What’s With the Weird Skyline, London? (partial answer below)

It’s got curves and acute angles and includes some of the oddest names for its edifices: the Gherkin, the Walkie-Talkie, the Scalpel, Can of Ham (my personal favorite), and the Cheese Grater. (All items you can buy at Aldi at a better price.) The Shard sits outside to the right of the above photo across the river like so:

That’s the Walkie-Talkie on the left, and the Shard on the right. This is an eastern view.

Anyone visiting London will notice there is constant construction going on. There always seem to be as many cranes as buildings. Where this skyline is going precisely, we don’t know. In fact, in 2011 the the chief planning officer of the City of London, Peter Rees, said, “London doesn’t have a skyline, it’s had a series of chance events which, apart from St Paul’s, isn’t very distinctive.”

Let’s go over the famous and strangely nicknamed buildings. There’s the Gherkin.

And yes, phallic symbol comments aside, it does indeed look like a gherkin.

Of course, there’s the walkie talkie.

During its construction, they realized there was a major issue: if the sun shone directly onto the building, it emitted heat so strong that it could melt cars! One car owner was paid £946 by the developers to repair melted bodywork. To make the point gastronomically clear, a reporter from a local paper fried an egg by setting the pan in the building’s direct reflection. (Calling it a “fryscraper” became popular.) The problem was fixed with awnings on the top floors.

The Scalpel was originally a nickname but is now the official name of this building on Lime Street:

Then there’s the “can of ham”:

Spam, anyone?

And of course, the “cheese grater”:

Is that a “cute” angle or what? Bad joke, I know.

Now the “why” or rather “how the hell did this happen” is all kinds of complicated involving planning commissions and I’m guessing a tad of graft but there is also one factor that I find absolutely bizarre and to be honest, I didn’t believe it when I first heard about it: the so-called “sight lines.”

Sight lines, or “protected views” are legally protected views of one place from another place. There are ten spots outside the city centre from which one must be able to view St Pauls Cathedral. And there are four places from which you must be able to see the Palace of Westminster (aka Parliament).

There’s an oak tree (an oak tree!) in Hampstead Heath from which your grandma has to be able to eat her cheese toastie while gazing at St Pauls in the distance. I’m not kidding. There’s also a spot called King Henry’s Mound in Richmond Park 10 miles away! Here’s that view:

Fun fact: it’s called King Henry’s Mound because it is said that it was from this viewpoint that Henry VIII received the signal that his second wife, Anne Boleyn, had been executed. That Henry sure was a barrel of laughs. Good thing there wasn’t a ninth. This photo is taken through the telescope that sits at the Mound.

Developers have had to stretch, bend, shorten, and jiggle their visions of buildings so that we can keep our vision of St Pauls and the Palace of Westminster from obscure places. For example, the Walkie-Talkie. It was originally conceived as a 200m tall building but the architects had to re-vamp because the proposed structure interfered with sight lines. The Cheese Grater slopes so deeply to “protect the view.” Thus, at least in part due to these protection view requirements, the skyline is a hodge-podge of odd shapes and nutty angles.

A map of the protected views:

As mentioned, the two main protected views are of St Pauls and lesser so, the Palace of Westminster. (And much less so, The Tower of London.) From Daily Mail October 2018.

So why St Pauls? What’s the big deal about a cathedral? Well, it’s pretty darn historical. It was the tallest structure in London from the time of its completion in 1710 (one of the many churches rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren — who you could say was England’s Leonardo da Vinci — following the 1666 Great Fire) until 1967. There’s been a church on the site since 604 AD. It was not, however, initially popular. Wren’s design at the time was considered scandalous and outrageous as many thought it looked too “catholic” — looking too much like the Vatican with its immense dome. During its construction in the late 1600s, the country was entrenched in protestantism having gone through the Reformation the century before. In fact, anti-Catholism was so rampant that you could get an enemy jailed by declaring to authorities that they were secret Catholics! However, over the course of the next decades then centuries it came to be a beloved icon of the city. In fact, it still stands despite extensive bombing during World War II, only because volunteer fire watchers stayed on its rooftops 24/7 putting out incendiary bombs. Nearly all buildings in its vicinity were destroyed during the Blitz thus making St Pauls a symbol of the British people’s resilience and survival.

Famous photo, “St Paul’s Survives”, taken 30 December 1940 by photographer Herbert Mason during the 114th night of German air raids, i.e. the Blitz. Next time you’re by that way, take a look around. Nearly all the building in the vicinity are post-war, testimony to how many had been bombed out of existence. Volunteers risked their lives to save St Paul’s.

And by the way, for you cynical Americans out there who think this is just more evidence of British eccentricities, San Francisco has protected view requirements that blows London’s out of the water.

Not to say that I don’t think the Brits aren’t eccentric. They are. And that’s why I love them.