• “A tremendous gift to the City”: Mies’s Mansion House Square, 1967-2017

    Fifty years is a long time in architecture, especially when buildings only two or three decades old are regularly stripped back to their skeletons, re-finished and even re-named before emerging to face a new future. Fifty years is a mere eye blink in the history of a city, though, especially one whose Roman core today drives economic success not just for itself but for the nation of which it is capital. These parallel perspectives come together as one stands in Mansion House Square in the City of London before Mies van der Rohe’s tower and contemplates the half-century that has passed since both urban interventions came to pass.

    Back in 1967, the calls to preserve the tight knot of Victorian buildings at the apex of Queen Victoria Street and Poultry seemed, at least initially, loud enough to prevent realisation of a scheme by one of the greatest architects of all time that would, in addition, be his only building in Britain. The condition attached to the planning grant requiring an alternate location to be found for the stand-alone bank on part of the site and the presumed difficulties of acquiring the remaining plots that comprised the whole also appeared to weigh against success.

    Fortune favours the brave, however, and a combination of unforeseen bankruptcies and acute business acumen on the part of Peter Palumbo enabled his chosen architect’s plans for an elegant Modernist office tower, a new public square and an underground shopping concourse to be completed a couple of years before declaration of the Bank Conservation Area and just months before Mies’s death.

    Those existing structures aside, criticism of the development focused on the supposed inappropriateness of a Mies tower for the Square Mile – specifically, for a location edged by a Wren church, the Georgian Mansion House (home of the Lord Mayor) and the inter-war head office of the Midland Bank, a masterpiece by Lutyens. In addition, these plus a handful of post-war slabs were all not only considerably lower than the proposed building but also finished in Portland stone. The German’s imposition of a rigorously rectilinear form for the public space as well as the building that was to stand in it was also felt to be alien to a City still following the unplanned street attern of its ancient origins. The perceived scale of the square, too, was deemed unsuitable for a densely-settled district whose pocket parks and small churchyards lend a large part of its character. And who would ever visit a daylight-denied shopping arcade buried beneath the pavement?

    The passage of time since these arguments were aired has to a large extent rendered them moot. The concourse, the square and the tower have slipped almost effortlessly into the fabric of the City of London, and this can be seen by an afternoon’s wander around all three.

    The square is a welcome breath of fresh air in the sometimes claustrophobic City, giving everyone – workers, tourists, shoppers, even pigeons – room to relax and unwind and, on a day like today, enjoy the sun (or the shade, thanks to the carefully-positioned trees). The considered placement of benches, dwarf walls, planters and flagpole – this also in bronze, and supposedly the last design decision of Mies himself for this, the last scheme finished in his lifetime – ensure visual interest. The high quality of materials used, such as Cornish granite for the paving and more bronze on the stair and escalator wells, matches the Corporation’s own requirements for new developments. Together with immaculate maintenance, performed not by the local authority but a private contractor acting for Palumbo’s development company, and an absence of extemporized ephemera, the square exudes a lasting feeling of prestige that reflects onto the occupants of the surrounding buildings as well as the tower.

    Of those, it is the Lord Mayor who has perhaps benefitted the most. With the Walbrook entrance to Mansion House no longer hidden behind the bank, which was demolished, he may now arrive and depart in full and clear view of the crowds that fill the square for the Lord Mayor’s Parade, and proceed not via forced navigation of awkwardly twisted streets but by a wide, straight private drive discreetly separated from the public areas – Mies’s idea from the start.

    Some have said that the Midland Bank has suffered from such exposure. Assuming – not unnaturally – that the width of Poultry would remain inviolable, Lutyens manipulated its façade with exquisite subtlety, narrowing the rustication by an eighth with each successive course, stretching the windows the higher they are placed in the building and stepping the entire façade back an inch with each smooth stone band, all to convey a subtle appearance of recession and height. It is true that this feels less relevant when the building is seen square-on. That said, the vast majority of passers-by will remain in blissful ignorance of such things, whilst one of the amendments made by Mies to his tower in direct reference to its context was to raise the height of the entrance canopy to align with Lutyens’s cornice line. It is, as well, unlikely to be a co-incidence that Mies placed the main entrance to the concourse exactly in line with the Midland’s own front door.

    In fact, Mies’s only real error – though it is a considerable one – is the unforgiveable intrusion of the re-aligned Queen Victoria Street into this space, slicing as it does across the western end of Mansion House Square and thus separating most of it from the tower. Surely this could have been avoided by sending the road behind the tower, allowing the latter to connect seamlessly with the square? One doubts Lord Holford, collaborator with Mies on the town planning aspects of the scheme, would have made such a move.

    But the rightness of this space is undeniable, and all the more remarkable when one remembers the acutely-angled road junction, triangular building plots and glimpsed views that stood before. The inevitable impositions caused by increased security in recent years have been achieved with the minimum of intrusion, and in an aesthetically considerate manner to boot.

    On descending by escalator to Mansion House Square Concourse, one finds it is doing brisk business despite the increase in shopping provision within the City in the last few years.

    Importantly, and as with Mies’s Toronto Dominion Centre, designed simultaneously but completed later, it is rigorously detailed in the same restricted palette of materials as the tower that it is linked to. Substantial bronze piers, plate glass display windows, travertine and granite are all to be found, extending the image of bespoke, restrained luxury from the private side of the development to the public – you too can share this, you too matter, it says.

    In conjunction with the maintenance and policing practice, the concourse established and retained an upmarket image even as the more or less contemporaneous Paternoster Square shops declined; it also anticipated the move of retail toward the more exclusive end of the market seen at Jean Nouvel’s One New Change and the House of Fraser at the northern end of London Bridge, with retailers including Dunhill, Penhaligon’s, Asprey and Hermes there at the start and remaining today. There are also more everyday suppliers, including a Waterstones, Boots and an independent restaurant, this last taking advantage of the flexibility Mies incorporated in his planning grid for the concourse as well as the tower above it. Jewellers Mappin & Webb and The Green Man pub, present at street level in the Victorian buildings, were given premises in the concourse as compensation and are also still trading. Mies mandated a standard fascia, typeface and white backlighting for all these units; what the result lacks in variety, colour and ease of differentiation when in a rush it gains in smartness. The space also gives access to Bank underground station and (under suitable controls) the vaults of the former bank.

    As for the tower itself, officially One Mansion House Square, any lingering disorientation produced by remembrance of the former layout of the area is ameliorated by discovery of Mies’s own geometry. The unfussy, repetitive form of its 6’ 6” module sits surprisingly well with all of those surrounding works, informed as they are by Classical principles of rhythm and proportion, whilst the six-bay elevation feels relaxed and appropriately ‘horizontal’. The warm tone of the bronze-clad steel and amber-tinted glass do contrast with the cool stone and grey windows of its neighbours, but positively. As the critic Robert Hughes has said, “The very artificiality, the very consciousness of Mies’s design, makes you see its opposite even more clearly than you would without it”.

    Indeed the conjunction of all of this is strong enough to elevate the building above simple existence as one of Mies’s “highly evolved set of solutions for repeated use”, as Claire Zimmerman has described this phase of his output, and is a stronger statement of juxtaposition than, say, the acclaimed but wan Economist group in St James’s, Westminster. Certainly it makes a better impression than those examples of Post-Modernism seen elsewhere in the City, whose restless and unsatisfying collision of forms and colour confirm their uninspired “scissor and paste” nature, to quote Berthold Lubetkin’s description of that movement.

    The ground floor, raised slightly and reached via asymmetric flights of (granite) stairs, is double-height. The façade is drawn back here by one bay (seen from a side elevation), allowing its four piers to continue to the ground as columns, with the lobby defined only by plate glass. The granite of the square continues through the glass to form its surface. The tower’s core is here pulled back once more, by another bay, and is sheathed in travertine, all moves seen at Mies’s Seagram Building in New York.

    Lloyd’s Bank remain the sole tenant, as has been the case since completion, though its occupancy long ago expanded beyond its international division (the same occurred at Seifert’s NatWest Tower of a dozen years later, until the company left after the 1993 bombing).

    The bank took the lease almost as soon as the scheme was announced, a commitment that greatly assisted Palumbo in overcoming those planning obstacles. Its stewardship of the building since has been exemplary. Many original fixtures and fittings are present and correct, from the signage in the lobby through the timber carrels in the main offices – still arranged in a semblance of proper Bürolandschaft – to the Barcelona chairs of the upper, executive levels. From there one can appreciate Mies’s pushing of the service core to the back (west) of the floorplate so that offices have an unobstructed vista over the square whilst those awaiting a lift can enjoy views of St Paul’s. Limited updating of the building’s systems, including electrics, heating and cooling and elements of its glazing (seals and thermal breaks) was carried out by Lohan Anderson before its dissolution, extremely sympathetically – as one would expect, given co-founder Dirk Lohan is Mies’s grandson. It proved impossible to come to agreement with English Heritage over replacement of the distinctive glass itself with a more efficient modern equivalent that did not compromise its Grade I listing, and further work on this is understood to be ongoing.

    Mies himself, by now in a wheelchair, famously attended the opening of the complex. A man of few words, what he must have felt can only be guessed at as he saw rendered at life size the beautiful model seen during the application process at the well-attended public exhibition. This might, perhaps, be compared to Wren’s Great Model, the similarly impressive large-scale miniature made to depict his planned cathedral, since in many ways the two schemes share a common audacity.

    What others thought is clear. Sir John Summerson called it “a new and splendid image for the modern function of the City”; Martin Pawley’s prediction, which I have used for the title of this piece, appears to have come true. For Peter Palumbo, who throughout the design and construction process sat in his office overlooking the site at an antique desk but with a framed image of Mies’s unexecuted 1921 design for a crystalline skyscraper behind him, his proposal to insert an ultra-modern tower into the rich historic grain of the Square Mile has been validated. After all, there can be few more arresting visual experiences in London today than seeing the Lord Mayor’s dazzling golden coach and gaily-dressed horses set against the sober darkness of Mies’s tower. A gift, indeed.

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    This article constitutes my response to the RIBA exhibition ‘Mies van der Rohe + James Stirling: Circling the Square’, which examines in detail Peter Palumbo’s two attempts – both hugely controversial, both involving posthumous designs – to build on the Mappin & Webb site. It continues until 25 June and should not be missed.

    Palumbo was ultimately successful with Stirling’s No.1 Poultry, completed in 1997 and listed in 2016, but I decided to focus on Mies’s design. My piece is inspired by discovery of Matthew Butcher’s brilliant ‘What if?’ for the RIBA Journal, a mock retrospective from an alternative present in which the Mies building exists – this is my own take of that idea.

    In choosing my jumping-off point, I have picked 1967 as the supposed start of construction of the scheme; in reality, it was still being considered by the Corporation of London at that time, before being approved – with the condition quoted – the following year. I have taken a fair degree of artistic licence in supposing ways around the problems that that condition and the related issue of assembling the rest of the plot actually produced, which were responsible for the delay until the 1980s.

    The information given on, and criticism of, the project itself, including most of the quotes, comes from material in the exhibition as well as a talk given by curator Marie Bak Mortensen. I have re-purposed Hughes’ comment – actually about the Farnsworth House – from the Mies episode of his 2003 BBC documentary series Visions of Space. Zimmerman’s book is ‘Mies van der Rohe – The structure of space’ (Taschen 2006).

    The colour photograph is one of those produced in the 1980s of the stunning 1:96 scale presentation model commissioned by Palumbo as a promotional tool – it appears, fully and superbly restored by SMA Design, in the exhibition. Some of my own photographs, taken there, have been rendered in monochrome to read as shots of the actual building and square. The façade detail is an online find and is actually of the Seagram Building; the lobby close-up and all of the interiors, including the ‘concourse’, and also from the web and are actually of the Toronto Dominion Centre. I have manipulated one to alter the shopfront lettering.

    My speculation on the life of the Mies tower and square since completion is extrapolated from all of the above. Other details of the wider City are real.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

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