Born Again City

By Lynn, Matthew | Management Today, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Born Again City


Lynn, Matthew, Management Today


Bound to the failings and fortunes of London more than any other venture, Canary Wharf's creators have finally won through. Matthew Lynn reports on how the canary fell -- and the phoenix rose

George lacobescu presses the button on the side of a table. A light sweeps through an immaculately constructed model of London that dominates the entrance to Canary Wharf's headquarters. One button, a new Tube line, sparkles to life. Two buttons, a Tube and a railway. Three, a Tube, a railway, and a new road system. 'More than three million people now live within a 60-minute journey of Canary Wharf,' he says. His voice starts to swell with pride, then a cloud seems to pass across his eyes as his memory dips into some darker moments. 'I can remember first coming here one dark night in 1987, and I was in this taxi going through these tiny side-streets, and I was thinking to myself: We're going to build it here.'

lacobescu is one of the few survivors of Canary Wharf's original team. The Hungarian-born structural engineer was brought over from Canada in 1987 by the Reichmann brothers, whose Olympia & York (O&Y) was a family business of mythic wealth and success. In Toronto, he had been O&Y's construction director. Twelve years later he is chief executive of the company that succeeded it and many say he will find it difficult to let this project go once it is completed.

Visitors to Canary Wharf always start with the tour. A fabulously intricate model of London sits in the foyer, every building, bridge and road from Heathrow in the west to Stratford in the east is reproduced in wood. From the centre of the model, the towers of the Wharf rise imperiously, gazing down on their surroundings like lords from a Spanish citadel. In another room are huge, detailed replicas of each estate, column, mall and office in the Canary Wharf complex.

lacobescu delivers his lecture with the polish and authority of a schoolteacher who is conducting his favourite lesson. The story has been embellished and refined a thousand times but it is still impressed on each new pupil with vigour and enthusiasm.

It is an experience that teaches three lessons about Canary Wharf: this is a company addicted to detail, to planning. It is also a company that likes to impress, dazzle. But most of all, it wants to place itself within the broad sweep of things, to dominate the big picture. Other developers might have models of their own buildings, but Canary Wharf has a model of the whole of London. The message is clear: it is re-shaping the whole city, bending its history and geography to its own will. It is interested in maps in the same way an army general is: it wants to re-draw them.

Outside, the place teems with exuberant life. One hundred thousand people now work in Canary Wharf, pouring in from the Tube and railway stations, strutting into their offices, rushing through the shops, jabbering on their phones, dawdling in the sandwich bars. Because of the type of place it is, there is a certain type of person who works here: mostly young, mostly very ambitious, mostly fairly affluent. The atmosphere is a strange one, like a parallel universe where everyone works for an investment bank or for a newspaper.

'Five years ago, there was no-one here -- the pubs were empty,' says Dan Bourke, deputy editor of The Wharf newspaper. 'Now on a Thursday night they're heaving.' His editor, Toby Granville, agrees, but adds that there is a weird futuristic atmosphere: 'It's like the film, The Matrix.'

Canary Wharf may be based in England, but it doesn't feel very British. It's got a bit of America and a bit of Europe, and its overall appearance is a sort of Esperanto-land. Its parks and walkways are a Babel of different languages and cultures.

Iacobescu himself sees Canary Wharf as a high-quality international property: 'Its look is actually quite conservative these days, but I think of it as a modern, very high-quality space for international companies. …

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