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Foster's 'St Mary Axe' swings into view

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The Swiss Re building - now rebranded as 30 St Mary Axe to emphasise its 'historic' site in the City of London - is already approaching its halfway stage, as other towers proposed for the capital languish in planning's no-man's-land. The core of the 'gherkin'scheme, hailed by Lord Foster as London's first 'environmentally progressive' tower, is already up to level 16, while the 40-storey project's steel diagrid defining its curvilinear form is not far behind, having reached level 14. And, when the tower reaches practical completion in October this year, that external structure will comprise 342 elements of the A-frame steel, weighing 10,000 tonnes.

Fosters' Ken Shuttleworth said the building's 'dynamic, visually exciting form' had been extensively tested for regulations compliance, and that it would perform well in the unlikely event of an aeroplane hitting it. 'You'd have a large hole, but it wouldn't fall down, ' he said. But more important than security considerations - despite it being built on the site of the IRA-bombed former Baltic Exchange - were the scheme's design and lowenergy features, built in after a 'fun' five-year planning process that saw off 90- and 70-storey Foster tower projects proposed for the same site.

'It's going up super-fast, 'Shuttleworth said of the scheme now progressing at a rate of two floors every fortnight. 'The nice thing is that we started with some drawings.We don't anticipate any problems - it's been drawn to death.'

The 180m tall building will be completed in the 'last quarter'of 2003, some 33 months after work began in January 2001. And, following a press visit this week, agents are marketing the scheme to prospective tenants - mainly lawyers and financial services companies.

The building will feature enclosed lightwells inside the doubleskinned, energy-efficient facade. These, now picked out in darker glass to emphasise the 'swirl'shape and minimise solar gain, spiral on a 5infinityrotation for each 'finger'of floor up the building. The lightwells bring in daylight and provide the possibility of natural ventilation through opening windows in the exterior perimeter. Meeting areas will be clustered around them in the offices inside.

Reinsurer Swiss Re will be the first tenant, occupying floors 2-15, while 16-34 will be ready for tenant fit-out on a phased, short term basis from mid-2003. The top floors, sitting above plant, culminate in a domed reception, bar and restaurant and act as dedicated hospitality facilities for tenants, their clients and guests - though not the public. And the building's tapering, wind-tested form means more space at street level, where a new plaza has been created around a double-height entrance, along with 1,500m 2of retail space and six-storey annexe building.

The tower, 'bang on schedule'after early weather delays, contrasts with the two other main schemes which will have a major say in London's future skyline - Heron Tower, the 222m tall scheme by KPF, and the 306m, £350 million London Bridge Tower by Renzo Piano and Broadway Malyan.

Heron is awaiting a decision this summer after a public inquiry and London Bridge has been issued with an Article 14 holding directive by Stephen Byers. But St Mary Axe is swinging towards completion.

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