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What Do You Do With An Empty Gonad?

For Ken Livingstone, it was the glass testicle. For his successor as mayor of London, Boris Johnson, it was the glass gonad. But whatever part of the male anatomy it was being compared to, the distinctively shaped City Hall on London’s South Bank had one clear function: It was the centre of democracy when it came to running London. That is not the case anymore. And that creates an intriguing problem.

The decision by current Mayor Sadiq Khan to move the operations of his office and the Greater London Authority from City Hall to the Crystal building further east in London’s docklands at the end of next year is a financial one: The rent on the building is £11M a year, and Khan said the decision to move to the GLA-owned Crystal will save £126M over the next decade. 

But that financial decision creates a property problem for the City Hall building’s owner, St Martin’s Property, the real estate division of the Kuwait Investment Authority, the Gulf state’s sovereign wealth fund

City Hall in London

The very specific design of the 185K SF building makes it difficult to repurpose. But from that difficulty could come the next stage in the evolution of a district that has for centuries epitomised London’s capacity to reinvent and reinterpret itself.

“Any new occupier will likely have to come out of left field,” said Union Street partner Mark Fisher, a broker that specialises in the South Bank of the Thames. “It is a very unusual building and difficult to use as mainstream office space.”

City Hall, about halfway between London Bridge and Tower Bridge, contains a 500-metre helical walkway that ascends up the entirety of the building’s 10 storeys. At the bottom is the debating chamber for the London Assembly; at the top is a public events space called London’s Living Room. The office space for staff is in the upper stories, arranged around the huge central atrium created by the staircase. 

“It is a building that was always designed for democracy,” Portland Communications senior partner Chris Hogwood said. He has spent a lot of his working life in the building, both as a consultant and from his time at London Councils, a branch of London local government, from 2006 to 2011.

“The impact of the staircase is to create a kind of theatre around the assembly chamber and to make it transparent,” Hogwood said.

Indeed, the building’s architect, Lord Norman Foster, said he tried to build transparency into the design of the building, as he had done with the new German Reichstag building in Berlin, built when the German government returned to the city after reunification in the 1990s. 

The assembly hall and helical walkway in City Hall

To explore the building’s future, you need to delve into its past, the history of the area around it and the significance of the decision to build City Hall there. 

From the 1930s to the end of the 20th century, London’s government had been located in Westminster, for 64 years of that period in County Hall, a Portland stone building directly opposite the Palace of Westminster (and from which the usually Labour-controlled Greater London Council used to troll Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party with anti-government slogans in the 1980s.)

Moving to the South Bank was a move away from the ancestral heart of power in London, to a district better known for commerce and vice. The area between London Bridge and Tower Bridge was for centuries part of the Pool of London, the city’s historic port area — London Bridge was as far west as ships with tall masts could sail. By the 19th century, the South Bank of the Thames was lined with wharves bringing back goods from the British Empire. Until the area was brought under the control of the Port of London Authority at the beginning of the 20th century, the area was also the epicentre of goods smuggled into London, and thievery was rife on the unpoliced wharves. 

But in the 1960s, the advent of container shipping and deepwater ports led to the area’s wharves and warehouses shutting and becoming derelict, and huge stretches of the banks of the Thames became something of a rundown, unoccupied eyesore. 

In the 1980s, a 22-acre parcel of this land was bought by St Martin’s Property, a UK real estate developer that was owned by the sovereign wealth fund of Kuwait. During the first half of the 1990s, it worked up ambitious plans for a development, to be called London Bridge City, containing more than 2M SF of offices in an area just across London Bridge from the City of London, next to one of the capital’s busiest train stations, but with no history as an office location. 

A view looking east down the Thames from London Bridge of the Upper Pool of London port in 1958. City Hall today is located in the forest of cranes in the upper right hand side of the picture.

In 1997, it sold the site to German bank Depfa, which brought on board CIT as its local development partner. CIT eventually took over as full owner. 

Major office occupiers flirted with the idea of moving there, but in 1999 London Bridge City really got off the ground when the GLA chose it as the location of its new HQ and assembly building. City Hall opened in 2002, having cost £43M to build, and the GLA took a 25-year lease. In the years that followed, blue-chip occupiers like PwC and EY also headed there, a Hilton Hotel was built and multiple shops and restaurants were added. 

A thriving, mixed-use scheme was created from a post-industrial area, and in 2013, St Martin’s paid £1.7B to buy back the near fully leased London Bridge City in one of London’s biggest-ever property transactions. Arguably, nearby developments like the Shard would not have happened if London Bridge City had not established the area as a viable commercial location. City Hall was the vanguard of that movement as far as London Bridge was concerned, completing the transformation of the South Bank into a thriving commercial and cultural centre of London stretching from Westminster Bridge to Tower Bridge. 

In the 1990s, St Martin’s sold the concept of London Bridge City before City Hall and the surrounding buildings were actually built. But now it will have to oversee the next iteration of the scheme it conceived and bought back. 

One option is to simply knock City Hall down and rebuild it, but Fisher pointed out there is a chance it could be listed due to its architectural significance. So who might occupy the space? 

London Bridge City, with the edge of “the glass gonad” on the left of the picture.

“It would be perfect as a gallery or exhibition space,” Fisher said. “The problem is that those kind of occupiers wouldn’t pay the kind of rent that would make that commercially viable. You would need someone with a big budget, a philanthropic organisation looking for a flagship — it would make an amazing Guggenheim museum, and it could be another jewel in the crown along the South Bank next to the Tate Modern.”

Fisher added that it would make an ideal embassy building, but deals for embassies are complex. Landlords don’t always like them as they are complicated occupiers that require a lot of security and wall themselves off. The embassies themselves prefer to own buildings rather than rent them for exactly that reason. 

If a new lease was to be signed with a commercial entity, possibilities could include a fashion or media brand looking for space to showcase their products or content, or tech companies that have been taking space in unique buildings, like Apple at Battersea Power Station. At its King’s Cross HQ, Google specified that it wanted the building to be as “permeable” as possible for the local community. For brands that want to engage with the public, a building built for transparency could be ideal. But the number of companies that could utilise the space are few and far between. 

St Martin’s fashioned a new commercial location when it conceived London Bridge City, built on the twin foundations of politics and commerce. The politics is now gone, traditional office commerce is unlikely and it will take creative thought to start the process of reinvention again.