London’s Alternative Icons

By: andrewbowman

March 14, 2011

The Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and St. Paul’s Cathedral: these are some of the images we immediately associate with London. Yet while the city has a long, important and exciting history, that very history continues. London is very much alive and its constantly updated architectural landscape is a source of wonder, controversy and bemusement.

As any visit to the capital is likely to take in all the above-mentioned landmarks, we’ve compiled a mini-guide to the modern, the weird and the wonderful. The alternative icons of London, if you like.


30 St. Mary Axe – “The Gherkin”

One of the most recent – and controversial – additions to the capital’s skyline, Norman Foster’s 180 metre high office building has already become an iconic symbol. Commonly referred to as the Gherkin due to its unusual shape it’s also been nicknamed the Pepper Pot, the Towering Innuendo, the Glass Dildo and the Crystal Phallus by some Londoners.


The "Gherkin" by col.hou on Flickr

The “Gherkin” by col.hou on Flickr

The Barbican Complex

A vision of the future from the past, the Barbican is one of Britain’s most bizarre architectural achievements. This blocky Brutalist complex seems like a zone from a fictional city and is completely at odds with its surroundings. Just the idea of housing Europe’s largest performing arts centre in amongst the terrace blocks and towers of a residential estate gives it an otherworldly edge. With much of it above street level, its solid concrete bulk, internal bridges and maze of walkways conjure up the feeling of a cold war spy movie scene.

Barbican Centre by Wendy Leber at Dreamstime

Barbican Centre © Wendy Leber |

Battersea Power Station

If there’s one structure Londoners are almost universally fond of, it’s this defunct electricity generating facility on the Thames. The sturdy walls and colossal chimneys of Europe’s largest brick building were featured on the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals and have continued to inspire all manner of creative types. In recent years it has been used as a location for hit movies including Children Of Men and The Dark Knight. Current plans have it set to house Britain’s first carbon-neutral office space, with arts and events centres, shops and a public square. Genuinely awesome.


Battersea Power Station by Jon's pics on Flickr

Battersea Power Station by Jon’s pics on Flickr

St. Pancras Station

The regenerated St Pancras looks like the kind of place that could transport you forward or backward in time. The original Victorian structure of the arch-roofed train shed has always managed to appear simultaneously classic and contemporary. Now extended to accommodate the high-speed Eurostar link, the glass-panelled structure is a marvel to behold – as the awestruck pose on the station’s sculpture of poet John Betjeman, who saved the station in the 1960s, testifies. That’s not to mention the magnificent, gleaming new façade and the shiny bars and shops that sit between the original brickwork. And there’s nowhere cooler or more romantic to meet than under the restored station clock.

Sir John Betjeman admires the roof of St Pancras by alancleaver_2000 on Flickr

Sir John Betjeman admires the roof of St Pancras by alancleaver_2000 on Flickr

Tate Modern

Marginally less iconic than its sister down the river in Battersea, Bankside Power Station is still one of the South Bank’s most striking features. Out of commission since 1981 and in danger of being demolished in the early-nineties, the building was saved in 1994 and has gone on to become one of the world’s finest modern art spaces.


Tate Modern and the Millenium Bridge by Nick J Webb on Flickr

Tate Modern and the Millenium Bridge by Nick J Webb on Flickr


The conversion by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron added a glass roof extension that beautifully accentuates its austere brickwork and mighty central chimney. The grassy area in front provides an ideal picnic/rest stop and leads directly to the magnificent (and no longer wobbly) Millenium Bridge, which connects the South Bank to the City, offering the perfect view of St.Paul’s on the other side.


Lloyd’s Building

Given that it’s the home of an insurance institution, it’s lucky that much of what’s interesting about The Lloyd’s Building is on the outside. Sometimes referred to as the Inside-Out Building, Richard Rogers’s vision followed his earlier design for Paris’s Pompidou Centre, placing all the pipes, lifts and staircases on the building’s exterior. Once likened by the BBC’s David Dimbleby to a building on a life support system, it certainly wears its modernism on its sleeve. A work of unparalleled genius or a giant coffee machine? It can’t fail to provoke a reaction. Another interesting site, Norman Foster’s step-like Willis Building resides just across Lime St.

Lloyd's Building lift by Rich-B-S on Flickr

Lloyd’s Building lift by Rich-B-S on Flickr

Millennium Dome / The 02

The former home of the huge, expensive (and rather coolly received) Millennium Experience, the building that now calls itself The O2 has had something of a chequered past.


The O2 at night by GanMed64 on Flickr

The O2 at night by GanMed64 on Flickr


Though it now houses an entertainment centre, it’s the breathtaking size and strange construction that really warrant a close look. The dome’s vast white weatherproof plastic canopy stretches to cover a 1KM circumference, punctuated by twelve 100-metre high supports.

It may look like a deformed giant umbrella or a pie with lots of yellow forks stuck in it, but there’s a concept in there. The shape and structure is linked to Greenwich Mean Time and the building’s diameter measures 365 metres, representing the days of the year, while the support towers’ even intervals symbolise a clock face.


City Hall

Just along the river from the original picture postcard icon, Tower Bridge, lies one of London’s newest and strangest erections. Opened in 2002, City Hall is another of (in)famous Brit architect Norman Foster’s efforts. The two mayors of London who have been based at the building have dubbed it “The Onion” (Boris Johnson) and the “glass testicle” (Ken Livingstone) – and they’re right in the sense that it has a very “organic” feel, but it’s more exciting than that. In fact, the eight circular glass floors, bulging front and ridged back call to mind a shell or exoskeleton. It’s as if an enormous insect has buried its head in the concrete, leaving its bulbous behind sticking out. We think so anyway.

City Hall and Tower Bridge by Rich-B-S on Flickr

City Hall and Tower Bridge by Rich-B-S on Flickr

The Southbank Centre

The focal point of the arts on the South Bank of the Thames, the Southbank Centre’s ever-evolving story began with the construction of the Royal Festival Hall in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain. The stately but simple “egg in a box”, as architect Leslie Martin called it, is complemented by its puzzle-like Brutalist neighbours Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward Gallery.


London Southbank by Claudiodivizia on

London Southbank © Claudiodivizia |


No matter what high art events are happening inside, the complex defiantly remains an open, people’s space. The RFH’s recent expansion and the de-cluttering of its open foyers make it even more wander-friendly and the QEH’s Undercroft has long been a Mecca for skateboarders and graffiti artists.

Thanks to Flickr photographers Rich-B-S, alancleaver_2000col.hou, Jon’s pics, Nick J Webb, GanMed64, and Wendy_Leber, Claudiodivizia and Interlighttv on

Categories: Our Places