What you may ask is a gherkin?  It’s a small pickled cucumber.  The wit and wisdom of the British nicknamed the Swiss Re Tower at 30 St. Mary Axe in London as The Gherkin.  In fact, everyone calls it The Gherkin, a name given to the Swiss Re Tower even when it was in its early planning stages. Now a London landmark and lauded throughout the world for its instantly recognisable design, I can’t imagine the city without The Gherkin. You can see it from lots of different angles with its fat tummy sticking out behind more slender buildings.  Usually closed to the public, my family and I lined up at Open House London to get a peek inside this famous building.

A View From The Swiss Re Tower AKA The Gherkin Building in London

Although usually closed to the public, the Gherkin offers fantastic views over London.

The Gherkin’s Architecture

Opened in 2004, the Swiss Re Tower was designed by British starchitect Norman Foster and his firm Foster + Partners as the headquarters for the insurance firm, Swiss Re.  In addition to this insurance company, the building does have other office occupants as well.  The Gherkin building stands on the spot of the former Baltic Exchange building which got bombed by the Provisional IRA in 1992.

A View From The Swiss Re Tower AKA The Gherkin Building in London

The Gherkin looming over some more traditional architecture nearby.

As with the Foster + Partner’s designed ME Hotel, I found the interior design very masculine.  Everywhere you look, you see lots of sleek straight lines with minimal ornamentation.

A View From The Swiss Re Tower AKA The Gherkin Building in London

A vase of flowers softens all the geometrical lines. The bathrooms are hidden behind the studded walls. No handles to ruin the lines.

The Swiss Re Tower uses eco-friendly principles to minimise its impact on the environment.  For example, the use of clever air shafts allow the building to use passive solar heating in the winter.  I appreciate that the Swiss Re building is not very tall.  Although striking and hard to miss, the Gherkin does not dominate the skyline by towering over all the buildings near it.

What is The Gherkin Used For?

The Gherkin is an office building with the top three floors used as a private club.  The building is located in the City of London Corporation (the financial heart of the City of London which is also known as the Square Mile).  Confusing, right?  As with many things in Britain, the names originated from historical context.  For example, the City of London Corporation has its own Lord Mayor (different from the Mayor of London).  Just go with it.

The Gherkin and Open House London

The Gherkin is not open to the general public except in certain circumstances.  For example, Searcy’s at The Gherkin restaurant and bar occasionally opens its doors to non-members. You can also get a free peak inside the Gherkin during the annual Open House Weekend held in London every September.

On previous Open House Weekends, we have been to Marlborough House in the St. James’s area of London but this year my son insisted on visiting The Gherkin.  He loves architecture, and specifically skyscrapers, so we have visited tall buildings all around the world (Tokyo Tower, One World Observatory etc).

A View From The Swiss Re Tower AKA The Gherkin Building in London

The Swiss Re building has its own small plaza surrounding its entrance.

We had avoided The Gherkin on previous Open Houses because the lines to enter this building are notoriously long. This year was no different. When we got to the building on the Sunday at 9 AM, the line was already wrapping around the corner.  Apparently the first people in line had gotten there by 6 AM.  Now that’s dedication to architecture!

A View From The Swiss Re Tower AKA The Gherkin Building in London

The Open House organisers had children’s activities on the plaza to keep the kids in line occupied. Here my daughter is sketching the Gherkin.

We stood in line for an hour and half before we were able to get inside the building.  My daughter was completely over it but my son was determined to stay and get inside.  We were ushered inside in small groups which involved more waiting for elevators. Once inside, we were sent straight up to the floor Searcys occupies.  It looked like they moved all the furniture to keep tacky commoners from messing up the nice stuff.

Of course, we had all been waiting in long for so long, once people got inside, they headed straight for the bathrooms. We only had about 15 minutes for the visit before we were marched back to the elevators, and the line for the ladies’ room was going to take 10 minutes at least.  I told my daughter that she’d just have to deal because we were not waiting in line for an hour and half just to use the restroom inside and not see anything else!!

Photo Gallery Of London From The Swiss Re Tower

The 360 degree view from the Searcys Bar is spectacular even on a cloudy day like we encountered.

A View From The Swiss Re Tower AKA The Gherkin Building in London

More traditional architecture in the form of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

A View From The Swiss Re Tower AKA The Gherkin Building in London

You can see the shard and the Walkie Talkie buildings from the Gherkin.

A View From The Swiss Re Tower AKA The Gherkin Building in London

This building, the Mayor of London’s HQ, is known as The Testicle for obvious reasons.

A View From The Swiss Re Tower AKA The Gherkin Building in London

The Thames winds its way to the Docklands financial centre at Canary Wharf.

A View From The Swiss Re Tower AKA The Gherkin Building in London

A bird’s eye view of Tower Bridge and The Tower of London

A View From The Swiss Re Tower AKA The Gherkin Building in London

Another view of the so-called Walkie Talkie building in London.

A View From The Swiss Re Tower AKA The Gherkin Building in London

This is the new London building called The Cheese Grater.

A View From The Swiss Re Tower AKA The Gherkin Building in London

I used to work here at Tower 42. It used to be the old NatWest headquarters. From above when the CEO landed on the tower’s helipad, the building was shaped like the NatWest logo.

Searcys The Gherkin

Searcys, the private members’ club, offers 360 degree views of London. The Gherkin restaurant is located on the 39th floor and the bar on the 40th floor.  They do let non-members into Searcys Gherkin for specific occasions like the Diamond in the Sky Afternoon Tea for Christmas.  Everyone gets a champagne flute, tea and scones for £65 a person  Sorry, it’s already sold out.  There are also the occasional lunches and dinners at the Gherkin restaurant starting at a reasonable £50 per person.

Fun Facts About The Gherkin in London

  • There are 41 floors of which 33 are office floors.
  • Even though the building is curved, there is only one piece of curved glass in the structure – the dome at the top of Searcys at The Gherkin.
A View From The Swiss Re Tower AKA The Gherkin Building in London

The dome at the top of the Swiss Re Tower in London.

  • Each floor rotates 5 degrees from the floor below to give the triangular glass windows its diagonal swish.
  • Almost 7500 panes of glass and 35 kilometres of steel were used in the construction of the building.
  • The elliptical ‘gherkin’ like shape is a result of the structure been 180 metres tall and 178 metres wide at its widest part.
  • The Gherkin made an appearance in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.

I personally think The Gherkin in London looks like a bullet.  Wouldn’t The Bullet have been a cooler nickname? In the USA, I’m pretty sure the nickname would have been The Bullet.  Calling the building The Gherkin though is much more in line with self-deprecating British humour.

A View From The Swiss Re Tower AKA The Gherkin Building in London

The Gherkin Building is easily spotted in London but not generally open to the public to view the inside.

Practical Info To Know Before You Go

The Gherkin is easily accessible by tube or train from Liverpool Street Station, Aldgate Station or London Fenchurch Street.  You can’t miss it.  Just look for it in the skyline poking out.  If you are going to visit The Swiss Re Tower for Open House London, get there early.  By noon on the Sunday of the Open House, we saw that the line to enter The Gherkin snaked around several city blocks.

If you are staying in the City of London Corporation, I have friends who highly recommend the Zetter Townhouse in Clerkenwell. The Zetter is also a family-friendly boutique hotel which provides interconnecting family rooms, baby monitors, cot beds etc.  The buzzing creative neighbourhood of Clerkenwell has lots of restaurants, cafes and bars. In fact I used to live around the corner (before it became an epicentre of cool though).  You can walk easily into the financial centre or the West End.

Further Reading

Norman Foster:  A Life in Architecture by Deyan Sudjic

London Architecture by Marianne Butler

London’s Contemporary Architecture by Ken Allinson

This is London by Ben Judah

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