Hanging at Canary Wharf in London

Canary Wharf is many of these things, plus, according to my son, the financial center of the universe. It was easy for me to recognize that there surely is a lot of business going on, and dozens of buildings to do it in.
04/14/2014 07:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

I always look forward to flying across the pond to London to hang out with my expat son Todd. This time he promised to take me to see his office. He works in operations at Canary Wharf; the huge Financial Center complex of office high rises on the Thames River at the West India Docks in East London on the Isle of Dogs. This east end area of old docks has a long history that in-cludes its location as the departure point for the Mayflower ship that brought the English to the colonies in 1620. It was one of the busiest ports in the world and a major hub of commercial business for over 200 hundred years. By mid 20th century developers were jockeying for control of parcels for decades when construction began in 1991 on the high-rise complex that would become London's second financial center.

Last December was my opportunity to see the action and ambiance of this impossibly grand and gigantic spread of glass, concrete, and steel skyscrapers, a four story (above and below ground) maze of upscale shopping outlets, and outdoor ice skating rink. I had a chance to rub shoulders with thousands of workers and tourists who, I was told, are drawn to the complex daily.

After spending a short while being introduced to his staff and touring his office suite, Todd sent me on my way to discover the delights of the underground shops. He had work to do. I was promised a rendezvous for lunch at a nearby restaurant with a good view of the ice skating rink. Now, I have to admit I didn't expect a variation of a "take your child to work" experience. But I was amused by his focus on getting me out of the office and on my merry way to shop. I really think he was fearful that I might ask to assist him in some work.

I probably would have enjoyed my visit to Canary Wharf, including a stroll around the complex more on a warm sunny day, but as luck would have it, I arrived on a typical cold, windy, rainy London day, something like Chicago in the winter without the snow. But I was mostly indoors and I enjoyed the almost throbbing energy of bodies heading to work in the towers, and shoppers scurrying about as they navigated the long corridors or escalators in search of goods, mostly of the high-end variety. The action reminded me of my hometown, Chicago's North Michigan Avenue Magnificent Mile.

I did window shop among a few dozen of the 300 or so stores and spied the Frontispiece map shop with a treasure trove of 7,000 old maps and photographs of scenic and historical London. Buried in a bin of contemporary London photos I found a photograph of Todd's office tower and purchased it as a souvenir of my shopping excursion. I needed to buy something. In addition to retail shopping there is a plethora of service outlets from medical and spa venues to cafᅢᄅs and restaurants.

As a Chicagoan, I live in a metropolis of stunning high-rise structures, multiple glitzy downtown shopping centers with all the accoutrements of a world-class city. It is also perched near an iconic body of water (Lake Michigan) but straddles the Chicago River. Canary Wharf is many of these things, plus, according to my son, the financial center of the universe. It was easy for me to recognize that there surely is a lot of business going on, and dozens of buildings to do it in. Canary Wharf is basically the world of international banking and finance on expensive real estate writ large.

Canary Wharf is also part of a new London, startling in some respects because much or most of London is old, very old. I recall that Prince Charles has complained about the modern struc-tures and their lack of character or charm. Well, to me the new high-rises represent the forward look of London. Their statuesque bearings salute progress, a commitment to the new, and some of the recent behemoths in or near the Financial District have whimsical nicknames -- Shard, Walkie-Talkie and Cheese-Grater. I have to say several are very pleasing to the eye and made me smile. My introduction to Canary Wharf was thus amusing; in line with much of the developed (and developing) world by mimicking their reality that bigger is best and stylish architecture is cool.

The Wharf (14 million square feet), continues to grow and be acknowledged worldwide as a splendid place to work (100 thousand), do shop, or when the weather permits, hang out by the river and contemplate making money or whatever else you need to think about in very elegant surroundings. I didn't learn much about my son's business, tant pis! But I did spend a few hours on site taking in a slice of London land that I had only seen from a distance for the past ten years of visiting it. And I saw people skate in the rain. And oh, by the way, Canary Wharf is the most accessible complex I have seen in the world -- by air, train, underground, boat, car and taxi.

Pat Johnson
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