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The Tulip reframes a quintessentially English building type for our age

Dbox foster + partners the tulip cluster dusk index
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Foster’s tower is simply a vertical version of a Victorian pleasure pier in all its huckstering, carnivalesque glory, writes Catherine Slessor

This week, as the nation was understandably distracted by the latest instalment in the ongoing Brexit psychodrama, City of London planners voted to approve the Tulip, Foster + Partners’ folie de grandeur, due to be constructed next to the Gherkin. It was a good day to bury bad news. 

When it opens in 2025, the Tulip will join a cluster of priapic extrusions of capital jostling awkwardly for supremacy on the City skyline, like hideously mismatched guests at a cocktail party they can never leave. Within this architectural huis clos, size is everything. Weighing in at a symbolic 1,000ft or 305m, Norman’s Tulip is only very slightly less engorged than Renzo’s Shard, just across the Thames. 

Architects are simply obliging pawns, sprinkling glitter on an increasingly towering dung heap

Giving hulking towers chummy nicknames – Shard, Tulip, Gherkin, Cheesegrater, Orbit or Walkie Talkie – has always been like putting lipstick on a baboon, a vain attempt to perkily humanise the machinations of capitalism and gimlet-eyed corporate ambition that conspire to spawn such horrors. And, however they might care to dress it up, architects are simply obliging pawns, sprinkling glitter on an increasingly towering dung heap.

Floral analogies and worse (butt plug, cotton bud, giant sperm) have been doing the rounds since the Tulip was unveiled in November last year. Then, as now, its hyper-slick visualisations, which clearly worked their magic on the planners, transport you to a parallel dimension, a fantasy London of perpetual late spring dusks and radiant buildings. Never has the gradgrinding hellscape of the City looked more beguiling. Who wouldn’t want to whizz to the top of the Tulip, to linger in its bars and restaurants, maybe take a turn to nowhere in a teeny, tiny gondola? Within its plumply puissant tip – more budding amaryllis than tulip, if we’re being botanically picky – implausibly diaphanous walls enclose vertiginous viewing galleries, artfully thronged by crowds of photogenic visitors. Welcome to Foster world.

Arguments abound as to whether the Tulip is a ‘good thing’ for London. On balance, it probably isn’t. Sara Fox – Foster’s original client for the Gherkin – has publicly disdained it. Peter Cook thought it ‘not spooky enough’. And Historic Royal Palaces have fumingly asserted that it would reduce the Tower of London’s status to that of a ‘toy castle’. Twitter opinion can be summed up as a universally despairing eye-roll. 

Yet the spectacle of critics and opinion-formers rending their garments on social media has rarely impeded the juggernaut of client vanity and wealth. The genuinely loathsome ArcelorMittal Orbit, brainchild of one of the world’s richest men, still flicks a nonchalant V-sign at its detractors from the former Olympic park in Stratford. In this instance, Brazilian billionaire Joseph Safra, current proprietor of the Gherkin, has bankrolled the Tulip, so he can more or less do what he likes. But whichever way you slice it, the promise of a ‘classroom in the sky’ isn’t fooling anyone, nor is the prospect of some greenery tacked on to a downdraught-blasted ground plane.  

My theory is that the Tulip is simply a vertical version of a Victorian pleasure pier in all its huckstering, carnivalesque glory. In the same way that a pier thrusts out questingly to conquer the sea, so the Tulip shoots upwards to claim the air. Calculated to distract and disinhibit, the pier/Tulip choreographs its own world-within-a-world. At its end/tip lies an infantilising fairground of attractions, set against unlimited horizons. From here, you can see forever. Perhaps, without really knowing it, Foster has cunningly reframed the quintessential English building type for our current wretched age. 

But the fate of the Victorian pier is salutary, as evidenced by the charred and discarded hulks that still blight the British coastline. Once the novelty finally wore off, there was nowhere to go but down. 

  • 6 Comments

Readers' comments (6)

  • Talking of architects as 'obliging pawns', they're surely only obliging the financiers of some of the monstrosities - they're disobliging the rest of us.
    And talking of Safra, this latest indulgence would surely be better suited to lording it over the low density urban sprawl of Brasilia - where it could command attention without causing insult.
    But then, the Safras doubtless know the right people in the City of London - and Lord Foster is ever so obliging. isn't he?
    For all that, the 'grand old man' of the Safra dynasty - Jacob - might just be turning in his grave at the prospect of being associated with this latest architectural wonder.

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  • Only one problem with the pier analogy. Piers were functional, as the name implies they provided a dock for ships. But don't tell Chris Grayling or he will snap the remaining ones up for a few million to provide alternative landfalls for emergency food, medicine and avocado convoys from the continent. As for the current 'vertical pier', as you can't polish a turd, should it not be the subject of a judicial review?

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  • Calm down?! The “Tulip” is merely the latest in a long line of monuments to revel in our days and view the cities we have created.

    The original Monument, built by Charles II to glorify himself and the memory of the Fire of London. You can climb to the top for a different view of the buildings around you, including the finest result of the Fire, and Monumentum to Wren, St Paul’s Cathedral, itself built contrary to the aesthetic proclivities of the Dean and Chapter of the day. And how it must have towered over the hovels of 17th Century London.

    The general public pours scorn on modern architecture, but loves it when it has grown old and familiar, and will go to great lengths to survey the results, especially with a cup of coffee or a felafel in one hand. The buildings that afford that pleasure increase by the day. The Post Office Tower, Peter Jone’s Cafeteria, the Portrait Gallery Restaurant, the London Eye, the Member’s Bars in Tate Modern, the top of the Shard and the restaurants lower down. One of the finest views is the Bar at the top of the Gherkin.

    Many of these favourite sites have access restricted to Members or workers in specific organisations. Presumably any one will be able to ascend the Tulip if their bags are checked, and they have the money in hand? I can’t wait!

    But remember those dastardly architect have other responsibilities. Carbon Neutral housing and workplaces, infrastructure and all the other instruments of the modern world, and we only have 10 years to help prevent cataclysmic climate change. The Tulips are the easy and enjoyable bits?!

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  • So, like Centrepoint, which also sports a good view from the top, this presently reviled liftshaft with a bubble on top, will grow to be a much loved and publicly celebrated addition to our monuments? Can we have a revolving restaurant on top? Or will that condemn it to obsolescence and closure, like the P.O. Tower and Lancaster/Forton Services on the M6? Either as a security or fire hazard...

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  • I really wish the world's wealthiest people would invest their money in things that would advance society or help the environement. Capitalism...

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  • On further reflection, I wonder if Jacob Safra might have had been sufficiently civilised - were he still alive - to prefer the Safra dynasty being remembered for trying to repair the wrecked centre of the magic old city of Aleppo, the source of their fortunes, rather than for imposing a bit of Fostermania on the centre of London.

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