diamond geezer

 Monday, September 23, 2013

Open House 2013: Canary Wharf

One of the best things about Open House weekend is the opportunity to go up things. See the City from above, get a new perspective on the capital. Several tall and tall-ish London buildings were open for public ascent, but many had long queues, and others required that you book in advance. I turned my sights on Docklands and pre-booked a couple, one the iconic One Canada Square, the other the adjacent Citigroup building. Floor thirty-something would be an excellent platform for a panorama, I thought, with a subtly different vantage point from each. So I booked one for Saturday and one for Sunday, because surely the weather wouldn't be miserable on both. As it turned out London's skies were grey throughout, with the sun only breaking through an hour after the last Open Houser had descended. Still, as an experience the buildings themselves were fascinating enough, let alone the opportunity to gawp towards the almost-horizon in all directions. [10 photos]

Getting into each building was a bit of a palaver, not least because neither had deigned to hang an Open House poster anywhere. I had to try to guess which door or desk was the meeting point, which in a financial jungle wasn't always obvious. The receptionist at One Canada Square was ice-cold at first until she'd checked I was indeed on the list, then charming but brusque after that. Citibank had considerably more security guards in evidence, and an additional demand for a wand-wave to check I wasn't smuggling illicit materials inside. Both buildings demanded to see photo ID before they'd let anyone in, which was one way of telling this wasn't the normally cuddly Open House visit, more a privileged look inside the UK's financial heartland. Step this way to the lifts...

One Canada Square: This is the building everybody knows as Canary Wharf, although that's the name of the entire estate, a strip across the top of the Isle of Dogs. One Canada Square is the silver tower with the pyramidal top, the one that belches steam from the summit, the building that rose here first. It's the second tallest building in the United Kingdom, beaten only recently by the Shard, and has 50 floors altogether (but no floor 13). We took one of the lifts that goes two-thirds of the way up from one corner of the foyer, and squeezed in, and sped off. As well as the current floor whizzing by, one display screen played adverts for desirable, slightly luxurious products, while the other listed the times of the next trains from Canary Wharf station, be that Jubilee or DLR, as a convenience for executives departing at the end of the day.

Open House tours visited the 30th and 39th floors, the first of these home to the Canary Wharf Marketing Suite. It's here that potential tenants, be they banks or retail, are brought for the soft sell. And it's damned impressive. A door in the lobby opens to reveal a 3D model of central and east London, a smaller version of that seen at the Building Centre in Camden. The Canary Wharf estate is illuminated to emphasise its proximity to the City of London, much closer than most might expect, and a string of transport links light up at the touch of a button. And that's just the antechamber. In the next room are some amazing models of Canary Wharf (no photos please), the largest depicting the entire estate in 3D. Future buildings (such as the imminent expansion into Wood Wharf) are shown only as cuboid envelopes, spaces within which the final structures will be confined. A second 3D model showed the shopping malls in some detail - constructed below ground we were told because the developers were Canadian and that's how they survive winter over there. And all the time the west window was calling us over to stare at the Thames and the City panorama beyond.

Up then to the 39th, a very different beast, home to kickstarter accommodation for high-potential technology firms. The owners call themselves Level39 and offer space for individuals and growing companies to gain a foothold in Docklands, with shared sandbox and conferencing facilities (and an awful lot of tubs of Smarties). One of the management team attempted to engage us with talk of start-up challenges and the internet of things, but we weren't really his target audience, we just wanted to take photos out of the window again. The Dome through a gap in the avenue of skyscrapers. In the opposite direction Cabot Square, Rotherhithe and the City. And over there in the distance "the Olympics" - it's funny how quickly Stratford has acquired this new name. After two decades of looking up at this giant from all over town, it was great to be able to look down the other way. [20 photos from Paul]

Citigroup Centre: You could have visited this one. The booking system had several spaces for several weeks, if only you'd thought or known to look. And the view would have been almost as good. This is the joint 4th tallest building in the United Kingdom, at 200m high, or at least part of it is. CitiBank have two buildings here, their original 18-storey HQ completed in 1999, and the monsterscraper attached immediately alongside. First our tour party were taken up the lesser tower to walk out onto the bridge that spans the atrium on the 15th floor. Woo, I got rather more of a hit of vertigo than I was expecting, for which I'm blaming glass walls and Bridget Riley. She contributed a trademark design of coloured shapes which tumbles in three layers down one side of the atrium, although I could only just about bring myself to check that it did indeed go all the way down. "Don't drop your cameras," warned the building manager, "you might kill someone."

And then we swapped to the other building and stepped into one of the fastest passenger lifts in the UK. This runs at eight metres a second, slowed down from the original ten because that made travellers mildly nauseous, but still enough to make your ears pop. Executives have their own express lift direct to floor 42, a few levels beneath the helideck that nobody ever uses because it's only accessible by ladder. We whizzed up as far as 37, for the good reason that it's not a trading floor, for the good reason that the Olympics are over. This is where LOCOG had their offices, the hub of all that planning for London 2012, now a sweep of empty desks awaiting fresh tenants. No photographs of the interior, urged the security guard despatched to follow us around, and one look in her icy eyes meant we didn't argue.

Thankfully exterior photographs were encouraged, and we moved around the perimeter of the floor to gain fresh perspectives on London. Most were similar to those I'd seen at One Canada Square the day before, but with a different arrangement of neighbouring towers obscuring different bits of the view. The view to the east was better, with the lack of development across most of the North Greenwich peninsula plain to see. Greenwich Park was a splash of green, with the Old Royal Naval College facing almost dead on, and the observatory's hill reduced to a trifling contour. LOCOG's view of the Olympic Park must have inspired many a meeting, although I couldn't help thinking BBC4's sitcom Twenty Twelve would have fitted these offices perfectly. But we spent longest staring towards central London, towards a much more imaginative forest of skyscrapers than that which inhabits Canary Wharf. The Gherkin, Shard and Cheesegrater still have pizazz that One Canada Square does not, not even close up at almost-pyramid level. Well, that's my view.

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