Gherkin designer returns to inspire

Bolton School alumni attends prize-giving day to give behind-the-scenes talk on iconic London building

Robin Partington, who attended Bolton School in the early 1970s, is the man behind the design of the ‘Gherkin’ and other iconic London buildings, as well as airports, libraries, residential towers, office blocks and individual houses. Partington returned for the day to talk to senior and junior school pupils before presenting awards at a Boys’ Division prizegiving.

He delivered a fascinating insight into the building of the Gherkin, Swiss Re firm’s new headquarters on St Mary Axe. He told how the publicity-shy insurance firm wanted something ‘timeless and not shouty’ and neither they nor he anticipated the building becoming quite as well-known as it has. It was constructed on the former site of the Baltic Exchange which had been devastated by an IRA bomb in 1992 and was the first high-rise building to be built in the City of London in 27 years; in order to ease political sensitivities, it was purposely made 10ft shorter than the nearby Natwest Tower. Construction was halted at the time of the World Trade Centre terror attack as, at that time, no provision had been made for similar terrorist attacks. Plans to build accommodation, retail and café space on the ground floors and lower plaza were scrapped but the building resumed.

The Gherkin, an iconic part of London’s skyline

Partington also explained how strict rules in the London Views Management Framework had to be met, which means you cannot spoil views of the city skyline from specific points and that the building plans would be looked upon more favourably if it got smaller towards the top. It is thinner towards the bottom as there was only a certain amount of land to build upon and that it fattens out in the middle in order to create more area for office space. It was a planning officer who suggested the extra three floors at the top which helped create the elegant dome shape. A Spanish firm was responsible for the one-piece glass “cap”; of which three pieces were made as replacements.

The 42-storey building’s curved structure makes it easier on the eye but it still retains a strong presence on the skyline – the curvature also means less threat from the wind, which is the biggest problem for buildings not gravity. Recently a restaurant has opened on the top floor and at 600ft and with the possibility of spinning around 360 degrees it offers the best views over the capital.

When he led the design team, Partington was working for Foster Associates and now, after 10 years away from the project, he has been asked to draw up new Phase II plans for introducing retail and cafe outlets into the plaza area.

He told the audience that communication is critical in his business – you have to be able to put your message across and tell a story – and that pupils should hold on to as many friends and contacts as possible as you never know when you will come across them again.

During a questions and answers session, Partington reflected on his time at Bolton School and readily admitted he was not the most diligent of pupils. Following his GCSEs, he flunked his A-levels before driving straight over to Liverpool University to demand a place on the seven-year Architecture course – saying he would not leave until he had a place. He told the pupils that he had studied A-levels in Physics, Maths and Chemistry, and that drawing skills and an affinity for materials was essential for architecture.

Partington’s firm, Robin Partington & Partners in London, is working with universities to introduce apprenticeships after concluding that universities were not producing craftsmen anymore.

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