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Canary Wharf

Updated Monday, 26th November 2001

The Canary Wharf development got off to a wobbly start, but has now become iconic.

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A cold morning on Canary Wharf

Cesar Pelli


Construction Date:


Capitalist Tool

Canary Wharf Tower is Britain's tallest building, dominating the flat skyline of east London and visible to passers-by thirty-two kilometres away. The Tower forms part of the ambitious Canary Wharf development plans of the 1980s, when the British government decided that the only way for London to develop was eastwards, away from the crowded centre, and so needed a bold beacon to attract investors and companies to the run-down marshland around the largely empty Docklands area.

The Tower is a giant obelisk, standing eight hundred feet tall and topped off with a distinctive pyramid-shaped roof. Its fifty storeys offer the variety of media and financial companies housed within it an impressive 6.6 million square feet of office space (the largest of any private office development in Europe). The tower remains the tallest building in the United Kingdom.

Gotham City

Clad in stainless steel, Canary Wharf Tower is designed to subtly reflect changes in light as the sun moves through the sky. Often appearing to be brightly lit in the morning as the first rays hit it, the building appears to glow even in grey London days, and morphs into a golden red at sunset. In other respects, its appearance is less subtle.

Designed by the American Cesar Pelli and funded by Canadian developers Olympia & Yorke, the Tower's bulky square form and pointy roof would not look out of place in Gotham City, and is unmistakably rooted in the North American skyscraper experience (Pelli also built the strikingly similar One World Financial Centre in New York).

On the inside, the Tower is an unremarkable office block, its non-public nature emphasised by the decision not to let tourists onto the roof to admire the views.

When Prince Charles saw Cesar Pelli's plans for the Tower, he asked the startled architect "But why does it have to be so tall?". The answer lay in the importance of the Tower to the government's regeneration of east London.

Standing in the flat landscape east of the City, it seemed to reassure those working in London's cramped financial district that they could move east and still make money. And during the 1980s the Tower became a very solid symbol of the resurgence of free-market capitalism and entrepreneurship in Britain.

Where once the Modernists' had built tall shiny buildings to herald a brave new way of living, now tall shiny post-modern buildings like Canary Wharf Tower seemed to celebrate the making of money and the resurgent politics of individualism.

Bust and Boom

Unfortunately for the developers, the Tower arrived just in time to feel the impact of the longest and most severe recession since the 1930s. Much of its office space remained empty and it was only half-full when its owners went into receivership in 1992.

Far from shining as a beacon of capitalism, Canary Wharf Tower seemed in danger of becoming a giant white elephant, marooned on the edge of London. But the subsequent economic recovery of the 1990s saw occupancy pick up and people move out to Docklands to live, rather than just to work.

Today, the Tower stands at the centre of a rapidly changing area of London: it anchors a twenty-first century landscape of steel and glass (two towers have recently been completed on either side of the original) onto one of Europe's oldest cities.


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