'Surges into the sky like an homage to glamour and technological progress'

The 50-storey Principal Tower in Shoreditch

The 50-storey Principal Tower in Shoreditch - Credit: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners

The Russian novel We, published in 1920 by the author Yevgeny Zamyatin, describes the imagined city of One State.

Within One State all buildings have clear glass floors and walls, citizens have numbers only and sex is rationed via government diktat, all aided by the physical transparency of buildings, that allows 24-hour mass surveillance of everyone.

The history of the magical transparency of plate glass within architecture has always exhibited a dual character, as glass windows liberate us to look out over the city, whilst at the same time, expose us to social control, simply by being seen.

The experience of living in a high-rise, transparent building would then offer a mixture of emotions for its inhabitants, from the fear of being viewed during private moments to the luxury of surveying all that surrounds you, as if a god.

The recently completed 50-storey Principal Tower designed by architects Foster + Partners in Shoreditch, is a good example therefore of high-rise living within a largely transparent structure. 

Principal Tower includes a mixture of one and two-bedroom apartments, a series of swanky pads at its summit, a private cinema, spa, pool and gym. This offers any homeworkers the option of never having to leave the building, barring furtive trips to local restaurants or health food bazaars.

The plan of Principal Tower has been designed in the shape of a squashed cross with eight curved corners, each housing a fully glazed balcony. This creates the sense when viewed from both the inside and outside of the building, that it has barely any structure to hold it up.

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This is further enhanced by the repeated horizontal emphasis of the façade, which designed as a series of stacked lines, gives the impression that the building is held up by glass alone. 

The overall effect of the horizontal aluminium cladding and clear glass panels during the night, converts Principal Tower into an art-deco streamlined neon column, that surges up into the sky like a vast homage to our faith in technological progress, luxury, glamour and exuberance.

The 50-storey Principal Tower in Shoreditch

The 50-storey Principal Tower in Shoreditch - Credit: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners

The higher you go up within any tower though, the further away you are from the messy contradictions of everyday life on the ground. 

We might imagine then, within the two-storey fully glazed temple like penthouse apartments that sit atop Principal Tower, that all is serene, as the gilded inhabitants luxuriate in a quasi-cult-like solitude of stillness and absolute silence. Whilst from the outside what we see, is an impressive golden bronze tribute to the heady desire to build ever higher.

The 50-storey Principal Tower in Shoreditch

The 50-storey Principal Tower in Shoreditch - Credit: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners

Principal Tower is both a vast homage to cutting edge building technology, as it is also built over two railway lines, whilst also being I am afraid, an indictment to all that is wrong with some of what we build today. As we could imagine an alternate future too, were instead of such towers being built for the largesse of international speculators and the 1 per cent, they were made instead to house waitresses, shop workers and care assistants, yes, all those who work hard to make our country great.

Gordon Shrigley is a Hackney-based architect.

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