Richard Seifert & Partners ,1981Natwest Tower
|Borough||City of London|
|Materials||mosaic, smoked glass, stainless steel|
|Richard Seifert & Partners||Architect||1970||1981|
|GMW Architects||Refurbishment Architect||1995||1998|
|Tower Ltd Partnership||Owner||1997|
|Fletcher Priest Architects||Masterplan Architects||2004||2008|
|National Westminster Bank||Owner||1970||1997|
|National Westminster Bank||Client||1970||1981|
Natwest Tower has, since its completion in 1980, dominated all views of the City of London. From Waterloo Bridge and elsewhere it is the Natwest Tower that people look for and it is to it that ones eye is continually drawn as the tallest on the City’s skyline. Despite its eastern rivals in Docklands, it remains a prolific icon of the economic might and architectural confidence of the square mile.
Construction work on the building finally began in 1970 following several revised designs. An original National Westminster Bank proposal put the tower at just 450ft in keeping with the City’s existing rather stumpy blocks. However, with the appointment of Richard Seifert, the project became much more ambitious and a new design of 647ft emerged. Following conservation battles regarding its impact on the skyline and the proposed destruction of both a particularly fine 19th century bank and the City of London Club of 1833-4 modifications were made. When planning permission was granted in 1970 the tower had been reduced to 600ft and the City club saved. When completed in 1980 it was Europe’s tallest office tower and represented a muscular and confident new London. Its status as cultural icon was assured following several cameos throughout the 1980’s including work by artists Gilbert & George, John Mackenzie’s gangster film The Long Good Friday and in music videos for both Pink Floyd’s Money and the Special’s Ghost Town.
Natwest Tower’s form is based loosely on that of the bank’s hexagonal emblem. Although, somewhat gimmicky in conception, it produced a unique profile and represented something of a architectural departure. The tower is made up of three overlapping and dramatically cantilevered sections (the worlds tallest in 1980), which step upwards around a central core. The building is finished in dark glass with bold stainless steel fins that, rather suitably for a City boy, pin stripe the façade emphasising the vertical and playing with reflected light.
The sluggish construction of Natwest Tower, hampered as it was by two economic slumps, meant that despite the overwhelming feeling of shiny1980’s newness, the building embodied some rather out dated practices and trends. The tower has relatively shallow office spaces and around its ground floor a large area was cleared for the addition of a quickly defunct City ped-way system. The Natwest Tower was one of the last large scale client-built projects in the square mile. Following the Big Bang of 1986 and deregulation of the stock market, large and flexible trading floors were needed and there began a boom in low rise, speculative office schemes that could be instantly occupied by anyone. For this reason the building marks something of a temporary watershed in the City’s architectural history.
On the 24th of April 1993, the Natwest Tower suffered extensive and severe damage following the explosion of an IRA bomb in nearby Bishopsgate. The building became synonymous with an embattled City, also at this time stuttering through recession and experiencing fierce competition from Canary Wharf, which had in 1990 taken the title of the UK’s tallest building with the completion of Canada Tower. Natwest Tower spent most of the 1990’s wrapped in scaffold as it underwent major refurbishment by architects GMW. This work saw the building entirely re-clad externally and refitted throughout. At its street level it was remodelled to provide an upswept, glazed triple height forecourt and re-launched grandly as the International Finance Centre. At this time, Natwest Bank sold the building on and new owners Tower Limited Partnership (a consortium made up of Merrill Lynch and Hermes Property Ltd) renamed it once more to Tower 42.
The Natwest Tower (or Tower 42) is in a state of evolution. Its ground level precinct and surrounding buildings have been subject to an ongoing masterplan by Fletcher priest Architects since 2004. This scheme has already seen some modest landscaping , the innovative insertion of a distinctive branch of the Wagamama’s chain of restaurants and will be completed in late 2008 with the removal of the long redundant ped-way system at its rear. This will be replaced by a much more straightforward arrangement of ground level pedestrian spaces and discreet lawns.
Tower 42 is today home to an array of financial services, but also a Gary Rhodes restaurant and champagne bar on its 42nd floor. The upmarket bar, confidently named Vertigo, is a reminder of the status of the building. It provides some of the best views in London and adds a touch of appropriate old-style glamour to this reinvented and well turned out, essentially old school 1970’s tower. One hopes there is a piano playing and Campari and soda on the drinks list. The nearby challenger of Norman Foster’s Swiss Re ‘Gherkin,’ still plays second fiddle to it as the focus of all other towers in the square mile and crucially forgets to do anything memorable with London sunsets. One of the best times to view the Natwest Tower is at dusk when the stainless steel fins reflect back a shifting hue of oranges and pinks.
In the coming years the Natwest Tower will eventually be dwarfed by Richard Roger’s Leadenhall Tower or ‘Cheesegrater,’ (proposed completion date late 2008) but for now, forgetting for a moment those North American apes on the Isle of Dogs, it is still number one. It is very much its own building and does not need a crude illusionary nickname. It is very much a Londoner and has defined the skyline for the past 26 years in a manner rivalling that of St Paul’s.