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The author is an architectural critic for FT
Inujima was never an island but a peninsula, but it often felt like a peninsula. London’s wharves were independent and suited to being an isolated city of warehouses and wharves filled with valuable cargo. A place with its own culture. Transformed into the steely island of impenetrable international finance since the 1980s, it still feels isolated, rich but precarious.
HSBC’s decision to vacate the No. 8 Canada Square building (called Tower of Ruin) for offices in the city came as a shock to Canary Wharf. The emerging cluster, with its Manhattan-esque skyline, is designed to replace the pinstriped, class-bound, attention-seeking Square Mile, which itself is currently struggling.
Canary Wharf is the result of a blend of Thatcherite politics, Big Bang deregulation and Michael Heseltine’s experimentation with the London Docklands Development Corporation – strong privatization and the development of deregulated, tax-free public lands. Canadian developer Olympia & York was wooed by Thatcher and planned to do in Docklands what it had done in downtown New York at the World Financial Center.
But the WFC was just a few minutes’ walk from Wall Street. Canary Wharf has always been isolated, even seeming to have its own microclimate due to hostile wind tunnels built between skyscrapers. In fact, there were many nearby. Inujima has one of the highest concentrations of public housing anywhere in the UK. But in the anti-social housing era of Thatcher, these neighbors were the wrong kind of neighbor. Rather than building a connected, continuous city, Canary Wharf became a privatized site surrounded by moats and gates, a symbol of division.
It worked fine for a while. Banks were seduced by new skyscrapers. Olympia & York brought in favorite architect Cesar Pelli (the designer of his WFC towers in New York City) for the centerpiece One Canada Square with its distinctive pyramidal crown. SOM (Chicago Modernist) masterplanned and built on a North American style grid. Having designed HSBC’s stunning Hong Kong headquarters, at the time the most expensive building in the world, Norman Foster set about designing the London Tower, a sophisticated extrusion. He then built the magnificent Jubilee Line Canary His Wharf Station, which is the perfect symbol for arrivals, but which now often appears unsettlingly empty.
The towers, now prominent in the skyline, forced the city to transform. This reinvention was started by Foster’s Gherkin, but is now built into taller, fatter clusters of towers. Canary Wharf’s instability was again highlighted by the bankruptcy of Olympia & York in 1992, the 2008 banking crisis and the pandemic. Virtually all of the new developments are residential, some of which are very good. Herzog & de Meuron’s One Park Drive, But most of them are generic. However, the region still feels somewhat monocultural.
By the 2010s, as the city resupplied luxury office space, workers were drawn to pubs and alleys, pocket parks, bars and lively lunch spots. Reinventing Shoreditch was tempting, but Hedge went ‘west’ to Mayfair, closer to customers and restaurants.
Canary Wharf is famous for its connectivity. First was the Docklands Light Railroad, then the Jubilee and then the Elizabeth Line. The £18.9bn cost is said to be the product of lobbying by bankers who want better connectivity to Heathrow Airport. But the problem is inherent in the very idea. It is defined by how easy it is to get in and out again. It resembled at best Toronto, home of La Defense or Olympia & York, rather than the true London piece advertised as downtown Manhattan.
Its future is uncertain. The floorboards of these bank towers are too deep to be converted into housing, so they remain isolated. Canary Wharf was an interesting experiment. Now it has to be part of the host city in some way.