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30 st mary axe

2012 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

All of us, when we see a painting, are bound to be

reminded of a hundred-and-one things which
influence our likes and dislikes.1
E.H. Gombrich


The Square Mile in the City of London is dominated by dry

repetitions of the conventional office blockvertically
extruded, horizontally striatedmingled with the weighty
presence of its historical institutions. The Gherkin,
as 30 St Mary Axe2 is popularly known, has a distinctive
shape and circular plan that immediately set it apart from
the orthogonal towers around it. The buildings extra
ordinary form leaves us bewildered as to what in the way
of precedents or prototypes may have inspired it and what
type of construction or functional requirements may have
determined it. But on further analysis we discover that its
utterly unique expression is the product of a complex of
multivalent parameters, transversally interlinked through
its physical assemblage in ways that deliberately
contradict our expectations. The double-glazed, circular
outer envelope incorporates a diagrid structural system,
a single-glazed inner envelope, and asterisk-shaped floor
plates. Each floor is rotated five degrees from the floor
below, generating six atria in the form of triangular prisms
that spiral around the building, admitting daylight and
allowing for air circulation in the offices. It is in the zone
between the single-glazed inner envelope and the doubleglazed exterior envelope that the different elements
imbricate and the expected outward expression of the
buildings internal functions dissolves. This generates

a kind of incomprehension, reducing the viewers

perception of how the building works to speculation and
technological fantasy.
Vertical support for the building is provided by a
series of intersecting, two-story-high A-frames that make
up a steel diagrid structure that is highly efficient in resist
ing wind forces. Fire regulations required that these Aframes, composed of circular sections, be wrapped in
fireproof aluminum casings. In the Hearst Tower3 in New
York, the casings are the same shape as the structural
sections, to express the working structure, but here they
are kite-shaped in section, with the two pairs of adjacent
sides unequal in length. This allows the outline of the
structural sections to be stretched to connect directly with
the thin, blade-like glazing mullions that project beyond
the glazing panels and support the exterior glazed
envelope. If the casings were rhomboidal, rectangular,
or square, the structural members would not dissolve
seamlessly into the glazing mullions. In addition, as the
two longer sides of the casings are oriented toward the
exterior, the depth of the visible structure is foreshort
ened, making it seem far more slender than it is and
further distorting our perception of how it works.The
encased diagonal members, placed end to end, are also
painted white, while the horizontal crossbars are painted

Harvard Design Magazine 35

Foster + Partners, 30 St. Mary Axe, facade from the southeast, London, 2004. Unless otherwise noted, all photographs Nigel Young/Foster + Partners

farshid moussavi


black. As a result, from the exterior the structure reads

as a diamond rather than a triangular pattern, again
obscuring our understanding of it.
This strategy of obfuscation continues in the interior.
On the perimeter of every other floor, hoops encircle the
building in line with the nodes or junctions of the diagrid
members, counteracting the horizontal spread of the
structure and binding the whole together. The kiteshaped profile of these hoops causes them to disappear
next to the diagrid assemblage. In addition, the floors,
because of their asterisk shape, touch the perimeter at
only six points, so no continuous horizontal floor plates
are visible on the exterior. They spring up along the
facade, appearing and disappearing; when they do touch,
they are camouflaged by the crossbars and perimeter
hoops. Thus it is almost impossible to read the location
of the floor platestheir presence is no more expressed
than the thickness of the glazing mullions subdividing the
large white diamonds.
Together, the diagrid and hoop structures of 30 St
Mary Axe disguise not only the towers interior horizontal

striation by floor plates but also its vertical load distri

bution. They form an exoskeleton that distributes vertical
loads along the diagonal lines of the steel members,
eliminating the need for columns in the interior. While it
is undeniable that a column-free space offers many
advantages, it seems unlikely, in the case of 30 St Mary
Axe, that this solution was prompted by a desire to
engineer the most efficient office space possible. After all,
offices are more flexible when they can accommodate
changing layouts over time, and neither a circular plan
nor an asterisk-shaped plan could ever be as flexible as a
square one, even if its six wings, by introducing rect
angular segments into an otherwise round volume, make
it easier to create cellular offices. The decision to combine
a circular exterior envelope with an asterisk-shaped floor
plan was in fact made as much for the sake of exterior
optical effects as for efficiency.
30 St Mary Axe was designed not only from the inside
out but also from the outside in. The requirements of
these two approaches are, however, entirely different.
Whereas column-free space, naturally ventilated offices,

Harvard Design Magazine 35

Opposite: Detail of steel diagrid structure

2012 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

15th floor plan. Courtesy Foster + Partners

30 St Mary Axe


2012 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

Detail of steel diagrid structure

and breakout spaces are needed in the interior, the

exterior has to provide open public space while mitigating
the effects of the buildings large scale within its historical
setting. The circular footprint of the tower is compact,
maximizing the public realm at ground level and reducing
the amount of wind deflected to the street. This compres
sed footprint bulges outward from the ground up,
reaching its optimum floor-plate size on the sixth floor,
and increases marginally as it approaches the twentyfirst, after which it tapers inward toward the apex. The
result is a conical tower rather than a rectangular block,
and this shape allows for the required amount of office
space without overpowering the neighboring buildings,

which are lower in height. Furthermore, compared with a

similarly sized tower, 30 St Mary Axe appears infinitely
more slender, yet the slight bulging and tapering also give
it a sense of weight. Had the circular plan simply been
extruded, there would certainly have been a sense of
gravity but not of weight.
The play with optical illusions continues on the
surface of the tower. Its conical envelope is clad in
triangular glass panels that, owing to the curvature of the
towers profile, are tilted either toward the sky or toward
the ground. The panels reflect the light differently as the
sun moves around the building, creating a flickering
effect, and shimmering argyle patterns appear on the

Harvard Design Magazine 35

Detail of glazing panels

and that gives 30 St Mary Axe a dream-like quality. The

twisting reminds us of roller coasters or the slides in water
parks, or even Carsten Hllers giant slide installations.
The latticing reminds us of baskets or fishnet tights. The
conicality reminds us of rockets or gherkins. The argyle
pattern recalls Scotland, socks, Pringle,knitting patterns,
intarsia, harlequin-patterned floors or furniture. It is no
wonder that the Gherkin is only one of many nicknames
that have been attached to this polysemic building.
Great buildings such as this one, however, have
little to do with aesthetic populism. Instead, they take
conventional architectural elementsshape, materials
and size of the components, construction system,
lighting, ventilation, acoustics, planning of activities
and assemble them in unexpected ways. In doing so,
they transcend signification and meaning to generate
new subjectivities. The multiplicity of affects that we
experience at 30 St Mary Axe is very different from any
we are familiar with. As an affective break with the
conventional office tower, it is an example of an architec
ture of a-signifying semiotics5not designed to commun
icate meaning but to probe our cognitive and social
environment. It challenges our common sense, and this is
what makes it so compelling.

30 St Mary Axe

2012 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

surface of the envelope. But the optical drama of the

glazing does not stop here. Two different colors of glass
panels are used: the areas fronting the diagonal atria
spiraling around the building are wrapped in gray-tinted,
high-performance glass, while the office areas are
wrapped in clear glass with a low-performance coating.
The gray-tinted glass was selected to reduce solar gain,
but as it winds and twists its way around the bullet-like
form of the building, it appears to spiral around its axis of
gravity and lends the tower a sense of potential energy
and acceleration.
The tower, in fact, makes it impossible for us to remain
passive, as it presents us with a whole series of para
doxes. It transmits the sensation of heaviness but also of
a delicate lattice, the sensation of verticality but also of
twisting. It is fully glazed, yet instead of an affect4 of
intangibility it transmits that of a tactile argyle knit. The
sensation of conicality is unlike that of any other tower.
The diagonality that is triggered by the spiraling strips of
gray-tinted glass defies any sense of horizontal striation
or the stacking that we commonly associate with towers.
The lack of apparent correlation between the exterior
argyle pattern and the interior offices renders it scaleless.
And it is this multiplicity of affects that is so perplexing


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