘a Frank Gehry’ for other cities. The success was not just down to the architecture of these two incredible structures, it was also due to the space into which they were both born. Neither had much in the way of competition.

Fast forward to Britain around the Millennium and 27 major projects – art galleries, concert halls, museums, science centres and bridges – were being constructed around the country to celebrate that transient moment. In effect a different competing Lottery-funded Guggenheim was being launched almost every month for three years: the Eden Project, The Deep in Hull, the Millennium Centre in Cardiff, the Sage in Gateshead, the Imperial War Museum North in Salford. Not everything was going to make the necessary impact to become an icon, because there just wasn’t enough headspace for us to take them all in. Given that, it’s incredible so many of them worked.

The shredded O2 dome, with a blue fence in the foreground
The shredded O2. Image Matt Brown

One that did, an instantly recognisable – and before February I would have said enduring – icon of contemporary London is the Millennium Dome, now the O2 Arena, sadly shredded in Storm Eunice. So synonymous with the city is it, that it’s even the star of the opening titles of EastEnders, though whether they will update the graphic with its latest ‘someone left a cake out in the rain’ incarnation is anyone’s guess. I suppose it depends how long it takes to repair the (literal) fabric of the building.

Icons hiding in plain sight

But what makes for an iconic building is not just producing a shiny swoosh for a city. Instead, they can be icons of different things, and sometimes accidentally so. Most interestingly they can be icons of our politics and culture, encapsulating the dreams of a particular moment in time, or the flaws. This means, that, for me, some of the most iconic buildings in Britain aren’t shiny towers and deconstructed museums. Instead they’re much more likely to be the familiar places that most embody the spirit of the age: the Barratt home; the business park; the out-of-town shopping centre.

In London the iconic buildings of the last decade have been those terraces of flat-fronted brick flats and houses with Georgian-proportion windows and metal balconies. They are fake factories and power stations, the children of Tate Modern, and they speak of an era of austerity and conservatism, of homes as investments rather than places to be personalised and lived in. In time they will become a shorthand for our age just as 1930s semis are for the interwar era.

I have covered these and many more places in Iconicon: A Journey Around the Landmark Buildings of Contemporary Britain, in which I have interviewed architects and residents, politicians and planners, to get the inside story on what has been built in Britain since 1980, and how we have lived with those buildings since. For the most part the issue of what is or makes an icon is a distraction from what has actually been built, and more tellingly, what hasn’t.

As we struggle with a housing crisis while oligarchitecture continues to rise in our city centres and richest suburbs, the developers and politicians’ relentless pursuit of the icon has been a distraction many of us could have done without.

Author John Grindrod stands outside some housing on a grey day. He has a beard and short hair, and gazes into the middle distance. In a separate panel to the right is the book cover of Iconicon. It is bright yellow with an orange circle and blue rectangle and a prominent Angel of the North

Iconicon: A Journey Around the Landmark Buildings of Contemporary Britain by John Grindrod is published by Faber. Buy via Amazon, or your nearest independent bookshop (map).

Last Updated 15 March 2022

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