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There are so many architectural gems to check out in London and the city is known for its diverse range of buildings located so close to one and other its sometimes hard to take a picture of the one you really want. This is only a short list of the most famous, but you’re likely to find a bit of architectural history around every corner if you look hard enough.
You can’t talk about architecture in this city without mentioning what may be the official symbol of London. Designed by AW Pugin, St. Stephen's Tower or Parliament Clock Tower is known to people around the world. Don’t recognize the name? That’s because everyone commonly refers to it as Big Ben , even though technically Big Ben is the name of the bell within the clock tower. This iconic structure has survived even the bombings of World War II. Check out the view from across the river at sunset, when the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben light up to provide a spectacular photo opportunity.
One of the most recent additions to the London horizon comes in the form of a truly odd shape. Over 443 ft. tall and shaped like a giant Ferris wheel (but don’t say that to David Marks and Julia Barfield, the architects behind the design) the London Eye offers the best views of the city from a bird’s eye perspective. The original goal was to have it up and running for the New Year’s celebration of the Millennium, but like many such projects, there was a slight delay and it didn’t open until March of 2000. Sometimes the lines can be a little long to get in a viewing pod, but it’s well worth a look.
Of course, you can’t visit London without seeing the Queen’s haunting grounds, otherwise known as Buckingham Palace. This is probably one of the most famous “homes” in the world, but with over 600 rooms, this is no ordinary house.You can actually get a glimpse of some of the State Rooms during the summer months and see some of the Queen’s own personal art collection. And if the Royal Standard is flying, that means the Queen is at home, perhaps with her famous grandsons.
Christopher Wren built another distinctive landmark in the London skyline in 1673, after a fire burned the previous structure to the ground. St Paul’s Cathedral is home to more than 200 tombs, including that of Wren himself, as well as the Duke of Wellington and Admiral Nelson. But St. Paul’s may be most famous for hosting one of the most lavish wedding ceremonies in history, that of Prince Charles and Lady Diana in 1981. St Paul's is currently undergoing a major restoration job in preparation for its 300th birthday in 2010.
The Crown Jewels themselves lie within a jewel of a structure at the Tower of London, and you can tour the building to check out all the goodies and maybe even catch a glimpse of Anne Boleyn’s ghost, which is said to roam the corridors of the White Tower. The famous Beefeaters, also known as the Yeoman Warders, guard this structure along with a band of Ravens. Here’s a bit of trivia for your next party – legend is that if the Ravens ever leave the Tower, a huge tragedy will occur in England; therefore these birds are protected by Royal Decree. Next to the Tower of London lies the impressive Tower Bridge, probably one of the most photographed sights in London. Don’t confuse this with London Bridge, which is located further up the Thames and considerably less attractive.
For those with a morbid sense of curiosity about architecture, a stop at the most famous burial ground in London is a must. There are over 3,000 people estimated to be buried in this one area, which includes the famed Poet’s Corner. This is also where Princess Diana’s funeral took place. Westminster Abbey has also been the location where every monarch (with the exception of Edward V and Edward VIII) has been crowned since 1066.
As to be expected, this is just the quick version of the impressive and significant architecture within London’s boundaries. It would seem that every building in London has some story behind, whether it be from a cultural, political or historical standpoint.Modern architecture is not to be neglected either, with several interesting examples dotted around the capital. The most notable recent addition to the London skyline is Norman Foster's 'Gherkin' (30 St Mary Axe/ The Swiss RE HQ), which, although closed to the public, can be viewed particularly well from several bridges over the Thames, or from the plaza at the bottom of the tower.
There are several other buildings of note in the area (The City of London - financial district, towards the East - near tube stations include Bank, Liverpool Street, Moorgate and St. Pauls) such as Lord Rogers' infamous 'inside out' Lloyds Building, and the towering - if not somewhat dull - former Natwest Tower, now known as Tower 42. Although none of these buildings possess a public observation area, the Tower 42 features a bar on the 42nd floor and a restaurant on the 24th, although pre-booking is vital.
Moving away from the City, the Isle of Dogs (or, as the whole area is commonly refered to Canary Wharf) may be of interest to some. Take the tube to Canary Wharf station - if not just for the thrill of riding the recent (2000) Jubilee line extension, with the ultra-modern stations with glass screens on the platform edges - and emerge at Canary Wharf from Norman Foster's amazing 'bubble dome' station.
Whilst the architectural merit of the Canary Wharf complex is debatable, the modern, sleek, shiny towering blocks, inhabited by large companies, mostly in finance, law and advertising/media, are well worth a look, with the centrepiece being Cesar Pelli's One Canada Square tower, with its distinctive pyramid on top (again, for security reasons, totally closed to the public, other than the immaculate marble lobby and vast shopping mall which sits under the tower). It is interesting to see the almost surreal area surrounding Canary Wharf station, which is maintained to an unbelievably high degree and owned by a private company, whilst recently the area has become thriving as more of the affluent workers have elected to live closer, in developments of modern, expensive apartments, and there now exist several large shopping centres, and many lively bars, cafes and restaurants, as well as pleasant landscaped green areas, some worthy of architectural note themselves.
The Millennium Dome, once widely considered to be a white elephant, now serves as an impressive concert venue with modern restaurants and general entertainment. It remains well worth a view, being a spectacular structure, and can in fact be viewed from the Canary Wharf area, as it is directly across the river. When amongst the towering skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, try to make your way to the river bank, or just catch a glimpse of it - with its distinctive yellow supports - through the buildings.
To transfer back to the City, if you are interested in Brutalist and concrete archiecture, the vast, ambitious Barbican Centre (tube station: Barbican) is a must. This 60s designed, 80s constructed mainly residental development - covering a vast area, and including 3 40-floor+ towers, is Brutalism at its best, with towering lines, sharp, unsymphatetic edges and curious 60-70s visions of elevated walkways, square lakes with curious modern water features and buildings elevated on stilts. Although the buildings look grim to some, the flats are expensive and quite desirable, given their excellent location and views over the city as a whole. The Barbican Centre is also home to the large Barbican Performing Arts centre, with theatres and concert halls, as well as library and exhibition space, all of which has been done out in the same 60s style, complete with concrete interiors and exteriors, loud carpets and interesting lighting.
If you are in London in September, don’t miss the annual autumn event, London Open House . Not only for architecture and design buffs, it’s also for those who are just interested in getting to places you don’t normally visit when in London or just want a fun outing with friends and family this event is also for you . London Open House literally opens up some of 600 of the city’s distinctive places and spaces, which are not normally open to the public.
For example, the Roof Gardens surrounding the Babylon Restaurant are part of a private members club (owned by Sir Richard Branson), are open during London Open House for the public to visit its one and a half acres of historic and spectacular rooftop gardens, which contain over 500 species of plants and shrubs. There are even a few streams and a pond, with flamingos and ducks! (You can also try calling in advance of your visit to see if they are open.)
Or visit the contemporary sphere of Greater London Authority’s City Hall built by Sir Norman Foster, which opens its top floor meeting space called "London's Living Room" and outdoor viewing deck, and its 1,640 ft helical walkway (which ascends the full height of the building) to the public. Although it amorphous shape houses is built with state of the art green design, its sphere shaped has earned it many nicknames, including Mayor Ken Livingstone referred to it as a "glass testicle."
If you’re keen and organized, you can visit places across London’s six Tube zones. From Freemasons' Hall (the headquarters of the United Grand Lodge of England) to hidden baths, architects’ private homes, historic private buildings built by historical architectural greats such as Sir John Soane, to the headquarters of Lloyds of London. There is much to see in one weekend!
An invaluable resource for anyone with a serious interest in architecture are "Pevsners", a series of books that detail all notable buildings in England. Originally by Nikolaus Pevsner, an art historian, they are now updated and added to by a team of writers. There are no fewer than six covering London, including one dedicated to the City Churches. Sadly, not cheap to buy, but see www.pevsner.co.uk.