Shell Centre, in London is one of the two "central offices" of oil major Shell (the other is in The Hague). It is located on Belvedere Road in the London Borough of Lambeth. It is a prominent feature on the South Bank of the River Thames near County Hall, and now forms the backdrop to the London Eye.
Shell Centre was constructed in 1961, to a design by Sir Howard Robertson, and the tower stands at 107 metres (351 ft) with 27 storeys (26 numbered and a mezzanine level) and extends three storeys below ground. The tower was the first London office tower to exceed the height of the Victoria Tower of the Palace of Westminster. It replaced the Midland Grand Hotel as the tallest storied building in London, and the Royal Liver Building as the tallest in the United Kingdom. On completion the building also held the record for the largest office building, by floor space, in Europe.
The current Shell Centre comprises the tower building and three adjoining nine-storey wings (collectively formerly known as the "Upstream Building"). The original development also included a separate building known as the "Downstream Building", which was separated from the Upstream Building by the railway viaduct between Charing Cross and Waterloo East. The Downstream Building was disposed of by Shell in the 1990s and is now a block of residential apartments known as the White House, and has been heightened by a storey.
Site history and layout
Shell Centre occupies part of the site cleared for the 1951 Festival of Britain. The areas closer to the River Thames now include Jubilee Gardens and the South Bank Centre. Jubilee Gardens remained undeveloped prior to its laying out as an open space, largely because of a restrictive covenant in favour of Shell that restricts any building on the part of the site directly between the Shell Tower and the River Thames. The naming of the Shell Centre buildings perpetuated the split of the Festival site into distinct Upstream and Downstream areas – separated by the railway viaduct approach to Hungerford Bridge.
During construction, parts of abandoned works for the Waterloo and Whitehall Railway were discovered. This was a prototype for a proposed pneumatic railway that would have run under the River Thames linking Waterloo and Charing Cross. Digging was started in 1865 but was stopped in 1868 due to financial problems. Involved in the proposal was Thomas Webster Rammell, who was also responsible for the Crystal Palace Pneumatic Railway and the London Pneumatic Despatch Company.
Visible in the Thames at low tide just in line with the tower as water turbulence at one point a few feet into the river bed is the outflow point of the Shell Centre's air conditioning system, which sucks in river water from just outside County Hall and sends it via a pipe within a bolt iron tunnel (built exactly like a tube railway tunnel), to a point convergent with the outfall, then both the intake pipe and the outflow pipes continue under the embankment and Jubilee Gardens to the basement of the tower. From here the water is sent through filters and heat exchangers to provide cooled air in the building. The pipes had to be especially supported on adjustable jacks during excavation work for the extension of the Jubilee line in 1995 because of settlement during the driving of an access tunnel out from Jubilee Gardens to the main running lines in York Road via Chicheley Street.
Architecture and design
The choice of Portland Stone cladding, and bronze framed individual upright windows were denounced by Modern Movement critics, and the Centre's buildings have generally been regarded as dull. However, the extremely traditional cladding has meant that the buildings have weathered better than most of their contemporaries with concrete or aggregate-faced façades or curtain-wall glazing.
The original interiors were luxuriously appointed, and as well as contributions from a British design team (many of whom had worked on the Festival of Britain), they included work by Ernesto Nathan Rogers who had worked on the Torre Velasca in Milan. Facilities for staff were lavish by the standards of the time, and the basement of the building was designed with a full size swimming pool and a spacious gymnasium. The basement also originally housed a rifle range, snooker room, a small supermarket for staff and a host of other facilities. Until 1998 there was also a fully equipped theatre (designed by Cecil Beaton) which – unusually for a space dedicated to amateur productions – had full fly tower facilities. The courtyard of the Upstream Building includes two notable sculptures: "Torsion Fountain" (also known as The Shell Fountain) by Franta Belsky is a tall bronze column of shell-like forms, which once poured water into one another; and "Motorcyclist" by Siegfried Charoux – a larger than life figure of a rider astride his machine.
The public realm of the Upstream Building has been steadily degraded over the years, with the generous space between the columns of the entrance from York Road enclosed to enlarge the foyers. Textured paving in contrasting colours was installed to assist partially sighted pedestrians navigate the complex steps and ramps of the site, but also served to deter rough sleepers and skateboarders.
Functions and occupation of the buildings
Parts of Shell's business which are run from Shell Centre include refining and marketing along with a number of functional support activities such as finance and human resources. Shell Centre is also the head office of Shell’s United Kingdom business (Shell UK Ltd.) which was formerly located in Shell Mex House.
In 2004, a planning application was approved to convert the lower floors of the Upstream Building courtyard and the former staff cafeteria into a shopping centre, and to construct a contrasting new glazed office building on the Podium site to the south, which is currently a paved open space. The sculptures would be relocated.
In 2009 staff working in the building were notified of a proposal to redevelop much of the site whilst leaving the tower intact. This would require relocating staff during 2011 for up to seven years whilst construction work took place, incorporating parts of the open spaces around the current building. No planning permission has yet been sought.
In July 2011 Shell announced that a joint venture of Canary Wharf Group and Qatari Diar had bought a virtual freehold (a 999-year lease) on the Shell Centre for £300m and would redevelop the site. The tower is to be left in place, but the rest of the site would be replaced by a new scheme of offices, shops and restaurants. The new development is called Southbank Place.
Shell Centre has also been a place for unofficial "urban sports". The square in the middle of the complex was originally used by skateboarders, but anti-skating measures were put in place. However, freerunners continued to use it as a place to train. However, recently it has been blocked off during refurbishment works on the tower.
New Year's Eve
During London's New Year's Eve's celebrations the seconds to midnight are projected on to the tower. This requires accurate synchronisation with Big Ben's chimes. The format of the numbers has been changed throughout the years. From 2003-2008, the numbers ending in 0 lit up in grey and dots were added for every countdown, as well as a colour that shows at the bottom of the building that changes every time it hits a number ending in 0 (This only happened for 2005-2006 and 2006-2007). In 2009 only, the numbers ending in 0 lit up in red and a spark surrounded the numbers. In 2010-2013 the numbers ending in 0 no longer lit up grey or red and the format of the numbers projected changed.
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- The Committee Office, House of Commons (2002-01-22). "Transport, Local Government and the Regions Select Committee Report Tall Buildings (2002) HC 482-II Annex B to Memorandum from DTLR". Parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk. Retrieved 2014-01-02.
- Christopher Winn, I never knew that about London (Ted Smart 2007) pg227.
- The End of The Lensbury Theatre Group Archived 4 June 2007 at the Wayback Machine
- "Shell Centre on South Bank to have £300m redevelopment". BBC News. 2011-07-28. Retrieved 2014-01-02.
- "Shell Centre Redevelopment - Canary Wharf Group". Canary Wharf Group. Retrieved 2015-10-20.