Despite being one of the oldest cities in the world, London’s skyline has constantly changed, being ravaged by fire and war and remodeling itself in the aftermath. If you’ve ever taken a free walking tour of London, you’ve probably been struck by the city’s architectural richness. The last 50 years in particular have seen a massive boom in skyscrapers such as the Gherkin and the Shard.
We’re taking a journey through history, from historic landmarks such as Battersea Power Station through to the ultra modern skyscrapers of today. We’ve split London’s skyline timeline into five sections:
- 1900-1959 (The Low Rise Era)
- 1960-1979 (Shoots of Growth)
- 1980-1999 (The First True High Rises)
- 2000-2009 (Into The 21st Century)
- 2010-Present Day (The Future of High Rise)
Until the 1960’s London was relatively flat, due to the fact that in 1894, Queen Victoria introduced the “London Building Act” which prohibited any buildings in the City of London standing over 80 feet high.
The law was introduced after the construction of the 14-storey Queen Anne’s Mansions block of flats which the Queen objected to as it blocked her view of Parliament from Buckingham Palace!
Oxo Tower – 1900
The Oxo Tower was built in 1900, initially as a power station to supply electricity to the Royal Mail post office. However, in the 1920s it was acquired for the production of Oxo stock cubes, hence the name change.
Oxo also wanted the tower to include illuminated lights bearing the name of the product, but when permission was denied they ingeniously installed three large vertical windows, one in the shape of a circle, one of a cross, and another circle, spelling out Oxo, as you can see in the picture above!
Nowadays the building contains a series of arts and crafts shops as well as two art galleries and a rooftop restaurant. It’s one of the highlights of any free tour in London.
Wembley Stadium – 1923
Certainly not one of the taller structures in London, but one of the most iconic was the old Wembley Stadium. Described by Pelé as “the cathedral of football”, the stadium was immediately recognisable by its iconic twin towers.
It was the home of the England national football team from 1923 until 2000, and annually hosted the FA Cup final, as well as being the venue for England’s historic 1966 World Cup victory.
The stadium was demolished in 2003, being replaced by the equally as impressive New Wembley.
Senate House – 1937
Art Deco architecture is more commonly associated with New York than London, but one of its most famous examples is the Senate House in Bloomsbury.
Constructed between 1932 and 1937, the building is the administrative centre of the University of London, and stands 19-storeys tall.
During World War II the building was used by the Ministry of Information, which inspired George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (Orwell’s wife Eileen worked at the building during the war).
Royal Festival Hall – 1951
The Festival Hall: Before (1959) and After (Present Day)
Built as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, the Royal Festival Hall is a 2,500-seater concert venue situated on the city’s Southbank.
It became the first post-war building to become Grade I listed in 1981, and is home to the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
A year later the Dome of Discovery and the Skylon (seen below) were also erected as part of the festival, but both were only temporary landmarks and were demolished when the festival closed a year later.
Battersea Power Station – 1955
Battersea Power Station in 1939, with only the first half operational
This decommissioned power station was built in two halves over 20 years, with the ‘A’ power station being finished in 1935, and its ‘B’ counterpart in 1955.
The two stations are almost identical and their four chimneys still stand as one of the most recognisable elements of the skyline.
Its enduring image has been cemented by being referenced numerous times in pop culture, including on the cover of the 1977 Pink Floyd album Animals, and the in the 1965 Beatles’ film Help!.
Since it was decommissioned in 1983 the power station has stood unused and a number of redevelopment plans have been put forward, including recent interest from Chelsea Football Club to convert it into a new stadium.
The lifting of Queen Victoria’s building restrictions saw the first high-rise buildings start to appear throughout the 1960s and 70s.
Brutalist architecture was the preferred style as London started to flex its skyscraping muscles.
BT Tower – 1964
The Post Office Tower shortly after its construction in 1966
Once the Victorian building restrictions relaxed in the 1960’s the first real high-rise buildings began to take shape, kick started by the Post Office Tower (now known as the BT Tower) in 1962.
When completed in 1964 it stood at 191m (627ft), towering over anything else at the time.
The tower held the title for almost 20 years until it was overtaken in 1980 by the NatWest Tower.
In 1971 a bomb exploded in toilets of the revolving restaurant at the top of the tower, which was claimed to have been placed by the Provisional IRA.
The threat of terrorism (the NatWest tower was also attacked in 1993) meant that despite the lifting of regulations, skyscraper growth didn’t quite continue in the way it was expected to.
Cromwell Tower – 1973
In the 1960’s and 70’s the city redeveloped areas devastated by the war, such as the Barbican Estate, built in the brutalist architecture style.
The estate in 1955, before construction began on the towers
Until the last couple of years its three tower blocks, Cromwell, Shakespeare and Lauderdale, were the tallest residential buildings in London, standing at 42 storeys and 123m (404ft).
The towers were overtaken by the Pan Peninsula development in 2009.
Guy’s Tower – 1974
Another example of 70s brutalist architecture, 1974 saw the construction of the Tower Wing at Guy’s Hospital, which stood as the tallest hospital building in the world for over 30 years at 34 storeys and 148m (487ft).
It was overtaken in 2008 by the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital, but in 2014 the tower added a new light sculpture, allowing it to regain its title!
The tower now hosts the King’s College London Dental School and stands in the shadow of the city’s tallest building, The Shard.
The National Theatre – 1976
Grade II listed gallery or nuclear power station?
Only just big enough to qualify as part of the skyline, the National Theatre is still an iconic part of the city’s Southbank and still presents a range of productions from Shakespeare to musicals.
The building’s architecture caused controversy amongst many, due to its harsh concrete and interlocking terraces, leading Prince Charles to compare it to a nuclear power station.
It still splits opinion as one of London’s most loved and hated landmarks, but it did become a Grade II listed building back in 1994.
The end of the 20th century saw London’s skyscraper culture kick into overdrive with the first mega-structures that we know today.
Tower 42 – 1980
Tower 42 (right) stood next to The Gherkin
The City of London is an architecture lover’s paradise that can be explored with a guide on a free tour.
Erected in 1980, Tower 42 (formerly the NatWest tower) is still among the tallest buildings in London, standing at 183m (600ft).As the name implies the tower was initially built to house the NatWest bank, and when viewed from above its layout resembles the NatWest logo.
The building really represents the first proper skyscraper in London, and heralded the beginning of what we know as the London skyline today. The tower was the tallest building in the UK for 10 years until it was overtaken by One Canada Square, and nowadays houses offices for multiple tenants as well as two restaurants.
One Canada Square – 1990
This mammoth skyscraper in Canary Wharf held the title of the tallest building in the UK for 20 years, and stands at 240m (800ft). It was heavily modelled on the World Financial Center in New York and can be easily identified by its pyramid-shaped roof, complete with a unique flashing aircraft warning light.
The building is one of the city’s most prestigious office spaces, but also boasts a number of retail units on the ground floor.
SIS Building – 1994
The SIS Building under construction in 1991
Also known as the MI6 building, the SIS building is home the British Secret Intelligence service and is located at Vauxhall Cross.
You’ll probably know this building best from the James Bond films, where it was unfortunately destroyed in the 2012 film Skyfall!
Shakespeare’s Globe – 1997
Another of the smaller, but equally iconic aspects of the London skyline is Shakespeare’s Globe, a reconstruction of the original Globe theatre which was destroyed by fire in 1613, before being rebuilt and demolished again in 1644.
The new Globe is by no means an exact replica of the original, but is housed a mere 230m from its old site and continues to host the works of London’s most famous playwright.
The London Eye – 1999
Known as the Millennium Wheel when it was constructed in 1999, the London Eye is one of the world’s biggest Ferris wheels, standing at 135m (443ft) tall and 120m (394 feet) wide.
Until The Shard overtook almost every other structure in 2013, the London Eye offered visitors the highest public viewing point in the city, although it is still the most popular paid-for tourist attraction, bringing in around 3.75 million people a year.
The new millennium saw buildings shed the conservatism of the previous century and embrace innovative new designs; not all of which were positively received!
The Millennium Dome – 2000
Built to house the Millennium Experience exhibition in 2000, the Millennium Dome is situated right on the Greenwich Peninsula.
While the exhibition itself was a bit of a flop, the dome has lived on and is now home to The O2 Arena, which plays host to some of the world’s biggest musical acts.
The Dome being excavated in 2001 when the Millennium Experience ended
The Dome is also technically slap bang in the middle of the world, as the prime meridian line which divides the world into its two hemispheres runs right down its western edge.
London City Hall – 2002
City Hall serves as the home of the Greater London Authority and is the office of Boris Johnson, Mayor of London.
It is another key feature of the Southbank area, close by to Tower Bridge and is notable for its strange bulbous shape, which was reportedly designed to reduce the building’s surface area, improving its energy efficiency.
However, the glass in its construction has actually outweighed any energy-saving potential of its shape, and has suffered numerous unfavourable comparisons such as a misshapen egg, a woodlouse, and Darth Vader’s helmet.
Even Boris himself has gloriously dubbed it “The Glass Gonad”.
30 St Mary Axe (The Gherkin) – 2003
Almost unanimously known by its nickname, the Gherkin was built in 2003 and stands at 180m (591ft) tall.
It was built on the site of the Baltic Exchange and the Chamber of Shipping, both of which suffered severe damage from an IRA bomb in 1992.
The site was originally going to house a mammoth 383m (1,266ft) Millennium Tower but these plans were eventually shelved.
Its unique architecture has cemented The Gherkin as one of London’s most iconic landmarks of the last ten years.
New Wembley Stadium – 2007
After the twin towers of the old Wembley Stadium were knocked down in 2003, many were dismayed that such an iconic part of the skyline had gone.
But in 2007, a new landmark was born in the form of the new Wembley’s huge arch.
Once again, the stadium is home to the national football team as well as the FA Cup final and is the second largest stadium in Europe with a capacity of 90,000.
The last couple of years have seen the skyscraper boom enter new levels, with over 260 tower blocks either being built or in the pipeline according to this article by the Mail.
The last decade has also become the age of the food based nicknames for skyscrapers!
Inspired by the Gherkin we now have the Cheesegrater, the Prawn and plans for buildings apparently resembling a cucumber, and a can of ham!
Strata SE1 – 2010
The Strata SE1 is one of the tallest residential buildings in the capital at this moment in time, standing at 148m (486ft) and housing more 1,000 residents in 408 flats.
Heron Tower – 2011
The tallest building in the City of London is the Heron Tower, standing at 230m (755ft).
Despite being one of the biggest skyscrapers in the city’s skyline, the building initially struggled to attract tenants as the country came out of the Great Recession, although it has now recovered and is 90% occupied.
The Shard – 2012
The Shard under construction in 2010
The building that currently dominates the London skyline like no other is The Shard, built in 2012.
Its height of 309m (1,016ft) makes it the fourth tallest building in Europe and the second tallest free-standing structure in the UK.
The Shard is home to a public observation deck which was opened to the public in 2013, called ‘The View from the Shard’ on its 72nd floor.
122 Leadenhall Street and 20 Fenchurch Street – 2014
The Cheesegrater’ (above) & ‘The Walkie Talkie’ (below)
Recent years have seen even more skyscrapers coming close to the end of their construction, including 122 Leadenhall Street; known as the Cheesegrater due to its wedge-like shape.
Similarly, 20 Fenchurch Street was completed in the same year and is also named after its unusual shape.
‘The Walkie-Talkie’ has a unique structure which gets bigger at the top where it houses a bar, restaurants and a ‘sky-garden’.
Fenchurch Street in particular has drawn criticism not only for its appearance but for the fact that it obstructs views of St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London.
It’s safe to say that while London already has an incredible architectural history, things are only just getting started, and we’re likely to see more and more skyscrapers popping up in the capital in the next few years.
If you’re interested in architecture, you might want to check out the many free tours of London that run every day.