Southwark Towers

Southwark Towers
London borough of Southwark
12 February 2007

Not quite as imposing as its Guys hospital neighbour, Southwark Towers stood, nonetheless, conspicuously over London Bridge station. Built in 1976, the structure’s 25 storeys provided offices for the international accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The pinkish-brown tower block was, however, earmarked for demolition to make way for the Renzo Piano-designed London Bridge Tower: the much-mooted “shard of glass”.

Despite objections from English Heritage, Piano’s British debut is set to be one of the tallest of Europe’s skyscrapers, overtaking Britain’s current highest, 1 Canada Square, by 75 metres. Tapering in at the top to avoid diminishing views of St Paul’s, the slick 310-metre glass pyramid will incorporate a Shangri-La hotel, copious office space (much of which is already let to Transport for London) and 12 storeys of luxury apartments; its developers are touting it as a “vertical city”.1

The Borough, where the gleaming tower will stand, has traditionally been one of London’s less salubrious areas. It was once the location of notorious prisons, such as the Clink, and a haven for Londoners wanting a taste of its brothels, playhouses and bear-baiting. By the 20th century, the district was heavily industrial and revolved around the railway station. After the second world war, it became dominated by the large brick-built power station, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, at Bankside.

But as London’s industry dried up, much of the area immediately south of the City was left to decay. The derelict warehouses, railway arches and wasteland of Bermondsey were used as the hellish backdrop for Derek Jarman’s critique of Thatcher’s Britain, The Last of England.2 And the Borough remained undesirable, merely a comparatively cheap place to have offices.

The process of decline was, though, reversed in the early 2000s, with Herzog & de Meuron’s reworking of the power station into the cathedral-like gallery Tate Modern. With the recent Jubilee line extension and the regeneration of Borough Market — now the haunt of Bridget Jones and a host of minor celebrities — the area started to become not only a tourist destination but a sought-after place to live and work.

There are glittering new developments aplenty: Allies and Morrison’s Bankside 123, Richard Rogers’s Holland Street, Will Alsop’s Palestra, the Tate Modern extension by Herzog & de Meuron, another Renzo Piano building replacing New London Bridge House, to name but a few. Borough and Bankside, as the district is now marketed, is on the up, in more ways than one.

This leaves Southwark Towers an unhappy reminder of how dowdy the Borough used to be, standing in the way of a building that will, the developers tell us, “not only redefine London’s skyline, it will become a symbol for the capital recognisable throughout the world”.3 PricewaterhouseCoopers is rumoured to have held up the development by being slow to move. But deconstruction had begun by the beginning of 2008 and, according to the timeline on the Shard’s website, the dated office block will be gone by the middle of the year. (Last edited: 20 May 2008)

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