Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

City/edge City

The City of London is growing. No longer a Square Mile, it is reaching out, spreading, moving into neighbouring parts of London. Expansion westward is difficult, with the traditions of Westminster forming a natural boundary, but the north and particularly the east present an entirely different situation.

Currently the Broadgate Tower (35 floors or 165 metres/540 feet high and the third tallest building in the City of London) and its squatter brother, 201 Bishopsgate, comprise the north-east edge of the City proper. Completed in late 2008, the pair are the latest addition to British Land’s massive, Americanised Broadgate estate. This itself is an emphatic extension of the City of London’s office space, built as it is over the old Broad Street railway terminus and its adjacent goods yard. This ingenious step not only cleared new sites for the City’s then-imminent office boom in the anticipatory Big Bang years, but later quite literally enlarged the Square Mile. In 1994 the borough boundary of the Corporation of London was extended to take in the Broadgate estate, which had previously come under Tower Hamlets. This alone shows the astonishing political and economic power of the City, capable of actually increasing its own size in order to fulfil its (self-)assumed purpose.

By hopping over Primrose Street, just north of Liverpool Street station, the two new buildings take City style and substance into new territory. Indeed, it was a step into thin air in this case since the ‘land’ on which the new buildings were erected was previously open space above the tracks into the station. A new raft was built over this subterranean level, supported on columns driven between the railway lines.

Grand engineering challenges aside, the statement made by the Broadgate Tower and 201 Bishopsgate is detectable in much subtler ways. The paving and road surface of Primrose Street have been replaced with materials matching those used in the galleria between the two new structures, and a cascading staircase below Exchange house, the previous northern outpost of the estate, has been remodelled to confirm the street as a mere link between office blocks rather than a path those passing through. It’s a move that tends to prove architect David Walker’s criticism of such developments that “It’s clear the moment you step on the […] stone whose area you’re in.”

And whilst the approach from beneath Exchange house is undoubtedly impressive thanks to SOM’s finely-controlled aesthetic of stainless steel structural members nestled between flush glazing for the south elevations of the Tower, a quick walk around the block reveals how this has been achieved. All the services have been clustered together on the north façade, and lift and stair cores have been pushed out of the neat envelope of the floor plans here. Looking south from the surrounding streets of Islington it’s a messy view; that so little aesthetic amelioration should have taken place here speaks volumes. As critic Rowan Moore hrumphs, “It feels like a backside.”

But even whilst the Broadgate Tower and 201 Bishopsgate were being planned, stretching the envelope further north, early forays east had been made.

A major change in attitude occurred in 2001 when Foggo Associates crossed the geographical, cultural and psychological border of Bishopsgate, the street that divides the City of London from Tower Hamlets, to build the glass wedge of 280 Bishopsgate for Hammerson. The barrier to the City’s expansion formed by this street had previously seemed insurmountable, with the massive stone cliff of Broadgate’s 135-175 Bishopsgate seeming to pull itself up short before the tightly-packed Georgian terraces and Victorian light industry of the East End. It was an important move.

The key moment, though, was the decision to finally develop the site to the east of 280 Bishopsgate – the old Spitalfields market.

This had closed in 1986, the year of Big Bang. A bitterly-fought conservation-led battle with a complex argued history meant twenty years of small-scale business occupation before a final decision to clear and redevelop the western half of the market was taken. This released another vast area for major schemes. A plan followed for locating the London International Financial Futures Exchange in an intriguing semi-buried (16 metre deep basement) Foster + Partners building with two stacked triple-height trading floors, but that failed and ultimately became the speculative Bishops Square, designed by the same firm and completed in 2005.

Four parallel blocks, stepping down toward the south, form a clean, undominant group. Wide, landscaped pedestrian spaces, water, preserved and displayed archaeological remains and restored period buildings contribute to the experience outside. Within, typically smart 21st century office space leads to greened roofs and terraces in the lee of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church. Securing law firm Allen & Overy as principal tenant – moving from its previous home next to St Paul’s, no less – was a significant endorsement of the philosophy behind the scheme.

Firmly south of Liverpool Street and closer to Whitechapel than the City stood the site of a Richard Seifert mixed-use block of the 1960s on unfashionable Houndsditch. This rather diffuse area had already attracted some large blocks in the late 1970s and early 1980s but these were mostly of second rank design and used for back office functions.

In the early 2000s dveloper Minerva planned an initial, very elegant, 50-story tower shaped like an open book for this site. It was abandoned, to be followed by an equally short-lived alternative topped with a sand castle-like roofscape. Both were by Grimshaw Architects, whose client in the end determined that a much shorter block was more within their capability. The 14-storey St Botolph building emerged. Completing in 2010, this does hedge its bets a little, with a mixture of very large floors for dealing room use and more standard flexible office space, plus services that can split their delivery to enable sub-division, but the commitment to bringing prestige architecture to the location – referred to by Grimshaw as a “key gateway to the City of London” – is notable.

Now, with 2011 approaching and despite the global downturn, City developers are considering yet more new buildings, including towers, for a swathe of land sweeping in an arc north-east of Broadgate and punching deep into Tower Hamlets and Hackney.

  ...contd

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Broadgate Tower - 201 Bgate site

Slick, assertive and tall – The Broadgate Tower and 201 Bishopsgate were built in a wedge of space over the tracks into Liverpool Street station, as shown in this image from a brochure by original Broadgate developer Rosehaugh Stanhope Developments plc

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The black ridged roofs of Spitalfields market to the right of Liverpool Street station in the mid-1990s, and Bishops Square as built over its western half (Hammerson). The large green area to the north of the market is Bishopsgate goods yard

Bishops-Square
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The final St Botolph building, Aldgate

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