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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

Everything old is new again

A generation ago the Financial Times left its purpose-built home in the shadow of St Paul’s for a generic glass box in Southwark. A dozen years later HSBC abandoned predecessor brand Midland’s lavish banking hall opposite the Bank of England in favour of Canary Wharf, where it was soon joined by Clifford Chance after the law firm vacated the offices it had occupied near the Barbican since their construction. Today, though, those same big names (plus several more) are moving back to the City of London. Its councillors will be pleased, as they continue to rapidly reshape the capital’s original financial centre to keep attracting businesses, but will anyone returning to the Square Mile after decades away like what they find?

Let’s start with those old workplaces. At first glance, FT journalists will feel very much at home since the newspaper has already re-occupied the building it sold thirty years ago: Bracken House, commissioned after the last war in sandstone and brick to match the distinctive newsprint of ‘the pink ‘un’. But after the FT departed in 1989, the new Japanese owner replaced the central section housing the printing presses with a car park, office space, lifts and an atrium wrapped in a High Tech exterior and more recently lightwells were added and the interiors modernised. There is even a roof-top garden, one of many now appearing across the City.

Less visibly the FT will now be renting Bracken House from the company that bought it, a sign of fiduciary as well as aesthetic change. This can also be detected at Bank, where HSBC’s old building – occupying an entire block between Princes Street and Poultry – remains one of the greatest examples of the type in Britain. A few years ago it was acquired by Soho House founder Nick Jones who, noting how neighbouring premises had become players in the food and beverage sector, converted the former bank into a hotel, members’ club and dining venue called The Ned. The basement safe deposit is now a bar, whilst HSBC employees who might once have counted notes upstairs can now sip cocktails or sample sushi amidst the marble columns after finishing work at their new building, Panorama St Paul’s, currently being carved out of the one-time BT headquarters further west (evidencing another occupational shift).

Clifford Chance was formed by merger in 1987, becoming one of the City’s most noteworthy legal firms; it soon took the whole of 200 Aldersgate Street, an immense stepped mass of Post-Modernist offices newly-built at the west end of London Wall. Belated climax of that post-war parade of tower blocks, having only been erected after a long planning battle, a former staffer suggests a bit of territorialism behind the address – two hundred is ‘CC’ in Roman numerals. Corporate expansion drove a move to Canary Wharf in 2003, but Clifford Chance’s return to the Square Mile, hard by the Guildhall at 2 Aldermanbury Square, is now in train. Aldersgate Street survives, albeit shorn of its illuminated globe finials, similarly calmed inside and reshaped for letting to multiple tenants.

As our three firms’ staff get used to their new surroundings, they will have much more to ponder beyond their lobbies, starting with the most obvious change to the City’s form.

Three decades ago the 600’ Nat West Tower was still its tallest building by some measure (it had only just been overtaken as the tallest in Britain by One Canada Wharf), and another twenty years would pass before another would take that title. The Heron Tower, completed in 2011 and topping out at 756’, kick-started a new wave of construction that produced a host of shorter but still substantial towers, including 30 St Mary Axe (the ‘gherkin’) and 122 Leadenhall Street (the ‘cheesegrater’). Inevitably a new champion quickly arose, 22 Bishopsgate, which reached 912’ in height on completion the other year. Many of these have public access to their summits, as does that early pioneer, now called Tower 42. It is though almost invisible as a result of what came after, in many views from within the City and from the West End.

Squatting below these towers are the developments of the past decade or so that have wrought their own, no less significant, changes. Plot amalgamation continues, whereby several small buildings adjacent to one another are knocked down and replaced by a single, much larger edifice. Examples include the dominating bulk of 120 Fenchurch Street or the squat 30 Gresham Street; both take up an entire block, whilst the latter erased a street first recorded after the Great Fire of London. The impact of a horizontal jump in scale like this can be even more disconcerting than one brought about by the erection of towers since it occurs at eye level and stalks the pedestrian as they go.

How business is done in the City has changed as well as from where. Lloyd’s of London’s famous underwriting Room is currently closed for refurbishment as part of a wider rethink that will provide digital routes to insure a risk alongside face-to-face meetings, the London Stock Exchange hasn’t had a paper-strewn trading floor for many years and the London Metals Exchange is now the only remaining market practising open outcry, with deals made at its ‘Ring’ of red sofas. Video conferencing, at the turn of the Millennium a piece of exotica confined to the executive floors, is now routine for every employee whose own smartphones are now packed with intelligence and communication tools undreamed of even a decade ago. And that is assuming said employees are even at their offices at all…

Just as companies now seek to recruit and retain staff in a post-pandemic world, the Corporation of London has made strenuous efforts to pull in and keep employers themselves across a range of sectors, to try and turn the City into something it never was – a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week destination.

Widening the attractions of the Square Mile and the hours they are available are two ideas, hence those new drinking dens at Bank. Permitting increased hotel development has been another, resulting in a steady stream of rooms becoming available across all price brackets and in a wide range of architectural packages. These range from the prominent glazed stone box that is citizenM Tower of London on Tower Hill to the almost invisible Lost Property St Paul's London tucked behind retained Victorian façades off Ludgate Hill. Partying workers and temporary guests need to buy more than a lunchtime sandwich, so moves to improve the retail offer in the City have been made. Some are subtle – new and refurbished buildings on Cheapside now have their office entrances in side streets to maximise the space for retail units along what is the district’s historic shopping artery – but some are not, as the looming presence of the One New Change shopping mall on that same road confirms.

In a densely built-up City, greened open spaces have always been important. The last few years have seen these expand dramatically, from new planters and seating areas appearing on pavements to pocket parks paid for by developers’ contributions as part of new schemes. A more substantial example of the latter has been the complete demolition of a length of the decades-old concrete podium immediately south of the Barbican in favour of an integrated expanse of private and public gardens between Salters Hall and London Wall Place and at highwalk and ground levels.

Even the streets connecting all these places have been affected. The complete re-paving of Bank junction as a raised, pedestrian-first interchange is well underway, with more of the same including permanent road closures to follow for the area around Newgate Street. Curiously this is perhaps the most unsettling change of all, our innate sense of what to expect in an urban environment being so intuitive. As with some of these other moves, it is likely to quite literally wrong-foot anyone exploring the City of London today after a long time away.

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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