So, What Should We Do With London's Very Own Glass Onion?

By M@

Last Updated 28 March 2024

So, What Should We Do With London's Very Own Glass Onion?
A view of the former City Hall - shaped like a fencing helmet - in winter

The former City Hall has been empty for ages. What would you do with London's very own Glass Onion?

The Mayor moved office in early 2022, and took the entire machinery of London governance with him. After more than 20 years in the distinctive glass bauble near Tower Bridge, the Mayor, the London Assembly and the GLA decamped to the Royal Docks, where they now reside in the angular building formerly known as The Crystal. Read the full story here if, like many Londoners, this whole municipal melodrama passed you by.

The move raised many questions. Not least is: what now for the landmark building beside the Thames? We should point out, up front, that this is a privately owned building. Nothing we say or do will have any influence on its eventual new purpose. That's up to its owners, the Kuwait Investment Authority. But this is such a distinctive, iconic building that we feel obliged to speculate, and dream about what it might become in an ideal world.

And we also asked you. Turns out, you have dozens of ideas, some good, some bad, some surreal. Here are the best suggestions from Facebook and Twitter.

A homeless shelter

Lots of people suggested that it might be turned into a hostel or shelter for the homeless. Natasha added: "I'd follow the Icelandic Y-Project whereby it's more of a community hub for people to stay as long as they wish with help and support with a ready made community".

Kevin also elaborates on the idea: "Homeless accommodation on the upper levels and supported retail employment on the lower floors to boost employability skills." Meanwhile, in a related concept, Iain suggests it become a new "Ministry of Affordable Housing".

An end-of-life hospice

Reader 'ScottishBlonde' has one of the best suggestions: "A hospice for terminally ill people, so they can have a river view from their room windows."

Build a matching one next door

A pair of city halls side by side obviously photoshopped
How it might look...

Of course, the former City Hall has been compared to other things, besides a glass onion. When it was first built, debut Mayor Ken Livingstone likened the structure to a glass testicle. Reader Philip has similar ideas: "Always thought there should have been a pair of these constructed, not just one. Then the former Mayor of London could have stood between them and the picture would be complete." This suggestion got more likes than any other.

Multi-storey chain cafes

Gary, presumably with tongue in cheek, suggests a heap of chains: "Costa, Bella Italia, Starbucks, Spoons, KFC and MackyD. One floor each." Imagine the smell on the central staircase.

A cat cafe

London can never get enough of novelty cafes and dining experiences. City Hall, with its internal spiral, might be just the thing for a massive cat cafe, reckons Russ. "On 6 levels with loads of elevated walkways, tunnels, slides for cats/humans. A far better use for it than the previous useless occupier!".

A new venue for the Museum of London

Several people suggested that the Museum of London could move into the building. It would be a fun and prominent location for the museum, which recently closed its London Wall site. Alas, the building's glass facade and curved walls seem ill-suited to displaying historic artefacts. Plus, of course, the museum is moving into much larger digs in Smithfield Market.

Others suggested a museum or cultural space — perhaps as London's answer to the Guggenheim or Pompidou (note, the building is much smaller than either). More practicable might be as a theatre given that, as 'canaryperson' notes, the building comes with a built-in performance space in the shape of the old GLA chamber. Reader 'NJR22' offers: "Planetarium? Museum of the future? Art centre - the Government Art Collection?".

Put the Mayor and Assembly back inside

A view of the Thames and City Hall from the north bank of the thames
View of the building from the Sky Garden

A few commenters objected to the very circumstances that have left the building empty. It was purpose-built to house the London Assembly, Mayor's office and machinery of local authority, and should be maintained as such. Peter sums the situation up: "It's an advertisement as to why public buildings should not be owned by private companies and rented to government. @MayorofLondon should still be in the building designed for the London legislature and executive."

A massive library

"It looks like a library," observes Finuala, "so make it something library/research/museum so everyone can go". Nobody could argue with that suggestion (although the economics might be tricky to work out).

Indoor skate park and gallery

Now this idea from Robert could be a winner. The building contains a long spiral ramp and a circular chamber which would be heaven for skaters. And on that second purpose as a gallery, the building has already been used for photographic exhibitions. Perhaps this could be London's first gallery designed to be viewed from a skateboard, with immersive video art along the walls of the spiral. I think we can rule out displays of Ming vases or Wedgwood pottery, though.

Demolish it!

Quite a few people simply don't like the building. They'd see it torn down and replaced with something "more worthwhile" like a lido or social housing.

Parking space

A view of city hall from the east, with summer trees and the shard in the background
London's curviest car park?

A few people suggested (probably as a joke) that the building could be turned over to parking. To be fair, City Hall would make a very attractive car park and, with its internal spiral ramp, would fall into the fine tradition of these curved beauties. A few problems. (1) Nobody with a brain would want to see cars — even electric ones — anywhere near this bit of the Thames. (2) The floorplates aren't designed for heavy loads, so the whole thing would probably have to be rebuilt.

An alternative and more workable suggestion by Diane would see the building turned into a giant cycle park.

Helmet for giant Judge Dredd

A curveball suggestion from Nick. "Fugoji" similarly suggested a RoboCop Museum. Kuwaiti landlords... you have 15 seconds to comply.

A museum of helmets

Germaine wants to go one step further and turn the place into a full-on Museum of Helmets. And why not? London already has a Fan Museum, Sewing Machine Museum and (nearby) a museum devoted to metal testing, so why not helmets? The police helmet was pioneered in London. The first motorbike helmets were made in Bethnal Green. Some would say that the building already has a long association with "complete helmets". It all fits. Like a helmet.

A world-beating Halloween display

City Hall transformed into a pumpkin

This was actually our own suggestion (and dodgy photoshop), from a few years ago.

A greenhouse

"Grow food for the community," says 'TechRye', "Sell what is popular and give away to homeless and write off as donation. It'll give jobs to people that are homeless and feeds them."

A prison for MPs

Looking down into the 'Scoop' from City Hall
The kind of view prisoners would get

'Red Handed Jill' advocates a continued political use, but not the one we were expecting. "Prison for all the corrupt MPs we're having to put up with. Glass windows everywhere so we can see them in their misery and throw rotten eggs at the windows." Obvious problem: the building's not big enough.

And the rest

The suggestions didn't end there. Others thought the building might be turned into London's coolest school, or a hospital. A tourist information hub was another suggestion. A couple of wisecrackers thought the place should become another American candy store, or M&Ms hub. Another suggested an H&Ms. More than one person wanted to shove the whole curvy edifice up the Mayor's arse.

Alas, we and you have no say in the matter. The building is privately owned and will no doubt be leased out as office space or turned into luxury apartments. Maybe we'll get a Starbucks if we're lucky.

All images by the author