London High - A Guide to the Past, Present and Future of London's Skyscrapers By Herbert Wright. Frances Lincoln, 2006.£30.00
When Cesar Pelli designed One Canada Square, still practically synonymous with Canary Wharf, he thought he was designing 'the first skyscraper in England'. And by American standards, he was. There have been a couple more since, namely Eight and 25 Canada Square, but these three are still the only buildings in London over 200m high. So a guide to London's skyscrapers ought to be a short book.
Happily, Herbert Wright is not interested in American standards. For him, a height of 50m is enough to qualify for skyscraper status, provided the building is sufficiently massive and tower-like. So pre-war stone piles like Senate House and the London Transport headquarters at 55 Broadway are included, as are relatively squat edifices like Richard Rogers' Lloyd's Building and GMW's Minster Court. This accommodating attitude allows a full and fascinating survey of London's big buildings.
Wright is an amateur, neither an architect nor an architectural historian, but his love of a certain kind of architecture would put many a jaded professional to shame.
Seen through his eyes, these buildings, many of them old and neglected, come to life like monsters in a '50s sci-fi film.
When, for example, did you last think about that three-cornered dinosaur called the Empress State Building at the back of Earl's Court, the first London building to reach 100m? Other skyscrapers are more visible, more loved and more hated, like Centre Point, by the hero of this book, the great Richard Seifert.
Wright shows discernment when he decides that the best of the many Seifert skyscrapers is the 'magnificent, bow-fronted' Draper's Gardens in the City.
Sadly, it is now being demolished. Classic residential skyscrapers like Goldfinger's Trellick Tower and Lasdun's Keeling House sank into near ruin in the 1980s, only to rise again in gentrified glory. Their stories are told simply and forcefully.
Wright expresses his architectural judgments rather naively and he sometimes gets things wrong, especially names.
At one point he refers to William Caxton when he clearly means Joseph Paxton.
But he is good on the largerthan-life property developers of the pioneering years and has a fair stab at the complexities of skyscraper construction.
This naivety allows Wright to include stories that would have no place in a more serious study. Michael Cliff House in Finsbury was a typical '60s high rise, except that it had publicly accessible balconies.
'The suicides soon started, ' Wright tells us, and says residents got to recognise the sound of people hitting the ground. More amusingly, Wright tells how in 2001 a pair of BASE jumpers paraglided from the top of 25 Canada Square, ran into Canary Wharf tube station to make their getaway, and then had to wait 10 agonising minutes for a train. You don't get this kind of detail in Pevsner.
Colin Davies is a professor at London Metropolitan University