8. Canary Wharf Tower

For several years the Canary Wharf Tower stood in splendid isolation, providing a landmark visible from much of London. Today, although accompanied by the lesser HSBC and Citycorp towers, it remains as a tribute to those who took a huge financial risk on regenerating the area of London known as Docklands.

High-rise office blocks of this kind, providing a huge working area within constricted city sites, first appeared in Chicago during the 1880s. In common with Canary Wharf, the Chicago towers were constructed using steel frames. Other buildings in the same family include New York’s Chrysler building of 1930 (1,000 feet) and the Empire State building of 1931, as well as Chicago’s Sears Tower (1,450 feet) and the World Trade Center (1,350 feet), the last two of these built in the 1970s. The Twin Towers of the WTC, destroyed with tragic loss of life on September 11th, 2001, demonstrate the dangers in such high buildings.

The huge size of these structures precludes the application of any real decorative detail. Instead such towers rely on elegant proportions, style and quality of materials and finish. The Canary Wharf building is no exception.

The Docklands Site

In the 1950s London’s Docklands was a hive of activity. However, by the seventies, ‘containerisation’ had moved much of the trade to Tilbury docks, whilst the expansion of air freight had also taken its toll.

The huge Docklands area, which extended along both sides of the river east of Tower Bridge, reaching Beckton on the north bank and Woolwich on the south side, was in a state of dereliction. The author remembers exploring the narrow streets of deserted warehouses, some still smelling of spices, and peering over walls to see huge expanses of empty water.

In 1986, the Government established several Urban Development Corporations, including the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC). The latter, although not always popular with local residents, was highly effective in bringing new investments into this part of London.

At the centre of the LDDC area was a challenging site known as the Isle of Dogs, which acquired its name when used as kennels for the King, who lived across the river at Greenwich. At the time of redevelopment, it was largely occupied by six docks: the West India Docks (Import Dock or North Section, Export or Middle Section and South Dock or Main Section), Blackwall Basin and Millwall Dock (Inner and Outer). The ‘island’ was enclosed by a bend of the river Thames to the west, south and east, whilst road links to the north were constricted and public transport non-existent.

The West India Docks incorporated two dividing ‘islands’, Canary Wharf to the north, which was named after the singing birds that were once unloaded here, and Heron Quays to the south.

Rail Access

A temporary solution to the problem of access to the Isle of Dogs came in the form of a low-cost railway, known as the Docklands Light Railway (DLR), which initially ran from Tower Gateway station, close to the Tower of London, to Island Gardens, at the south end of the Isle, passing over the three sections of the West India Docks on an elevated viaduct. This was a precursor to the later tram systems that were used in other parts of Britain to aid regeneration, although the DLR wasn’t really a tramway, since it used a form of third-rail electrification and travelled along a ‘dedicated’ path.

Later extensions to the system included routes northwards from Canary Wharf to Stratford and eastwards to Beckton, whilst a more recent addition took the line south of Island Gardens, under the river and on to Lewisham.

Here’s what the Daily Mirror said about the DLR on 15th March, 1994:-

Regarded as a toy town rail system when it opened in 1987, the Docklands Light Railway has now come of age. Acknowledged as one of the most advanced metro systems in the world, it links Canary Wharf to the main central London tube system and British Rail. The DLR is currently a 15-train service carrying 30,000 passengers a day but with a capacity to carry 115,000. It travels 2,900 miles a day, has 478 staff and the trains can travel at a maximum speed of 50 mph with 284 people on board. The DLR has been funded by a mixture of public and private cash.


It takes just ten minutes on the fully-automated trains to travel from the City to the spectacular £4 billion Canary Wharf development. On the way there you look out on the remarkable transformation this part of London has experienced. Before reaching the futuristic splendour of the Wharf, you pass derelict docklands, blocks of low rise flats and church towers, canal bridges and warehouses which have survived the test of time. “Without the DLR, the Docklands boom would not have taken off in the way it has,” says a spokesman for the Docklands Development Corporation. “It enhanced our credibility. But it is a pity we were too modest in our expectations of the traffic it would generate.” After some early teething troubles, the DLR is now running smoothly.


Living up to its high-tech billing, it copes brilliantly with severe cold and snow. The railway is run entirely by computers so there are no drivers. It also has one of the most advanced points systems in the world. Built initially for £77 m it has since been upgraded and extended at a cost of more than £80 m. This month will see the opening of the £240 m eastern extension to Beckton in the Royal Docks. Still to come is a £100 m plan to build a tunnel under the Thames linking the Isle Of Dogs with Lewisham. This will have the capacity for an extra 6,000 river crossings every hour, relieving traffic congestion at Blackwall, Rotherhithe and Tower Bridge. It will put an estimated 500,000 extra people within 45 minutes of Canary Wharf. When all the extensions are complete the original 13-mile light railway will have been transformed into a 27-mile, £845 m multi-line network capable of carrying about 15,000 people an hour and stopping at 35 stations. This is more than eight times the volume originally expected.


The following is an edited version of The Docklands East-West Link Road, an item by Don Clow that appeared the Greater London Archaeology Society (GLIAS) newsletter of August, 1993.

Most of the major new road and rail infrastructure is in place — namely the Limehouse Link, Aspen Way, East India Dock Link Tunnel, The Lower Lea Crossing, and associated feeder roads. The structures for the DLR Beckton extension are also complete.

The link can be divided into four convenient sections:-

1. Limehouse Link Tunnel

In contrast to the rest of the link, the opening of the Limehouse Link Tunnel received a blaze of publicity, not least because, of its immense cost, averaging £41,000 per metre. The western portal is at the junction of The Highway and Butcher Row. It continues eastward in a sinuous course to emerge north of the DLR West India Quay station. Before this, a section branches off to give access to West Ferry Road and the west end of Canary Wharf.

As the tunnel was constructed by the cut-and-cover method a large swathe of land had to be cleared through a densely built-up area. Part of the route is through Limehouse Basin and some of the water area has now been lost as a result — canal access to the Basin has been restored. The new lock constructed at the outlet to the Thames was completed in 1989. The west-bound platform of the DLR Limehouse station gives a good view over the Basin. Much of the tunnel construction material came in and spoil was removed by barge, and a new temporary jetty was provided at Dundee Wharf for this purpose.

2. Aspen Way - Limehouse Link to Preston’s Road Flyover

Aspen Way runs from the tunnel portal to the Preston’s Road flyover where slip roads give access to a ground-level roundabout. From the roundabout, Trafalgar Way branches off to give access to Billingsgate Fish Market and the east end of Canary Wharf. Preston’s Road leads south to the east side of the Isle of Dogs and Cotton Street heads north.

3. Preston’s Road to Leamouth

Aspen Way continues eastward to the Leamouth roundabout and passes between the former power station at Brunswick Wharf and the Naval Row Conservation Area. Near the power station, the road divides, o ne part dives into the 350 m long East India Dock Link tunnel which heads northeast to the A 13, passing through the Import Dock site.

4. The Lower Lea Crossing

This runs from Leamouth roundabout over the river by the Lower Lea Crossing (LLC) bridge and meets Silvertown Way and Victoria Dock Road at another new roundabout. The LLC consists of an impressive bridge with substantial approach embankments; slip roads located on the west embankment give access to the Orchard Place industrial area.

The LLC bridge provides a magnificent viewpoint over the Lea and Orchard Place, one of the few remaining active industrial areas of Docklands. The bridge runs parallel to the east-west section of the Lea immediately before the river turns sharply south to enter the Thames.

The Tower

Prince Charles, on seeing Cesar Pelli’s plans for the tower, asked ‘But why does it have to be so tall?’, which is a perfectly valid question. In fact, the huge amount of publicity generated by the tower gave the City the impetus to move east and was essential for the further regeneration of Docklands.

The following information is derived from publicity literature, dated March 15th, 1994 and other sources:-

The Canary Wharf Tower, completed in 1991, is 800 feet tall and has 3,960 windows: its 50 floors provide 4,000,000 square feet of office accommodation. The tower itself, which is the only building at Canary Wharf standing on dry land, is supported on 212 piles, each consisting of a steel pillar, 6 feet in diameter, driven 70 feet into the ground and then filled with concrete. These piles are covered by a 12 foot thick concrete raft that forms the base of the building.

The structure consists of 27,500 tons of steel, fastened by 500,000 bolts, giving sufficient flexibility to sway more than a foot in strong winds. Inner and outer box structures are used, the outer of hollow square columns, creating a box three floors high, and the inner of H-section vertical columns. Crossbeams are used in both types of box to tie the columns and to support the floors.

The exterior of the building is faced with 50,000 square metres of stainless steel sheeting, whilst its 3,960 windows are cleaned by an automatic washing machine that runs along tracks fitted to the outside of the building. Louvred blades on the pyramidal roof make it self-cleaning, whilst internal lighting gives the pyramid a glow that’s visible across London.

There are 32 passenger lifts in four banks, each serving a different section of the building, as well as two freight lifts and a pair of firemen’s lifts. Each lift takes just 50 seconds to reach the top floor.

Four stairways are provided as emergency fire escapes, containing 4,388 steps, as well as two fire-fighting shafts and two further escape stairs. The tower also has all the normal fire safety systems, including a mechanical smoke-extraction system for removing the air from any floor that’s on fire.

A computer-controlled climate control system is employed, which can utilise cold exterior air for cooling or use heat generated within the building to warm other parts of the structure. Air-conditioning is provided by two units, one on the second floor for the lower half of the tower and another on the 49th floor for the remainder, with coolers located in the roof space. Seven 1,250 ton cooling towers with pumps provide 20 tons of condenser water per floor.

The building is now the home of many important businesses, including the Daily Telegraph and The Independent newspapers. From the tower on a clear day you can see Windsor Castle, which is 21 miles away.

The Tower’s Impact

In the author’s opinion, there are very few successful modernist designs and even fewer works of this kind that are constructed with good quality materials, but the Canary Wharf Tower is a truly brilliant building. The structure is beautifully proportioned, almost on classical lines, although the use of stainless steel cladding is a perfectly modernist idea.

The lobby, which is 60 feet tall, is covered in 90,000 tiles of Italian and South American marble, almost enough to carpet the football pitch at the old Wembley Stadium. Although these are impressive, it’s again the proportions that strike home. The author was fortunate enough to view this area when the building was first constructed: the huge open space lined with well-proportioned lift doors and fine detailing is sublime, a very rare accomplishment.


The area around the Canary Wharf has been in a process of continuous development since the tower was constructed. At the time of writing, over 41,000 people work in the area and there are plans for new hames and offices in the vicinity of Blackwall Basin. However, the space west of the tower, including Canada Square and Cabot Square, was developed concurrently with the tower itself. A rather fascinating international style was adopted, which can seem very strange in the context of the old Docklands.

A tremendous effort seems to have been made to create something of a very high quality, something that will remain for many years to come. The following item, written by Bob Carr and featured in the GLIAS newsletter of October, 1991, gives an insight into the atmosphere of this unique place.

Of late visitors to the vicinity of Canary Wharf mutter ‘Ceausescu’ when confronted with the rapidly growing collection of new buildings, unashamedly exhibiting an architecture of naked power of the kind we used to associate with Joseph Stalin and his like. The view from the North West along West India Dock road is now dominated by the Canary Wharf development to such an extent that the formerly impressive grade 1 listed warehouses by George Gwilt on the North Quay of William Jessop’s Import Dock are dwarfed into insignificance to an absurd extent by the fun throw-away classical architecture towering behind. There are at present no signs of conversion works starting on the Gwilt Warehouses. Perhaps one should remember that Stalin, when Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili, once lived in Whitechapel and that, according to George Bernard Shaw, Russian communism was an export from England. The Salvation Army hostel in Fieldgate Street, El, where Stalin stayed, is still here.

However one gets a better view of the Gwilt warehouses from the vicinity of the Canary Wharf development itself. Looking north-west with SS Robin and a Thames barge berthed along the North Quay of William Jessop’s Import Dock things look more encouraging. The early 20th century transit sheds between Gwilt Warehouses and the North Quay, which at one time were to have been the home of the planned Museum of London’s ‘Museum in Docklands’, have been demolished and the view from the south-east of Sir John Rennie ‘s dock office building and warehouses One and Two, is much improved.

Travellers arriving at the recently opened six platform ‘Grand Central’ DLR Canary Wharf station by Pelli and Associates now step out into a world in parts redolent (at least superficially) of the early nineteen hundreds and can look over the water at buildings a hundred years earlier than that.

With its mature English trees flown in from Hamburg, lush green grass and period style street furniture, the whole Canary Wharf site is beginning to appear to have been around a great deal longer than it really has. Jonathan Glancey on page 27 of The Independent, 13th July 1991, dubbed Canary Wharf ‘Gotham City E14’. To the west the amazing double-decker roundabout, Westferry Circus, has a garden on top, approached through an ingenious Art Nouveau style gate by Guiseppe Lund. The garden evokes uneasy memories of H G Wells and the Time Machine. Quasi-Egyptian architecture is popular hereabouts, and standing amidst the newly created beauty in the garden on the upper deck of the Circus one is persuaded that the allusion to the Eloi and the Morlocks must surely be deliberate. Hearing the traffic noises emanating from ventilators makes the whole experience uncomfortably more realistic than being in a film set for the film of the book.

With the exception of William Cubitt, little in the new Canary Wharf street names derive from the past of the area, and with the tiled pavements and all the nearly-completed buildings perhaps the south of Spain or the Algarve in Portugal is the most prominent feeling one comes away with. To the east the Canary Wharf main tower and Canada Square is distinctly North American but going westwards the flavour becomes more European. The centrally-placed Cabot Square reminds one that our claim to North America rests on the work of exploration by the Cabots, father and son (from Genoa and Venice respectively). Again, is the decision to commemorate the Cabots tongue in cheek? The writer has not come across the name William Jessop in the vicinity of Number One Canada Square; but then Jessop was only an engineer and presumably unworthy of mention. However the main road from Westferry Circus is West India Avenue and I suppose Christopher Columbus (from Genoa) did discover the West Indies. The whole thing is very multi-national which is really what it is all about anyway. It can certainly be said that the Canary Wharf development is a first class attempt to create something above the mediocre and few would disagree that as far as the general visiting public is concerned success is at least close at hand.