News your connection to The Boston Globe

Insightful film about skyscraper meets lofty goal

Mirjam von Arx's documentary traces the construction of London's 590-foot Swiss Re office tower, nicknamed the Gherkin. Mirjam von Arx's documentary traces the construction of London's 590-foot Swiss Re office tower, nicknamed the Gherkin.

How does a skyscraper go from being reviled in theory to beloved in actuality? "Building the Gherkin," a 90-minute documentary about London's iconic new Swiss Re office tower, traces that process -- and, in fact, process is the film's hidden subject. Large buildings arise from the often opposing forces of client, architect, builder, government, and public, and the remarkable part is that they get built at all. (Note that the replacement for New York's World Trade Center hasn't gone up yet.)

Corollary: One of those forces needs to be dominant, and the way director Mirjam von Arx presents it in "Building the Gherkin," that's the client, global insurance giant Swiss Re. In particular, the company's director of new buildings , Sara Fox , is a cheerful pitbull with a Xena action figure on her desk . It's her job to see that the Gherkin goes up on schedule, beginning in 2001 and ending three years later .

Crossing swords with her in his pained, diplomatic way is Norman Foster , the visionary architect and British Lord who came up with the tower's design. Von Arx has great fun capturing the media's response to what a newscaster dubbed "the greatest gherkin in Christendom." "Its phallus shape would loom offensively across some of the loveliest buildings in the city of London," sniffs one critic. Deadpans Foster, "I didn't particularly want to build a box."

The Gherkin went up on the former site of the Baltic Exchange building, destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1992 , and terrorists struck the World Trade Center one day before the first beam was sunk. The perils of erecting a 590-foot target in downtown London are evident and much discussed, but so is the pressing concern to send a message that the city is open for modern-day business.

Ironically, it was 9/11 that helped bring the press and the public around. Erecting a brave new building came to be seen as an act of defiance, and the architecture's imaginative elegance a rebuke to terrorist intolerance. Initially an insult, "the Gherkin" came to be a fond nickname accepted even by the stodgy insurance folks at Swiss Re. Von Arx's film makes a persuasive case that while companies put buildings up, it's the public that owns them.

Ty Burr can be reached at For more on movies, go to