When I worked at The Architects' Journal, the news editor used to take especial pleasure in finding sobriquets for the latest tower proposal (he probably still does, but I don't see him so regularly). He was particularly proud of the 'can of ham', a title that was subsequently taken up by the Daily Mail. And no less a figure than Peter Rees of the Corporation of London claimed to have named the 'cheesegrater', Roger Stirk Harbour's Leadenhall building.
Rees may have been more aware of the significance of these names, but at the AJ we certainly thought of this as an amusing game. But according to the cultural critic Owen Hatherley, writing in the Guardian earlier this week, there was a sinister underlying purpose. The country, and particularly the left, has been suckered into promote tall commercial buildings, Hatherley argues,
Where once they championed the vernacular and 'community architecture' they came to love the idea of tall buildings with commercial sponsors, partly Hatherley believes, because Thatcher's government had taken away local authorities' spending powers, and this was the only way for them to make their mark. The ideas were promoted by Richard Rogers' report on cities, and by the formation of organisations such as CABE. And, Hatherley believes, the funny names helped us all to accept them.
'The Gherkin was clearly the first of these new cuddly skyscrapers,' he writes. 'Its originally much-vaunted green technologies barely worked, but its accidental masterstroke was its very name – its shape eliciting a cabbie's affectionate monicker. Subsequent towers all came ready-nicknamed – Helter-Skelter, Walkie-Talkie, Cheese Grater, Shard. Typically, they weren't much more public – the days when the tallest buildings could be council housing, like the Trellick Tower, or NHS hospitals, like Guy's Hospital Tower, neighbouring the Shard, were long gone – but they were definitely more populist.'
Hatherley is a very clever and passionate writer, with a strong agenda - he loves much of the brutalism that many decry - and his arguments need a careful unpacking. But like the towers he derides, they are seductive - and who knew that the poor AJ news editor had been suckered into a conspiracy of brainwashing?