Historic buildings of Southwark and St Thomas's church tower, and a view of the Shard tower looming over the streets.

Up in London

London is basically built on mud which made it relatively easy to dig down to build tunnels for the tube system but much harder to build upwards. For years the height of London’s buildings was restricted to twice the width of the street until new technology allowed architects to get closer to the heavens. The old NatWest tower was the tallest building for many years but it has now been surpassed by both the Shard and Canary Wharf Tower. Our Blue Badge Guide Edwin Lerner looks upwards at 10 of London’s tallest skyscrapers.


“It is the tallest building in West Europe and was originally going to be called London Bridge Tower but English Heritage described the design dismissively as “a shard of glass’ and that became its name – even in its advertising. It looks unfinished to some but the upper deck is left open so you can feel the fresh air 300 metres up. The idea for the Shard was first mooted in 1999 but it was not begun until ten years later and opened to the public in November 2012.  The architect was Renzo Piano, the cost £435 million and there are 92 floors.  Most of the office space has been rented out and the viewing platform is always busy but the flats are not selling as well as the developers hoped – with prices up to £50 million, that is unsurprising.


This is the one with the pyramid on top and, occasionally, a little cloud emanating from it – a good example of a micro-climate.  At 200 metres, it is second only to the Shard but just three quarters the height of its rival.  It was designed by Cesar Pelli and built by the Olympia and York group who were going to develop ‘Manhattan on the Thames’ downriver from the City.  One Canada Square was completed in 1991 at a cost of over £600 million just in time for a big recession. The Tower is now full, the area is bustling and neighbours include American Express and HSBC.

Canary Wharf Tower

Canary Wharf Tower


Norman Foster the architect is supposed to hate the name but he will have to put up with it.  Londoners inevitably attach irreverent names to modern buildings and, as with the Shard, it is best to embrace your inner nickname rather than insist on the correct one, originally Swiss Re Building and now boringly 30 St Mary Axe, nothing more than an address.  So, lighten up, Lord Foster – we love your building but not its name. It was designed to fill a space created by an IRA bomb in 1992 on the site of the old Baltic Exchange and, for a while, all modern films set in London featured a shot of The Gherkin at some stage. It has 41 floors, is 180 metres tall and cost around £250 million to build, opening in 2004. Tenants are mainly insurance companies like Swiss Re.

The Gherkin tower London

The Gherkin tower London


This nickname was inevitable given the shape of the building in Leadenhall Street. The Leadenhall Building, the official name, was opened in 2014, cost £286 million, has 48 floors and is 225 metres tall.  Richard Rogers and Norman Foster are the two big beasts of modern architecture in London and Rogers’ company designed the Grater.

The Cheesegrater - London

The Cheesegrater – London


Another inevitable nickname, this one is properly called 20 Fenchurch Street. (Is it any wonder people use nicknames when the real ones are so boring?) It is 34 storeys and 160 metres high, although originally envisaged at 200 metres tall.  The Walkie Talkie was built by Lee Kum Kee, who made his money from food, mainly oyster sauce, and sold it for £1.3 billion. It has an impressive three-floor ‘sky garden’ which was opened in January 2015. Don’t park your car underneath, by the way because a Jaguar owner did so a few years ago and found his wooden dashboard burning when he returned.

Walkie Talkie building London

Walkie Talkie building London


This is still one of London’s most distinctive modern buildings and was designed with a rotating restaurant, which no longer feeds the rich, and those unmistakable broadcasting dishes.  When I first started guiding, it was the second tallest building in London but is now well down the list.  Its location makes it one of our most visible skyscrapers.

BT Tower London

BT Tower London


This was the skyscraper that was notoriously unused for years, the owner Harry Hyams saying he could make money from it empty than full.  Like the NatWest it was designed by Seiffert as an office but is now being converted into luxury flats. Centrepoint is also a charity for the homeless which is supported by Prince William (who will never be homeless).


Most people recognise this if only because it has the plumbing on the outside. (Rogers did a similar trick on the Pompidou Building in Paris.)  It is the home of insurance in London but is not a company, more a collection of brokerages who have been in the area for centuries.


This is my own nickname for One Blackfriars (yawn again) which is unofficially called The Vase, although this nickname has not really taken off.  It is not actually in Blackfriars as it lies on the south side of the Thames and is thus very distinctive on boat trips.  It will be a mixture of flats and offices and is due to open later this year.

The Vase - London

The Vase – London


This is a personal favourite which I always point out when heading to or from the M4 on the way to Windsor.  It has been there for 25 years but was never a great success commercially and has been bought and sold several times. The latest company to take it over spent £20 million ten years ago in stripping out the central open area to make thirty per cent more office space.  It is often used in films but is probably in the wrong area – Hammersmith in West London – for the ambitious financial companies who prefer locations farther East.


I will always call it this although the National Westminster Bank has long since moved out, having sold it for just under £300 million to a South African businessman. The architect was Richard Seiffert who denies that the Nat West logo inspired the design – although they look remarkably similar.  It is now called Tower 42 and, at 187 metres high, it was the tallest building in London but has now been surpassed by both the Shard and Canary Wharf Tower.”

Nat West Tower

Nat West Tower