London and the towers of (economic) doom

Does the completion of skyscrapers herald economic doom? This is the conjecture put forward by Barclays Capital and set out in a fascinating piece on the BBC News website. The bank’s research focuses on the correlation between the completion of world-record shattering skyscrapers and the onset of financial crises. The evidence presented is compelling – the Empire State Building was completed against the backdrop of a city and nation in the grip of the Great Depression and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa was completed just before the dramatic crash that nearly bankrupted the tiny emirate.

A building considered by many to be the world’s first skyscraper, the Equitable Life Assurance Building in New York City, topped out at a barely cloud tickling 40 metres during the post-Civil War crash of 1869-70. According to the report, the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s was heralded by the completion of Malaysia’s Petronas Towers and the oil shocks that rocked the US in the early 1970s were marked by Chicago’s Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower).

Completing the tower of economic doom?

But is this trend valid for London? Are the capital’s tallest buildings a reliable indicator of economic doom? Londoners should hope not, as the Shard London Bridge completes this year as both Britain and the EU’s tallest building. Does this make the double dip recession architecturally inevitable?

There are some clear examples illustrating how the health of the UK’s economy is predicted in London’s tallest buildings:

·         The Broadgate Tower marked the development of the City’s eastern fringes and was topped out in 2008, just in time to mark the credit crunch. It was completed in 2009, just as the UK slipped into recession.

·         One Canada Square (the Canary Wharf tower) was finished in 1991 in the middle of the early 90s recession. The development’s fortunes were so dire that its developers, Olympia and York, went into administration soon after in May 1992.

·         Tower 42 (the NatWest Tower) was completed in 1980, just as the UK entered the early 80s recession that saw unemployment rise from 5.3% to 11.9% by 1984.

·         The mid-70s recession of 1973-5 was marked by a whole development of skyscrapers as the City of London put the finishing touches to the Barbican Estate by completing the Cromwell Tower (1973), the Lauderdale Tower (1974) and the Shakespeare Tower (1976).

And, although admittedly stretching the cause and effect logic of the Barclays report, London’s tallest building for centuries was St Paul’s Cathedral. The cathedral was declared officially complete by Parliament on Christmas Day 1711. This was the same year as the foundation of the South Sea Company. The South Sea Company’s infamous bubble would steadily inflate until its disastrous explosion in 1720, plunging the country into economic crisis.

It would therefore appear that the topping out of the Shard London Bridge will inevitably take place against the backdrop of another recession. Fortunately, for the optimists amongst us, there are plenty examples of tall buildings being completed in London without accompanying economic or fiscal calamity.

Battersea Power Station became London’s tallest building after St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1939. Whilst clearly a significant year in British history, it heralded the opposite of economic decline as all British industry worked flat out to support the war effort. Battersea Power Station would give way to the Crystal Palace transmitter in 1950, at the beginning of a boom post-war period.

The BT Tower would be a physical manifestation of Harold Wilson’s white heat of technology and was finished in 1962 as the post-war boom continued and Britons had never had it so good. Similarly, Centre Point was completed in 1967 and, whilst economically unsuccessful itself, its completion did not precipitate economic crisis. Finally, 30 St Mary Axe (or the Gherkin) topped out in 2003 in the midst of an economic boom that allegedly signalled the end of boom and bust.

There is clearly plenty of evidence from the capital on each side of the argument that tall buildings herald economic doom. We will have to wait and see exactly what the Shard brings for London and the UK.

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