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Gherkin Designer Returns to Inspire

Thursday, 30 June 2016

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. The School was delighted to see him return for the day to talk to Senior and Junior School pupils before presenting awards at the Boys’ Division's Prizegiving evening.

Over lunch, he delivered a fascinating insight into the building of the Swiss Re firm’s headquarters on St Mary Axe, otherwise known as “the Gherkin”. 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 Nat West Tower.  Construction was halted at the time of the World Trade Centre atrocity 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. He explained how they had to meet strict rules in the London Views Management Framework which means you cannot spoil views of the city skyline from specific points and that they were told 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.  Surprisingly 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”; luckily they created three such pieces as one cracked as it was being dropped in by abseil, one “spare” remains. 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 he explained 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, Mr Partington was working for Foster Associates. He said that you gather together some of the most amazing people on the planet and then when the project ends it is very sad because everyone goes their separate ways.  He told how the building had recently taken on new owners and he was excited and delighted that he had been asked, after 10 years away from the project, 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, Mr Partington reflected on his time at Bolton School and readily admitted he was not the most diligent of pupils. Having done okay at GCSE level, he flunked his A levels before driving straight over to Liverpool University to demand a place on the 7 year Architecture course – saying he would not leave until he had a place; something you could not do today! He told the pupils that he had studied A levels in Physics, Maths and Chemistry. Although he did not study Art, he did say that it is essential that you learn to draw at some stage as you should not imagine everything is done on computers. You also need an affinity for materials. He said his firm, Robin Partington & Partners, which is based on New Oxford Street in London, is now working with universities to introduce apprenticeships after concluding that universities were not producing craftsmen anymore.

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Robin Partington returns to Bolton School

Robin Partington returns to Bolton School

Robin delivered a fascinating lecture tracing the construction of the "Gherkin"

The iconic building on the London skyline