A British Skyscraper Becomes High Drama

Plan to erect world's 3rd-tallest structure

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A plan to erect Europe's tallest building in the heart of London is already well on the way to stirring one of the sharpest planning controversies in the British capital.

If architect Sir Norman Foster has his way and his proposed 1,265-foot Millennium Tower is erected, it will soar far above nearby St. Paul's Cathedral, which is a mere 364 feet.

On a global scale the proposed skyscraper would be only No. 3, falling short of the Petronas Towers (1,477 feet) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and the Sears Tower (1,453 feet) in Chicago.

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The design, described by Sir Norman as "elegantly slim" and "a continuous series of curves in different kinds of glass," is creating furious argument among environmentalists and architectural critics.

Simon Jenkins, a leading critic, says the 400 million ($620 million) tower would "dwarf every other building nearby."

Mr. Jenkins rejects Sir Norman's contention that it would be "a statement of confidence" about the next century, saying: "It's ridiculous to justify it simply by linking it to the millennium. There must be a proper relationship between buildings."

'V' is for very, very tall

The proposed tower would be in the shape of a gently rounded, transparent letter V. Sir Norman says the transparency would be achieved by having no elevator cores or heavy internal steel frame. The tower would be built on the site of the Baltic Exchange, in the heart of London's financial district, which was shattered by an IRA terrorist bomb in 1992. It would provide 1.5 million square feet of office space and accommodate up to 8,000 people.

Unveiling the plan, Sir Norman said the tower would have a 1,000-foot-high public viewing gallery that would be reached via glass capsules moving up and down the outer walls. A series of "gardens in the sky" would hang between the building's 92 floors.

Ambitious and elegant though Sir Norman's design is, it challenges the conviction of many Londoners that the capital's skyline should not be spoiled by huge modern buildings, which clash with the classical outlines of dozens of churches, historic buildings, and bridges.

London's tallest building currently is the 800-foot tower at Canary Wharf, in London's docklands area. It is on the fringe of London's city center and therefore appears to have offended few people on aesthetic grounds.

On the other hand, it was built during the economic boom of the 1980s, only to fall victim to a serious recession. The tower's original owners went bankrupt, and it is only now - a decade later - that its huge amount of office space is starting to be filled. There are fears that the Millennium Tower could suffer in the much same way from economic highs and lows.

London fog from on high

Sir Norman has reacted sharply to attacks on his latest design. "Tall buildings are expressions of the energy and aspirations of world-class modern cities," he says.

He has some solid supporters, among them Owen Luder, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Mr. Luder says the proposed tower could be a landmark as famous as Australia's Sydney Opera House. "There is every reason to believe the building would be of that caliber. People would look up to it just as they look up to the Concorde supersonic airliner," Luder says.

Sir Norman also rebuts suggestions that building the planned tower would pose insuperable architectural problems. Skyscrapers must be flexible to withstand powerful winds or ground movements such as earthquakes, but Sir Norman insists his design takes account of such problems. He concedes, however, that London's often-gloomy weather would mean the upper part of the tower would be swathed in mist and fog for considerable periods.

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