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Tower 42

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Tower 42, from the 18th floor of 30 St Mary Axe (aka the Gherkin) September 2004.

How many floors does the tallest building in The City of London have?


Now remember that - it may help you in a pub quiz one day!

At this point, the brightest readers will have figured out why the building is officially called Tower 42, but to many people, the building that has dominated the skyline of the square mile since the start of the 1980s will always be known as the Natwest Tower.

From the Drawing Board

In May, 1970, planning permission was granted for what was to be a 650ft (198m) tall tower, but the resultant building was not 650ft tall. It was 600ft (183m). Designed by Richard Seifert, it was the tallest cantilevered building in the world when it opened. In a cantilevered building, the loads on the floors are fully balanced by a central shaft. This allows the building to be tall, but not have much floor space. This was okay for the tower because it could not have a large footprint. It was allowed to be so tall because the developers had combined the air rights1 for the building with that for the next-door site.

The foundations of the tower reach 160ft (50m) down into the clay. The building was developed for National Westminster Bank, and from this grew one of the big myths about the building. It is said that the floor plan was designed to replicate the bank's famous logo. Seifert denied this, but that didn't stop the bank using shots of the building in its adverts.

Construction took only nine years, and it opened in 1980, taking the title of the UK's tallest building away from The Post Office Tower (now BT Tower). Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the building in June, 1981. The cost of the project was £72million. It was claimed to be the straightest skyscraper yet built thanks to the lasers that were used to monitor its construction.

Two Big Bangs

As the face of banking changed after the 'Big Bang2', the limited floor space that the Natwest Tower provided started to hinder the company's performance. Then an even bigger bang happened. The IRA set off a bomb in the Bishopsgate area of London in 1993, causing vast damage to the tower. It was refurbished, but when it reopened in 1995, Natwest decided not to reoccupy the building.

After renaming it the International Finance Centre, they sold it. The new owners, Greycoat, renamed it Tower 42. It now houses offices and two restaurants, both of which are very exclusive.

The building lost its title of the UK's tallest building when the 235m (762ft) One Canada Square (The Canary Wharf Tower) opened in 1991. At the time of writing, it sits fourth in the list of London's tallest buildings, behind the twin 199m (647ft) Citigroup and HSBC towers in the Canary Wharf development. It still ranks as the tallest building in Central London.

Where to Find it

The tower stands on a patch of land between Broad Street and Bishopsgate, north of Threadneedle Street and south of London Wall. It is a short walk from Liverpool Street and Bank stations and is not too hard to find.

It can also be found by watching the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy television series, where it features at one point.

Of Playwrights and Plotters

The site that the tower currently occupies has been occupied by a number of buildings that have played an important part in the history of London:

  • Gresham House, built in 1563 by Sir Thomas Gresham. Gresham was a businessman who helped set up the Royal Stock Exchange. Upon the death of his wife in 1596, Gresham House became the 'Institute for Physic, Civil Law, Music, Astronomy, Geometry and Rhetoric', as directed by Gresham's will (Sir Thomas died 17 years earlier). Students at Gresham College, described as the Third University of England by Chief Justice Coke in 1612, included Robert Hooke, Sir Christopher Wren and the composer John Bull. The building survived the Great Fire, and saw use as a garrison, a Guildhall and Royal exchange. The College moved to Gresham Street. Gresham house was demolished in 1768 and a new Gresham house was built in its place.

  • Crosby Hall, built in 1466 and named after local politician Sir John Crosby. One of its famous visitors was King Richard III, and another was William Shakespeare. The Bard set a scene of Richard III where the Duke of Gloucester plotted his route to the crown in Crosby Hall.

    Crosby Place, which was built in 1596, the year that Richard III was written.

  • The City of London Club, which was founded in 1830.

  • Palmerston House was a building that survived from the 19th Century, through both world wars. It was named after the Third Viscount Palmerston. It stood at 51-55 Broad Street. It was occupied for some time by the Cunard Steam Shipping Company.

All your Quiz Question Answers

  • Although the tower is named after its 42 floors, if you include the building below it, the complex is 47 floors high.

  • On a clear day, you should be able to see for 50km from the top of the tower: that's if you could actually get onto the roof, which the public can't.

  • If you threw Howard from the Halifax adverts off the top of the former Natwest Tower, ignoring air resistance, it would take him 6.1 seconds to hit the ground. He would be travelling at 60m/s.

  • The tower provides 23,230m2 of floor space. This is approximately one millionth of a Wales. One Canada Square provides 115,000m2, almost five times the space.

  • Each month the tower sees 54,000 items of post and 12,000 courier packages.

  • 3200 people work in the tower complex.

  • When the tower opened in 1980, it cost £72million. When it was sold in 1998, it was worth £226million, a 3.1 fold increase if you ignore inflation, which between 1980 and 1998 had devalued money by over 40%. As a comparison to the increasing price of the tower, the British record football transfer in 1980 was Andy Gray's £1.469million move from Aston Villa to Wolves in 1979. In 1998, the British record was £15million, Alan Shearer's 1996 move from Blackburn to Newcastle. This was a ten-fold increase.

1Air rights are the rights to use the airspace above the ground for development.2The Big Bang was a deregulation of jobs in the London Stock Exchange which led to a change in how trading was carried out.

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