Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

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advancement actually comes via partner sub-contractors, exploring “what can be deformed, bent, pushed to solve a particular problem.” The practice’s architecture thus celebrates and is in turn driven by “the joy of people being involved in technology that is visible.” My follow up comment placing RSHP firmly in the line of British constructional engineering begun by metalworker Abraham Darby III in Coalbrookdale, Shropshire two centuries before seems to go well with Rogers. “That,” he nods quietly, “is our language.”

If so, then what to make of their new essay?

A full assessment of the ground floor “lobby”, as Stirk calls it despite its alfresco nature, ought properly to await completion of the work in 2015, but early impressions can be valuable. Any amount of greenery in the City must be given an unqualified welcome, of course, and the fine trees and grass are a very rare delight and should genuinely blur the boundaries between street and lobby. The space did feel enclosed, though, and dark, even on a bright September morning, not helped by the battleship grey finish to the steels and the ‘off-back’ granite floor. It’s an impression confirmed by the big ventilation ‘funnels’, as they are termed, and the tough hydrants, both of which thrust out of the ground to confront the visitor. Comparison with SOM’s recent Broadgate Tower is instructive, where stainless steel cladding makes a far brighter impression. The slope of the land down to the north-south passageway is a little intimidating, too, though cheeringly recalling a previous generation of post-war buildings, threaded through with intriguing pedways.

But perhaps this will change when the space is fully occupied and animated by those people shown in British Land’s newsletter visualisation, with their bright clothing and hairstyles. It will also be fascinating to see whether the estates manager’s invitation for people to come and use the space, set out elsewhere in the publication, is honoured; certainly the private nature of the space is made emphatic by the closely-spaced rank of bollards immediately within the building’s curtilage.

Close-to, though, that delight in the visible and the crafted of which Stirk spoke is evident. The connectors on the escalator hangers, the fat bolts of the megaframe downstands, the ceiling, open to its (and the) elements but very carefully detailed – all bring interest and tactility. This precise, machined, component-based architecture, also seen in the attractively purposeful ladder frames, is reminiscent of Lloyd’s of course but also the practice’s Reuters Data Centre in London’s dockland, completed over twenty years ago. Approaching from the north, the service core presents a wonderfully intricate and absorbing display, now moving, now still, a delicate mechanism on a grand scale like an abacus operated by a giant. That the lifts are encased in smooth glass allows them to be read as a ripple of activity beneath a placid surface, and the cluster of hydraulic buffers at their bases – the lift ‘pits’, daringly raised well above head height to enable the pedestrian passage below – irresistibly recall childrens’ construction toy parts. “It’s like a big stained glass building,” says Stirk, happily, of his colourful spectacle.

Inside the second floor reception, the black dividers (concealing digital information displays) and gloss black security barriers with radiused ends and glowing green or red go/stop circles challenge science fiction production design for slickness, though also continue the brooding quality seen below. It is, then, a long and compressive walk from this dark space, through the narrow link between the main block and the north core and out, finally, into the tall lift lobbies, where the view expands dramatically in a rhythm of vertical slices, yellow steel and epic views. During the impressive ascent in the world’s fastest lifts, the entire city unfolds to thrilling effect, but actually the entire progression through the building is energetic and exciting, moving as one does from the street, into the lobby, up to reception, through to the rear of the building, up a wall of glass lifts and to the top floor, only to then traverse the depth of the block once more in reverse, to come back to the front.

Arguably even more impressive that floor 45, despite being devoted to plant, is floor 48. A paved surface, spotlessly clean at present, is effectively a mezzanine to the storey below but with the glazing just a metre or so in front due to the inclined plane of the façade. Further levels are glimpsed above our heads, and behind, four immense red boxes the size of rooms house emergency power generators capable of sustaining the entire building at full occupancy. The whole thrillingly recalls Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or the promenade deck of some super-Zeppelin floating airily above the city.

Commentators have pointed to Rogers’ advancing age (he was 80 last year) and the practice name change some years ago as suggesting succession planning, but there is in truth nothing clandestine about this very natural move – Rogers took pains on our tour to draw attention to Stirk's effective authorship of the Leadenhall Building.

To judge from my experience, though, it is likely that the very modest Stirk would be quick to mention the wider team involved, and would decline to accept that any change in the fundamental tenets that Rogers and his co-founders set out three and a half decades ago has occurred. And if the built language of the City and the firm is characterised by both continuity and change, the Leadenhall Building makes the point eloquently enough on its own.

Posted 11 September 2014

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Floor 45, the highest office level of the Leadenhall Building and the highest such space in London. Note the 'tree' columns (Chris Rogers)

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The view south toward Bankside, with 20 Fenchurch Street to the left (Chris Rogers)

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Floor 48, the lowest of four plant storeys that fill the top-most megaframe module (Chris Rogers)

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Graham Stirk, seated centre in dark jacket, and Richard Rogers discussing the Leadenhall Building in the 40th floor marketing suite (Chris Rogers)

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