Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

Risk and reward

By Chris Rogers, Aug 14 2021 04:53PM

News that Lloyd’s of London is progressing plans to reshape its Richard Rogers-designed home for a digital age draws attention to something of a paradox. Media coverage, user complaints and institutional discretion have combined over the years to suggest a building unchanged and even unchangeable, yet it was designed to be flexible, the statutory protection afforded by its Grade I listing recognises and even encourages this and it has in fact been modified many times, before, during and after construction. So how might these past decisions help or hinder a new future for the Lloyd’s building?

This largely hidden history of change at Lime Street between the start of design in 1978 and completion of construction in 1986, and in the decades since, is also a record of compromise between intent and reality. It includes missed opportunities that might now come back to bite Lloyd’s and latent potential that could still be exploited for its benefit.

Let’s start with the structure. It is not generally appreciated that Lloyd’s was conceived as a steel building. This reflected Rogers’s practice to date and suited the client, who feared the crudeness of concrete. London fire regulations, however, would not permit steel, forcing a change to fair-faced, in-situ reinforced concrete. Mixed and poured skilfully and continuously for a fine, silken finish, this in the end proved very acceptable aesthetically whilst also acting as a useful heat sink. The glass blocks Rogers preferred to give sparkle to the windows were also abandoned at the design stage in favour of a rolled sheet glass indented with tiny discs to give a similar effect; ten years ago, though, over a thousand of these panes were in turn replaced with clear glass to increase levels of daylight within the building.

Barely a decade after completion major remedial action was needed to address corrosion and leaks in a range of different pipes, risers and casings. This leads us to the service towers. The building was designed before the information technology revolution but constructed as that happened and so the extra power, cabling and cooling plant had to be accommodated somewhere. The only space available was at the tops of the towers, intended to be slim in reference to mediaeval Italian precedents but which now had to be massively enlarged. At the same time aluminium as a cladding material was swapped for stainless steel as part of the same response to fire regulations.

The famous blue cranes stayed proudly visible when not in use and were intended to do much more than merely hold a cleaning cradle. They have however never been able to bear enough weight nor move quite as needed to function in any wider capacity – today, they are no longer compliant with regulation and best practice as well as being themselves hard to repair (spares are unobtainable and “pertinent documentation” is lost). Accordingly a programme to remove all eighteen of the building’s cranes and replace them with modern hydraulic-boom building maintenance units is, at the time of writing, about three quarters complete. They will still be painted blue and the planning application says they will now become “the lifting cranes envisaged” by Rogers.

A hard-landscaped undercroft held the members’ restaurant or Captain’s Room and other private spaces, accessed via a main entrance that was altered and enlarged a dozen years after opening to improve circulation. Anyone can pass around, under and even between elements of the building here, though, stitching it into the local streetscape and extending the City’s distinctive network of courts, lanes and alleys. Provision was also made for Lloyd’s to be plugged into the network of high-level pedestrian walkways – more extensive then than today – but this was never enacted. A shop and wine bar were open to the public at this lower ground level, although this has varied over the years. A separate entrance in one of the service towers led to an exhibition of Lloyd’s history on gallery four that also allowed visitors to observe the Room in action but this was subsequently closed.

With interiors proper the look of most rooms was predetermined by the building’s architecture, carried through from the outside and unhidden by suspended ceilings, plasterboard or even paint. The ‘box’ or desk-cum-carrel where underwriters sit grew out of the benches of Edward Lloyd’s coffee house but was neatly reinvented for a new century as a modular kit of precision metal and timber parts that also housed the newly-necessary electronics, air conditioning and power. These remain in use but other types of box have been introduced as fresh syndicates are admitted and the plan indicates more will come. More prosaically, the vivid blue carpeting has been changed for a more neutral hue.

For the sensitive executive areas Rogers commissioned Eva Jiřičná after seeing her metal and glass staircases in Joseph stores – she would go on to craft the Harrods’ Way-In boutique in a similar vein with fellow Czech Jan Kaplický. At Lloyd’s, however, some of her ideas were rejected outright, including an all-glass promenade surrounding the preserved 18th century Adam Room and a very contemporary Chairman’s Suite. This and the remaining representative interiors were instead designed and furnished by Jacques Grange of Paris in a historicising style that one magazine’s reviewer bluntly described as “a warning to other companies who may employ a world-class architect and then call in someone of lesser ability to decorate his work.” Jiřičná’s braced curves of fabric in the Captain’s Room, evoking Lloyd’s nautical roots, were accepted. Covering the windows and forming moveable screens to the other dining and drinking spaces at this level, they survived until around 2000.

Which brings us to the heart of Lloyd’s and its present plans – the Room. A single volume allowing personal interaction between large numbers of people is fundamental to Lloyd’s business and so the Underwriters’ Room was the main driver of the brief. Lloyd’s had also outgrown two purpose-built homes in fifty years, the second with a Room twice the size of the first. Rogers answered with a philosophical concept as much as a physical space, since his Room is defined as the double-height ground floor of a central atrium and those galleries or upper floors that are, at any given time, fitted with half-height balustrades and connected to it by escalator. Galleries with full-height glazing are let to tenants who reach them solely via the external glass lifts, but any floor can be adapted to either condition, expanding or contracting the Room as needed. With that past only one of those options ever appeared likely but in truth the run of escalators stops at gallery four and the Room has been stable for most of its working life, comprising the ground and first three galleries though sometimes also part of the fourth for a nominal total area of about 200,000 square feet and a daily occupancy of around 5,000 people.

So that is the past. How could it and its lessons affect the future?

We are told by Lloyd’s that “The way the Underwriting Room was being used was already changing pre-pandemic” although no detail is given. In any event hybrid working, whereby market makers meet in person and digitally, is now happening and will stay – that much was clear in press interviews with Lloyd’s chairman almost a year ago. This is also referred to in the status update as “mixed presence” but with the spectre of technology provision for the future arising again a quick check of progress so far suggests Lloyd’s are some way behind that particular curve – the functionality is little different from the consumer-level applications we have all been using lately and the experience far less compelling than, say, Cisco’s long-established telepresence suites where the remote parties’ image feed also supplies the missing half of the conference room table in front of you so as to better sell the illusion of a proper face-to-face meeting. Fortunately Rogers’s building included plentiful ducting and raised floors so it seems unlikely to be caught out again if the right kit can be specified (once over that IT shock the building’s initial electronics fit-out was state-of-the-art but now, of course, reads like a roll call of dead platforms and suppliers since Prestel, Wang and telex are all museum exhibits; the energy management system, meanwhile, was a “minicomputer” yet with just 20Mb of memory, the equivalent of a couple of smartphone photos today).

The Room, then, is almost certain to be reduced more definitively, though to what extent, by what means and for what purpose is unknown. That retracting it rather further even than Rogers envisaged – to just the ground floor, say, or only a couple of the galleries – might lead to removal of any of those escalators is surely as unlikely as installing new ones always seemed. It’s also hard to envisage infilling or flooring over any part of the twelve storey, sixty-metre-high atrium, artistically or practically.

As for what any disconnected floors might be used for, reading of a need only now identified for client areas, touchdown space, quiet spots and wellbeing provision again feels like Lloyd’s is very much playing catch-up. This is perhaps the legacy of both its specialisation and a certain insularity, and inclusion of a broadcast centre and auditorium amongst these ‘wants’ tends to confirm this: Rogers’s Lloyd’s actually had a television studio but operating only on a closed circuit, to provide information to underwriters. Press reports speculate over the possibility of a for-hire events venue and a restaurant with viewing gallery open to all(!) but the word ‘public’ doesn’t appear in Lloyd’s update and so one wonders just who is being imagined as the beneficiaries of “bespoke experiences for different stakeholders”, another idea floated in the research.

Lloyd’s are promising to share their “final vision” before October and the final design by their chosen architect no later than March 2022. Any works that emerge will need planning permission and listed building consent, in which context it’s worth noting that Heritage England’s designation description, openly developed with Lloyd’s and the Corporation of London, is carefully worded. The building’s crucial ‘special interest’ is defined in part as “the in-built flexibility of its design that would respond to changing needs in the market” and the same sentence notes that this “has allowed regular changes to work satisfactorily” to date. It may therefore be an enabler as well as a defence, but as with all insurance policies, you don’t really know what it covers until you claim.

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