How was Canary Wharf Developed?

The Construction of Canary Wharf

The construction of Canary Wharf

In 1980, the Docklands area known as Canary Wharf was a ghost town and the construction of Canary Wharf was a pipe dream.. The last dock had closed, and the area had been in steady decline for forty years. The steady shipments of fruit and vegetables from the Canary Islands (giving the area its name) tended to come in by air, or by larger cargo ships which were just too big for the London ports to deal with, and the once-busy shipping port was now largely derelict. It looked like it was set to remain an eyesore until 1981, when Michael Heseltine, then Secretary of State for the Environment created the Docklands Development Corporation in an attempt to breathe new life into the area.

A few single projects occupied the site in the early to mid 1980s, including Limehouse television studios in the old Fruit Lines Limited warehouse, but it was a lunch in 1984 on the Res Nova, a boat moored near the disused shed 31 that is arguably the starting point for the business and financial centre that is Canary Wharf today. The Roux Brothers were keen to find several thousand square feet of reasonably-priced space to prepare pre-cooked food, and it was their then chairman, Michael von Clemm – also chairman of Credit First Suisse Boston – who remarked to LDDC Chief Executive Reg Ward, that CFSB could move their back office space to shed 31. However, the recent deregulation of financial services in London meant that merchant banks were looking for square footage, which could also serve as their trading floor. G Ware Travelstead proposed – not without opposition – that CSFB took their front office operation to the Isle of Dogs as well. Travelstead didn't manage to get financial backing for the scheme, but a friend of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Canadian Tycoon Paul Reichmann took it on, encouraged by generous tax breaks, and the backing of other financial institutions keen to move in.

The proposal, on paper, was ambitious; a financial services district to rival the City on the old West India Docks site, with a central main tower. The Master Building Agreement was finally signed in July 1987, with the real estate coming in at a staggering £1 million per acre. That central tower – 806ft and fifty storeys high – was One Canada Square. The bill of quantities for the build must have been staggering.

Originally, One Canada Square – frequently referred to as Canary Wharf in its own right – was to have been even taller. The master architect, Argentinian-American Cesar Pelli, already had an impressive track-record for designing some of the world's tallest buildings, not least the World Financial Center in Manhattan. His original plan to take One Canada Square to 864ft and 55 storeys was squashed by nearby London City Airport, who considered that the extra height would cause a dangerous obstruction of the airport approach. Even so, the pyramid structure on top of the building contains an aircraft warning beacon.

Construction itself was carried out by Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons, Canadian firm Ellis Don and a raft of professional consultants include leading Freelance Quantity Surveyors The build was less than straightforward due to strike action in 1989, after which Lehrer McGovern took on the project, contracting out to Balfour Beatty due to the sheer complexity of the build. That bill of quantities would have reflected over 27,000 metric tonnes of British steel, and half a million bolts. The internal packages including drylining, carpentry and painting and decorating was also extensive. In November 1990, the pyramid roof was finally put in place, and the building was – almost – complete, and hailed as "the start of a new beginning for Canary Wharf, for London, and for the United Kingdom". It remained the UK's tallest building for 20 years, until The Shard eclipsed it in 2010.

As the financial district moved in – HSBC, Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley, Barclays, and the gamekeeper in the form of the Financial Services Authority – something needed to improve with regard to transport. The Docklands Light Railway (or DLR) had been in place since 1987, largely managing to keep pace with the speed of construction at Canary Wharf; the 1991 extension to Bank further reinforced the shift of the 'City' to the Docklands. However, it wasn't enough. In the 1970s, plans were in place to take the Jubilee line (or Fleet line, as it was originally called) through to Lewisham, but the extension to the east from Charing Cross was abandoned just before Aldwych (interestingly enough, this is more or less the route through Docklands that Crossrail will take). Those shelved plans were dusted off in the 1980s, and a £400 million contribution by Olympia and York to the £2.1 billion cost sealed the deal for the Jubilee Line extension.

Canary Wharf is still under development and refurbishment; recent residential property additions, further retail space, and additional office buildings continue to revitalise and regenerate the Docklands area – a radical change in just thirty years.

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