Damien Mccrystal

City and Finance Special

Beware the Docklands office complex, says Damien McCrystal

Text settings

If asked to name the visionary behind the development of Canary Wharf, most people who know anything about it would come up with the late Michael von Clemm of the investment bank Credit Suisse First Boston, who spotted the potential for office developments while scouting for small industrial space on behalf of the Roux Brothers restaurant group in 1984.

But go back further, to 1980 and these words, ‘I believe that this is the decade in which London will become Europe’s capital, having cleared away the outdated. We’ve got mile after mile and acre after acre of land for our future prosperity. No other city in the world has got right in its centre such an opportunity for profitable progress. So it is important that the right people mastermind the new London — proven people with nerve, knowledge and expertise.’

The remarkably prophetic speaker was Harold Shand, the East End racketeer in the seminal British gangster film The Long Good Friday. Shand (played by Bob Hoskins) was addressing a group of corrupt politicians and policemen, American mafia bosses and henchmen from the deck of his yacht, as he cruised past the Isle of Dogs. He almost certainly provided the public at large with their first inkling that there might be grand plans for Docklands. But in bribing the IRA to let his building workers get on with the job, Shand falls foul of the terrorists, and this leads, after a suitably bloody war, to his inevitable doom. Thus he became the first victim of the Curse of Canary Wharf.

Von Clemm should probably have regarded this as a warning, but perhaps he didn’t see the film. Instead, inspired by waterside developments in Boston, he contacted Ware Travelstead, an American developer who in turn brought in Olympia & York, the Canadian property group controlled by the Reichmann brothers. The plan was daring, not to say hubristic. Big Bang, the deregulation of the City, was on its way and a terrible shortage of space was anticipated. The answer, said Olympia & York, was to build the three biggest towers in Europe as a new financial centre, within easy reach of the City but with much better facilities. Credit Suisse First Boston and Morgan Stanley were recruited as bankers, approvals were granted and the great scheme began, according to plans drawn up by American architects with the possibly ominous name of Skidmore Owings.

Looking back to early reports, I come across a 1987 headline in the Financial Times which reads: ‘Old London image for Canary Wharf scheme.’ Excuse me? Nothing could be further from an Old London image than the shiny glass monolith with the winking eye at the top (to stop planes from nearby City Airport crashing into it). Nothing, that is, except all the glass and steel structures that surround it. Deborah Sussman, the Hollywood designer who came up with this idea, seems to have profoundly misinterpreted O&Y’s concept. The architectural writer Stephanie Williams in her book Docklands says, ‘London’s Docklands contains one of the worst collections of late 20th-century buildings to be seen anywhere in the world. It is a marvel, if it were not so embarrassing, that so many very bad buildings from the same period can be found in such a comparatively small area of the city.’

The Curse’s next and most tangible victim was the tower itself. Unfortunately, at about the time the building work started, we suffered the great stock-market crash of October 1987. In a panic, finance houses started shedding staff and reversing bold expansion plans. But it was too late to stop the Canary Wharf project: it went ahead into ever more uncertain times. In an attempt to fill it up with tenants, the Reichmanns employed a trick they’d used to great effect in Canada. They dramatically undercut the competition and also offered, in many cases, to take on their would-be tenants’ existing property obligations. This was high-stakes poker and Olympia & York lost the game, falling into administration, but not before it had attracted a couple of investment banks, several advertising agencies and (after a brief diversion elsewhere in Docklands) the Telegraph newspapers — whose owner Conrad Black, with his current difficulties, must count as another victim.

The journalists of the Mirror and the troubled Independent titles joined their Telegraph brothers in the tower, and found themselves wondering what would happen to them next in the middle of what the financier Alastair Ross Goobey, in his book Bricks and Mortals, described as ‘a commercial desert’ — and a cultural one too, he might have added. But the Reichmanns had not given up. They bought Canary Wharf back from the administrators — for a song, as Fleet Street’s punsters liked to write at the time — and continued with the business of trying to fill it up. BZW, the investment banking business owned by Barclays, agreed to move its huge staff there. A thousand invitations to two huge office-warming parties were sent out. Just before these grand occasions, Martin Taylor, the chief executive of Barclays, announced plans to break up BZW and sell off most of it. The parties were cancelled and the remaining staff left to console themselves in their Docklands fortress, surrounded by river fog.

Then, of course, there were the people who actually lived in Docklands before the developers came. Having missed out on every great boom, the East Enders — rather like Harold Shand — were hoping that this new city within a city would offer them a share in its prosperity. They lobbied, they wrote to the papers, they held meetings with the developers. But it is fair to say that Canary Wharf has not benefited them one jot. It was built to service the global, not the local, economy.

And investors have fallen victim yet again. After the Reichmanns bought Canary Wharf back they restored it to some semblance of health and enjoyed a highly successful flotation five years ago, which valued it at £2.2 billion. But the property market has been looking dodgy, and general doubt over the project’s financial stewardship has made it a takeover target. Morgan Stanley, one of the original backers, is keen to pick it up on the cheap. And the Reichmanns are part of a rival consortium with the same objective. One thing seems sure, though: whoever buys it will pay less than the investors who backed the flotation.

Perhaps the victims one should feel most sorry for, in the end, are the people who have to work there, for the place has blighted their lives. Most people hate it. Quite apart from the difficulty of getting there from anywhere apart from Shadwell, it is a place without any apparent vestige of humanity. Despite all the glass on display, workers inside the great glazed edifices never seem to be able to find a window. Perhaps unconsciously, the vast trading floors and open-plan offices were designed in the mould of those huge Las Vegas casinos, where cynical corporate psychologists discovered that the occupants can be more completely dominated if they are not reminded of the outside world. Deliberately or not, that is the effect on people at Canary Wharf. When they travel down 30 floors to street level, the shops and restaurants are all inside the complex, keeping them there, encouraging them to trade their souls for a little convenience. And they may as well stay inside, for outdoors is nothing but empty streets and emptier pavements. One expects to see tumbleweed blowing along. When I worked there in 1999, the only pub outside the Canary Wharf complex which attracted any substantial business was the one used by the British National Party for its get-togethers.

Entombed in this monstrous folly, in contact only with people labouring under the same commercial imperatives, the financiers of British industry and the analysts of British corporate worth, the reporters of our affairs and the influencers of our spending habits set the scene for our future. Is it any wonder they get it wrong so often?

Damien McCrystal is City Diarist of the London Evening Standard.