Life & Culture

My Gherkin's bigger than yours


While London may never hit the heady heights of New York, the city's skyline has transformed itself in the past few decades into a gleaming triumph of spires. Ever taller, ever more intricate designs, ever more illustrious owners.

Only last week, it was announced that Jewish-Brazilian billionaire Joseph Safra had bought London's iconic Gherkin skyscraper in London for a reported £726 million.

Of course, Safra is no fool with his money - he is, after all, the 46th richest person in the world. However, he is just the latest of many Jews to give in to the almost overwhelming temptation to either build or invest in tall buildings in the capital, though by no means all of their experiences have been successful. While a few have made big money, others have succumbed to vertigo in the quest to tower over their competitors.

The Gherkin, the Shard, the Heron Tower and Centre Point Tower are but a few of the buildings with a strong Jewish connection. The first Jewish developer to have big ideas was property developer Harry Hyams who started work on Centre Point Tower in 1963. The 34-storey brutalist construction soared 117 metres into the sky when it was finished three years later. Hyams wanted to lease it to a single company. But there were no takers so it stood empty for many years, a folly on the London skyline.

Finally, in the 1970s, Hyams was finally convinced to let the space a storey at a time. He was a contradiction - a man who made a massive statement in architectural terms, but who drove around London in a mini rather than a limousine and who has always been seen as reclusive in his private life.

Developers have courted disaster by investing in tall buildings on a grand scale. Canadian businessman Paul Reichmann poured money into the development of the iconic Canary Wharf project in London's Docklands and lost most of his family fortune in the process when a large proportion of what was then the world's largest property development remained empty.

Others have had similar scrapes with skyscrapers. Gerald Ronson's Heron group built the 755-ft high Heron Tower, the largest building in the Square Mile. At one stage, according to newspaper reports, the future of the extraordinary building was at risk – but Ronson, one of Britain's most successful entrepreneurs, defied the critics and his pet-project is now rightly viewed as a huge success.

Then there is Irvine Sellar, who owns 20 per cent of the management company that owns the Shard, which stretches more than 1,000 feet into the sky, on the south side of London Bridge. For him and his Qatari partners, the gamble seems to have paid off, with blue-chip companies queuing up to rent space there.

So why are Jewish men so drawn to tall buildings when the risk to their investment seems so great? Social psychologist Les Prince is not inclined to look very much past the obvious. He says: "I see no reason why Jewish men should be immune from the folly of men in general. By owning a tall building it occurs to me that these men are saying I would like to have a statue of myself but this is the next best thing. It is as if they are making a statement: 'You have to notice me every time you look at the skyline'."

He adds: "Of course, Freud also springs to mind. These buildings are an externalised representation of a giant phallus. It is the most obvious way to determine who is really the alpha male. Long flat buildings just don't do it in the same way."

Prince also thinks that the fact many of these businessmen are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants might be important in one specific respect. "The acquisition of money is also a quest for respectability. It doesn't always buy you that, but this is often the motivation."

Joseph Safra hardly needs to buy a building to achieve respectability - his Brazilian banking empire has already afforded him that. Perhaps, then, he craves the attention that such a high-profile purchase would give him, a permanent monument to his family's extraordinary achievements.

Unlikely, too - the Safras notoriously shy away from an undue publicity. Of course, with London's property prices ceaselessly soaring, the Gherkin represents a wise investment.

But perhaps there's another reason for succumbing to "big building syndrome". Maybe it comes down to his cultural background. After all, is there any Jewish businessman who wouldn't want to own the world's biggest gherkin?

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive