Postcards

London's Cheeky Skyscrapers

The Shard, the tallest building in Western Europe at 1,016 feet, was inaugurated in London in 2012. It got its formal name when the builders adopted the term used by critics, who called it a "shard of glass" in the city's skyline. i i

The Shard, the tallest building in Western Europe at 1,016 feet, was inaugurated in London in 2012. It got its formal name when the builders adopted the term used by critics, who called it a "shard of glass" in the city's skyline. Ben Fitzpatrick/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Ben Fitzpatrick/AP
The Shard, the tallest building in Western Europe at 1,016 feet, was inaugurated in London in 2012. It got its formal name when the builders adopted the term used by critics, who called it a "shard of glass" in the city's skyline.

The Shard, the tallest building in Western Europe at 1,016 feet, was inaugurated in London in 2012. It got its formal name when the builders adopted the term used by critics, who called it a "shard of glass" in the city's skyline.

Ben Fitzpatrick/AP

I arrived in London a few days ago for my new NPR assignment. As an unofficial part of my orientation, I decided to take a guided walking tour of the old city.

Yes, the history was fascinating. Yes, the city is beautiful. Well, most of it. Parts are not exactly my taste.

But what really struck me about the tour was the sheer number of cheeky, irreverent names that Londoners give their 21st-century skyscrapers. Some of the names have clear origins. Others seem to rise up out of the collective consciousness.

They include The Shard, the work of architect Renzo Piano, completed in 2012. At 87 stories, the Shard (shown at the top of the page) is the tallest skyscraper in the European Union. People who didn't want the building constructed protested that it would be a "shard of glass" tearing into the London skyline. The team behind the project embraced their adversaries, and The Shard is now the building's official name.

Here are a few more:

"The Gherkin," which is formally known as 30 St. Mary Axe, was completed in 2003. i i

"The Gherkin," which is formally known as 30 St. Mary Axe, was completed in 2003. Oli Scarff/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Oli Scarff/Getty Images
"The Gherkin," which is formally known as 30 St. Mary Axe, was completed in 2003.

"The Gherkin," which is formally known as 30 St. Mary Axe, was completed in 2003.

Oli Scarff/Getty Images

THE GHERKIN

Architect: Foster & Partners, completed in 2003.

This building's official name is "30 St. Mary Axe." No wonder people started calling it the Gherkin. You must admit, it does look like a small pickle. The building also has a less family-friendly nickname. Consult your favorite search engine if you're curious.

The Leadenhall building, more commonly known as "The Cheese Grater," is shown here under construction on June 19, 2013. i i

The Leadenhall building, more commonly known as "The Cheese Grater," is shown here under construction on June 19, 2013. Steve Keiretsu hide caption

itoggle caption Steve Keiretsu
The Leadenhall building, more commonly known as "The Cheese Grater," is shown here under construction on June 19, 2013.

The Leadenhall building, more commonly known as "The Cheese Grater," is shown here under construction on June 19, 2013.

Steve Keiretsu

THE CHEESE GRATER

Architect: Richard Rogers. Still under construction.

As an architect, Rogers is best known for putting a building's "guts" on the exterior. The Pompidou Center in Paris may be the most famous example of this technique. His Leadenhall building, as it is officially known, narrows at the top to allow unobstructed views of St. Paul's from Fleet Street. But the triangular shape reminded Londoners of, well, a cheese grater.

A man reacts to a shaft of intense sunlight reflected from the glass windows of the new "Walkie Talkie," or "Walkie Scorchie," tower in central London on Aug. 30, 2013. i i

A man reacts to a shaft of intense sunlight reflected from the glass windows of the new "Walkie Talkie," or "Walkie Scorchie," tower in central London on Aug. 30, 2013. Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images
A man reacts to a shaft of intense sunlight reflected from the glass windows of the new "Walkie Talkie," or "Walkie Scorchie," tower in central London on Aug. 30, 2013.

A man reacts to a shaft of intense sunlight reflected from the glass windows of the new "Walkie Talkie," or "Walkie Scorchie," tower in central London on Aug. 30, 2013.

Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

THE WALKIE SCORCHIE

Architect: Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners. Still under construction.

This building was initially dubbed "The Walkie Talkie," for its distinctive bulbous shape. Then the skyscraper's curves started focusing sunlight so intensely that cars on the street melted. Someone literally fried an egg on the pavement. Hence the new name.

Retail stores make up much of the "One New Change" development near St. Paul's Cathedral. It's called the Stealth Bomber for its low-key design. i i

Retail stores make up much of the "One New Change" development near St. Paul's Cathedral. It's called the Stealth Bomber for its low-key design. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Retail stores make up much of the "One New Change" development near St. Paul's Cathedral. It's called the Stealth Bomber for its low-key design.

Retail stores make up much of the "One New Change" development near St. Paul's Cathedral. It's called the Stealth Bomber for its low-key design.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

THE STEALTH BOMBER

Architect: Jean Nouvel, completed in 2010.

The Stealth Bomber is mostly a shopping center. It sits right next to St. Paul's, so the roof provides spectacular views. The designers had to deal with strict sight line rules around the cathedral (see: The Cheese Grater), so they tried to achieve an "under the radar" design, like a stealth bomber. The official name of the complex is One New Change, which may sound lofty but is actually just the building's address.

The Willis Building, or "Prawn," in London is shown here in 2007. i i

The Willis Building, or "Prawn," in London is shown here in 2007. Michael Jones/Flickr hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Jones/Flickr
The Willis Building, or "Prawn," in London is shown here in 2007.

The Willis Building, or "Prawn," in London is shown here in 2007.

Michael Jones/Flickr

THE PRAWN

Architect: Foster & Partners, completed in 2008.

The Willis Building is named after its biggest occupant, the insurance broker Willis. The design features three curved and terraced towers. The structure was reportedly inspired by the interlocking segments of a prawn's shell. Clearly in the U.S., this building would be called The Shrimp.

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