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Parkinson's law and architectural hubris

Beware of 'iconic' buildings with funny names; they often presage economic collapse.

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My college art history courses never went deep enough into architecture to make me fully fluent in the vocabulary of volutes and pilasters and such, although I couldn't always resist showing off what I knew. I once described my office to a visitor as being in a "Greek Revival" building. It was the right term, but probably didn't help my visitor find me.

Lately I've run across architectural vocabulary of a different sort: the goofy but often painfully apt nicknames bestowed on so-called iconic buildings.

A recent report by Mark Gilbert in Bloomberg Businessweek took note of several high-profile – quite literally high-profile – office towers under construction in London. There's the Leadenhall Building, aka the "Cheese Grater." Construction is on hold but set to resume next year. Near St. Paul's Cathedral, something known as the "Walkie-Talkie" building is under construction.

And rising above them all is Renzo Piano's "Shard of Glass," beside London Bridge. Set for completion in 2012, the Shard, at 1,017 feet, will be the tallest building in Europe.

But all too often, Mr. Gilbert writes, what goes up – and up and up – architecturally is followed by what tanks financially. The Greek term is hubris, excessive pride. A few years after Swiss Reinsurance moved into its 40-story "Gherkin," in 2004, the British economy went into recession. The completion of two previous "tallest" buildings – Canary Wharf Tower in 1990 and NatWest Tower, London's tallest building in 1980 – also coincided with recessions.

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