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.
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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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