Ten years ago one of the weirdest — and, some would say, ugliest — buildings in London was completed. Officially known as the Strata tower, it is better known as the Electric Razor — or simply the Razor.
Twenty-first century London is a jumble of oddly-shaped towers: the Gherkin, the Cheese Grater, the Walkie-Talkie, the Shard and the Boomerang. The Gherkin was the first, completed in 2003; the Shard is the tallest; but the Razor is the most symbolic of its era.
In 2010, the country had just emerged from what we then imagined to be a once-in-a-lifetime recession. The UK economy, with its all-important financial sector, had been especially vulnerable to the Global Financial Crisis. And London was right at the epicentre.
At the time, there were doubts as to whether our capital would ever fully recover. After all, there’s nothing inevitable about its leading position. We forget it now, but for most of the 20th century, London lagged behind Britain as a whole. It was a city in decline in a country in decline. Bombed by the Germans, scarred by post-war development, and seemingly bypassed by modernity, London was lost in the fog.
But then came the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher and the Big Bang — the deregulation that would establish London as the financial capital of the global economy.
It wasn’t, of course, an end to the city’s woes. But now the poverty and decay and riots existed alongside surging prosperity. Waves of regeneration and gentrification transformed entire districts. Most dramatically, the derelict Docklands was rebuilt as a second fortress of finance. In particular, there was One Canada Square — a.k.a. ‘Canary Wharf’ — a steel-clad expression of the new London confidence. By the time it was finished (1991) so was Margaret Thatcher, but for London the good times would continue. Not even the prospect of a Labour Government was enough to dampen spirits. Indeed, during the so-called ‘Prawn Cocktail Offensive’ Labour politicians went to great lengths — or, at least, long lunches — to persuade the financiers that the City would be safe in Labour hands.
And so it proved. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had no desire to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs. And so, as promised, things only got better. The London property market took off again, triggering a building boom. If Canary Wharf symbolised the Thatcher years, then the Gherkin (officially: 30 St Mary Axe) symbolised Blairism — every bit as as bold as Thatcherism, but without the sharp edges.
In 2005, one of the Gherkin’s glass panels came loose, tumbling down to the street below. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but in retrospect it can be seen as a portent. Trouble was brewing in America’s sub-prime mortgage sector, setting off the events of the Credit Crunch and the ensuing Global Financial Crisis. The economy fell off a cliff and the property market crashed. Once busy cranes disappeared from the London skyline — but not completely. A few big projects, begun in the good times, continued through the bad — not least the Strata tower.
Which is why, ten years ago, it symbolised hope — a fresh start for a shaken city. Certainly, there was no ignoring it. Standing almost 500 feet tall, the mostly-residential Razor dominates its neighbourhood. However, it’s influence is felt far beyond the environs of Elephant and Castle. If you look south from a suitable vantage point in the city of London, then you’ll see it looking right back. More than most buildings, the Razor has eyes. The tower is shield-shaped in section, which from the north-facing side gives it a beaky, raptor-like profile.
The fact that the upper floors are black and glassy (in contrast to the stripy cladding further down) adds to the impression that the building is staring down at you. The dramatic slant of the ‘roofline’ (if you can call it that) reinforces the effect. It’s as if some vast bird of prey — an owl, perhaps — had perched south of river, the Square Mile in its sights. For those who hope to make a killing in the City, but can’t yet afford the more exclusive neighbourhoods, it’s a convenient place to roost.
But of course its nickname is the Razor, not the Owl. And that is due to the three wind turbines built into the tower’s crest, like the circular blades of an electric shaver. Each one is 30 feet in diameter. Together they were supposed to generate 50 megawatt hours of electricity a year — which sounds a lot, but amounts to only 8% of the building’s needs. But I doubt they even achieve that.
My pre-Covid commute took me past the Strata, but in ten years I’ve never seen the turbines move. I don’t know anyone anyone who has. If, like me, you’ve had anything to do with energy policy, you’ll have heard people confidently claim that wind power “doesn’t work”. That’s demonstrably false, but the Strata hasn’t been the best advertisement.
Was it all a gimmick? When the building won the 2010 Carbuncle Cup, the judges’ verdict was scathing:
“…as the sole tall building in its locale, it is utterly inescapable for miles around…
“…to literally cap it all off there are the three gargantuan wind turbines at the top. The architect has trumpeted that these could supply 8% of the building’s energy requirements, which seems nothing much to shout about given the enormous expenditure in carbon that has been required to engineer such a baroque arrangement and the fact that this is a part of London that has absolutely no need for the creation of a 147m-tall tower.
“For services to greenwash, urban impropriety and sheer breakfast-extracting ugliness, we hereby award the 2010 Carbuncle Cup to the Strata tower.”
But was it really greenwash? Three thirty-foot turbines is more than a token effort. As the first skyscraper to incorporate the technology, this was a genuine attempt to break new ground.
As yet, as much as I approve of wind power, it’s best located away from human habitation. People and wind turbines just don’t mix (though, if they get too close, wind turbines could mix people). Certainly, there is noise, vibration and flicker, so not the best match for a residential development.
A few years earlier, David Cameron — then leader of the opposition — made headlines after he installed solar panels and a micro-wind turbine on his house. Embarrassingly, the latter was soon removed due to planning problems. Today, solar panels are a common sight on all sorts of buildings, but you’ll be lucky to spot a wind turbine. Fundamentally, the problem isn’t with the planning system, but the laws of physics. With this technology, size matters — the bigger the span of blades, the more efficient the turbine.
It’s a relationship that’s been exploited to drive down the costs of wind power. By getting bigger, it’s got cheap enough to out-compete other energy sources, and without subsidies. The turbines deployed in new offshore windfarms are now gargantuan — about 500 times the generating capacity of those used in the Razor. Each blade weighs in the region of 30 tonnes and is roughly 250 feet long. That means a total diameter greater than the Strata tower is tall.
In short, wind power belongs out to sea or in the middle of nowhere, not on — or in — buildings. Sadly, the Razor’s cutting-edge tech was a dead end.
Architecturally and economically, however, the building was a trailblazer. Over the last decade London has sprouted towers of all shapes and sizes, developers competing to build the next new landmark. In its own neighbourhood of Elephant and Castle, the Strata no longer stands alone. Our low density capital is now a city of high rises.
Far from being the biggest victim of the financial crash, London roared back to life after 2010 — leaving the rest of the county trailing in its wake. Politically, the glittering, lofty towers would highlight the growing gap between the puffed-up global city and the left-behind Britain beyond its orbit — a gap that would tear the country apart in 2016.
So if Canary Wharf symbolises Thatcherism, and the Gherkin Blairism, then, in more ways than one, the Razor embodies the follies of Cameronism. Looking back, it’s extraordinary that anyone thought that the voters would tolerate a third blast of neoliberalism. Thatcher had the excuse that it hadn’t been tried before; Blair could imagine that his was a kinder, gentler version; but what did Cameron and Clegg hope to achieve?
Well, it’s all over now. The pandemic has cruelly exposed the vulnerabilities of the globalised economy — and the superstar, sky-scraping architecture that houses it.
Suddenly, the herding of knowledge workers into centrally-located, open-plan office blocks doesn’t seem such a good idea. The same goes for high-rise apartment blocks — a stunning view is only partial compensation when you’re locked-down in your glass bubble. Not that you’re completely sealed off. You’re breathing the same re-circulated air as your neighbours and colleagues. You’re sharing the same lifts. And, if you’re commuting, riding the same buses, trains and taxis. How will any of that work if the virus doesn’t go away?
When you build on a human scale you can do without the life support systems. You can spurn the lift and take the stairs; switch off the air-con and open a window. When people live and work within communities they can walk or cycle across, they’re not paralysed without mass transit. And when the natural connection between the metropolis and its hinterland matters more than the exclusive club of global cities, then we can face the collapse of global aviation and carry on.
But we’ve built for a world without infectious disease. We’ve assumed that the plagues of the past have no future. And so, for the sake of our way of life, we must pray for an end to our present nightmare.
According to Knight Frank, 60 tall buildings were completed in London last year — a record number. Remarkably, a further 525 were at “various stages of the planning process”. I wonder how many of those are even relevant now?
The FT reports that leasing activity has plummeted in London — with levels in March 88% down on a year ago. There’ll be a partial rebound, but can London carry on building more than 10 million square metres of new office space every year? Or is the underlying economic model permanently bust?
I hope that’s a question that Rishi Sunak is thinking about. I know he’s got enough other things to think about right now, but when or if we emerge from the pandemic he needs to decide whether the road to recovery looks like 2010, or whether we must set out on a new path.
The government talks about levelling-up. But what is it that he wants the North, the Midlands etc to level-up to? A globalised, glass tower economy that just doesn’t make sense anymore?