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The Contextual Tower: Avery Associates' No 1 Undershaft

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Whether or not it is eventually realised, Brian Avery’s design for No 1 Undershaft marks the emergence of a new building type 

In The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered, New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable reflected that ‘the question of how to design the tall building has never really been resolved’ and was being reduced to the cynical packaging of real estate. Thirty years on, the dilemma remains. The styles of wrapping may be more various, but commercial practices remain in thrall to developers determined to maximise financial returns, while a tiny global elite are licensed to add value with extravagant ‘signature’ forms.

A third way between these depressing alternatives is suggested by Bryan Avery’s proposals for a tower in the City of London. Although not known for tall buildings, Avery has an enviable behind-the-scenes reputation for work on difficult sites, and he has approached the commission as he would any other, holistically and contextually.

The site at No 1 Undershaft is now dominated by Fosters’ ‘Gherkin’ and RSHP’s ‘Cheesegrater’ and sits at the heart of the City planners’ ‘Eastern Tower Cluster’. Peter Rees likened this to a mountain range whose commanding peak was intended to be KPF’s 304m Bishopsgate Tower, aka ‘The Pinnacle’. Avery was initially asked to make his building play K2 to KPF’s Everest, but when, with its core several storeys up, the latter fell victim to the recession, the proposed new tower was free to become the city crown.

The massing responds directly to the Cheesegrater

The massing of Avery’s proposal responds directly to the ‘Cheesegrater’, echoing its sloping face to both north and south. This avoids overshadowing St Helen’s parish church and creates a surface – part wall, part ceiling – to frame a new plaza. Undercut chamfers respond to the urban corners and, at the point where the major outward-leaning face intersects with the Cheesegrater, its angle is reversed, the newly triangular section rising to a sharp point.

This geometric response to the immediate context is equally effective at city scale. The building ascends stealthily but emphatically higher than the Cheesegrater to crown the cluster of towers and, in the crucial view of St Paul’s at the end of Fleet Street, is neatly aligned to offer the termination that the sawn-off RSHP building seems to need.

Some of the 20th century’s seminal towers – one thinks of Howe and Lescaze’s masterly PSFS building in Philadelphia or SOM’s Lever House in New York – were thoughtful responses to urban conditions but, by deriving the massing of an entire building from an imaginative geometric reading of the context, Avery has radically reinvented the traditional podium, shaft and crown type. Thoroughly contemporary in form, yet rooted in the medieval intricacies of the City, he sees the project – like the innovations of his hero, Frank Lloyd Wright – as dedicated to a ‘cause conservative’ intended to address civic as well as commercial demands. His client is still seeking funding, but, regardless of whether or not it is eventually realised, the project could yet be seen as marking the emergence of a new building type – that apparent oxymoron, the contextual tower.

  • Richard Weston is founding director of Richard Weston Studio and until recently professor of architecture at Cardiff University

Diagram showing orientation of the No 1 Undershaft to the sun's trajectory

Diagram showing orientation of the No 1 Undershaft to the sun’s trajectory

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