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Foster parent: the woman who made 30 St Mary Axe happen

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If there was a single driving force behind the realisation of 30 St Mary Axe, it was Sara Fox, Swiss Re’s new-building director, who revels in running things. Sutherland Lyall faces up to her

Clients for commercial buildings, or practically any biggish building for that matter, tend to be self-effacing, background kinds of people. They are either rich enough to want zero publicity or are solid corporate people, happy for architects and developers to get on with their eternal quest for fame and glory.

Not Sara Fox, Swiss Re’s new-building director and client for Foster and Partners’ ‘gherkin’ at 30 St Mary Axe. It is not that Fox hogs the limelight, rather that she knows she likes running things and the limelight follows that. I have heard her described as ‘feisty’ - that is a milquetoast (an American term she herself uses) way of saying ‘occasionally ferocious’. At Canary Wharf, where she learned her craft, she was known as the Iron Lady. A friend of mine used to say of his agent: ‘She scares the shit out of me. But think what publishers feel when she is negotiating my royalties.’ You feel that Fox would not exactly mind that kind of reputation.

And yet she laughs a lot, dodges awkward questions with sweet reasonableness, makes an awful lot of sense and comes over as a consummate, likeable person.

Norman Foster said at the Stirling Prize dinner that ‘however big the committee may be, projects focus on one individual who has skill and initiative’. Fox says of being that one individual: ‘Unquestionably I enjoyed being a client, being in charge and being in control.

The pleasure is hugely increased with really good people - and have I worked with some cowboy contractors. Although working with Foster and Partners was challenging, it is a superbly professional practice, dedicated and hard-working, and respects a client who has an opinion.

‘I had a huge team - we crammed 30 people into 2,000 square feet. The Foster architects lived with us, five full-time people every morning working 12-15-hour days with their CAD system linked back to mother ship so that everyone had access to the drawings. The team I had included artists, a cost-management team, specialists in cladding, steel and so on. Then I had structural and M&E engineers and Arup - three to six of them. There was a construction director to manage in terms of value engineering and the detailed design. There was an interior design manager, a guy who now runs the property services and who planned for replacing the cooling system in 10 years.

It’s a misconception that I did it all myself.’

Born in Germany to a US Army father, Fox moved about a lot in her first 12 years. It was unsettling enough for her to not have any particular homeland, although she has been a British citizen for the past 14 years. Back home in the US, she read economics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and then did an MBA at Stanford.

Still unclear about her future career, her new degree was not focused on real estate but provided a professional background for project management. And so she went to work for McKinsey.

After McKinsey she did a stint with Schlumberger and then one day found herself interviewing for Olympia & York for a job she knew very little about. ‘When I was eight years old I had not the vaguest notion that I would be doing what I do. But I was very passionate about Lego. So perhaps there was the sign.’ She spent the next four years at Canary Wharf.

Then, in December 1995, she decided to leave the property sector and went to work with Swiss Re as senior vice-president for renovation. The company’s new 30,000m 2 New York building was going up. ‘It just happened that the project was coming to an end when a call from London came, saying: ‘How about doing a building for us?’ I arrived in London in July when planning permission had just been given. I started on 1 September, there were four months of legal stuff, we started in January 2000, and 140 weeks later, we had built it.’ But before that, Fox had been moving back and forth across the Atlantic, involved in the search for a new London building for Swiss Re. The company had looked for an existing building, ‘but property was still in the doldrums and there was no single development of the right size in London. So it was clear that [the best option was] to acquire our own site.’ The old Baltic Exchange site was on the market with a proposal by the Foster office for the ultra-tall Millennium Tower, designed at the behest of Trafalgar House, which had bought the St Mary Axe site from the Baltic Exchange. It was known that this Foster scheme was likely to be rejected on height grounds, but the site looked good and Swiss Re bought it. But who should the architect be? ‘We did assess other architects and other firms that would have been compatible with Swiss Re’s corporate image.

But the fact that Foster and Partners was so consonant with our view of the universe was compelling.’ In addition, the Foster office was six months ahead of any other practice. ‘They had invaluable knowledge of the site and had many of the same staff.

‘Foster came up with a much cruder ‘gherkin’ very early: squatter, squashed in on the sides like the Greater London Authority building. But still it was an intriguing concept, so we went with it.’ But, of course, you want to know whose design it was - and, of course, Fox isn’t going to say. She is disarmingly reasonable: ‘The short answer is that the Foster office presented a united front. It has always been a team effort. We must have had 25 to 30 senior architects working on the project. Norman was always actively involved and so was Robin Partington. It is insane to say that any one person is responsible for the building.’ Moving on to firmer territory, she says: ‘It was clear that not everybody would embrace the concept of the building - but Swiss Re is in the business of managing risk. Still, the board made a brave decision. They said: ‘We think it is worth putting with energy efficiency [as a goal] such things as architectural excellence and quality.” So, what would she have done differently?

‘With 20/20 vision you might have changed some subcontractors, but you never have a hassle-free construction. But in design terms we benefited (the only benefit) from the lengthy planning process.’ It enabled the design team to get the structural integrity right, to work out such things as how the building could be cleaned inside and out. ‘We took everything to practically construction-drawing stage. Because of the additional time, we managed to avoid the pitfalls. A contractor looks at a set of design drawings, puts his finger up in the wind and puts on a 20 per cent surcharge.

But here they were in a much better position to come up with real prices.’

So now, after Stirling success, how does she feel about the building? ‘One of the most unexpected by-products has been its unbelievable contribution to the public perception of our company. We could have sunk lots of money into a massive advertising campaign - as much as every single penny we spent on the building - and we wouldn’t have had the same brand recognition. So it’s a double investment. And no, we haven’t copyrighted the building’s image. Transamerica Corp changed its corporate logo to an image of its building - and so copyrighted its rights.

But we already have a very nice logo.’ It seems churlish to ask about the unlet floorspace, but Fox is calm about it all. She discounts one theory - that potential tenants could feel swamped by the presence and new pomp of Swiss Re, and that this is why the building is officially known as 30 St Mary Axe. The company’s advisers reckon this is a red herring. So, the more plausible explanations? ‘First you have a 15 per cent vacancy rate in the City. I hate to admit it, but I don’t control the weather or market conditions. But the pundits now say that the worm has turned for the good.

The first things to happen [in these improving market circumstances] are the big corporate pre-lets. Second is understanding. Until Swiss Re had been occupied, the building people couldn’t get their heads around it. They have seen models of it but it’s not a square box with rectangular corners and most potential tenants are very unsophisticated. For them, office spaces are orthogonal by the very nature of desks, filing systems and photocopiers. In fact, the floor plans are made up of six rectangles with a bow at the front.’ But all that will be someone else’s problem.

Fox is now on a two-month sabbatical. So, you ask, what is she doing next? She laughs. ‘It will be a different answer in six months. Today, don’t talk to me about doing anything.’ And what is her favourite building in London? She gurgles at the potential trap.

‘My favourite is the Pantheon in Rome, that internal space. When I am in New York, I spy the Chrysler Building on Lexington or the Empire State and they put a smile on my face. But London? OK, I now know every vista that shows our building. I adore it. I can’t understand anyone who doesn’t.

‘Seeing it gives me a huge glow. I try not to gloat, but it’s tough.’

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