Lloyd’s: Risk and reward?

As tributes continue to be paid to Richard Rogers, Lloyd’s of London is still quietly pondering a major remodelling of his One Lime Street to better fit it for a digital, post-pandemic future. Forty years of media coverage, user complaints and institutional reserve have combined to suggest a building unchanged and even unchangeable, yet alteration was key to the design, the Grade I listing recognises and even encourages this and the building has in fact been modified many times before, during and since construction. This hidden history highlights both missed opportunities and latent potential as a new set of decisions looms.


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.


This leads us to the towers. The building was designed before the information technology revolution but constructed as that happened; existing ducting could accommodate the extra cabling but additional power and cooling plant how had to be accommodated. The only space available was at the tops of the towers, intended to be slim in reference to mediaeval Italian precedents but now needing to be massively enlarged. At the same time aluminium as a cladding material was swapped for stainless steel as part of the response to fire regulations mentioned earlier. Fortunately Rogers’s building included plentiful ducting and raised floors and once over that IT shock the 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, used a “minicomputer” yet with just 20Mb of memory, the equivalent of a couple of smartphone photos today. Externalising the services has often been criticised, and barely a decade after completion major remedial action was needed to address corrosion and leaks in a range of different pipes, risers and casings.


The famous blue cranes 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, whilst today they are no longer even compliant with regulation and best practice for that basic function, as well as being themselves hard to repair (spares are unobtainable and “pertinent documentation” has been lost). Accordingly a programme to remove all eighteen of the building’s cranes and replace them with modern building maintenance units equipped with hydraulic booms was completing this autumn. Still coloured blue, the planning application says they will now become “the lifting cranes envisaged” by Rogers.


A hard-landscaped undercroft or lower ground floor held the Lloyd’s 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. A shop and wine bar were open to the public, although the exact arrangements varied over the years, and a separate entrance in one of the service towers once led to an exhibition of Lloyd’s history on gallery four that also allowed visitors to observe the Room in action. This was subsequently closed. Anyone can pass around, under and between elements of the building here, though, the undercroft operating to stitch it into the local streetscape and extend 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 at the time of its planning and construction than today – but this was never enacted.


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


For the sensitive executive areas Rogers commissioned Eva Jiřičná after seeing her metal and glass staircases in Joseph stores. At Lloyd’s, however, some of her ideas were rejected outright, including an all-glass promenade surrounding the restored and re-presented 18th century ‘Adam Room’ from Bowood House and a very contemporary Chairman’s Suite (she would go on to craft the Harrods’ Way-In boutique in a similar vein with fellow Czech Jan Kaplický). 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 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 more acceptable; 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 Underwriters’ Room. A single volume allowing personal interaction between large numbers of people has always been fundamental to Lloyd’s, but it had also outgrown two purpose-built homes in fifty years despite the second having a Room twice the size of the first. The solution to this problem – as presented by Rogers – was 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 (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. Any floor can be adapted to either condition with suitable modification, thus expanding or contracting the Room as needed. At the time of the commission only one of those options ever appeared likely but in truth the Room has been stable for most of its working life, comprising the ground floor and first three galleries (though sometimes also part of the fourth, which is the last to be reachable by the escalators in any event) 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” and although no detail is given market makers have been meeting remotely for some time, according to press interviews with Lloyd’s chairman almost a year ago. This is referred to in a status update as “mixed presence” but a quick check of progress so far suggests the video functionality involved is little different from the consumer-level applications we have all been using lately. Certainly the experience appears far less compelling than, say, Cisco’s long-established ‘telepresence suites’ where each party sits in dedicated, identical rooms such that a half-table and careful screen placement better sell the illusion of a face-to-face encounter.


The Room, then, is almost certain to be reduced more definitively, though to what extent, by what means and for what purpose is not yet known. 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, aesthetically or practically, infilling or flooring over any part of the twelve storey, sixty-metre-high atrium itself. 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 playing catch-up. This is perhaps the legacy of its specialisation and a certain insularity, and inclusion of a broadcast centre and auditorium amongst these ‘wants’ tends to confirm this: Rogers included a television studio at the outset but operating only on a closed circuit, to provide information to underwriters. Press reports speculate over a for-hire events venue and a restaurant with viewing gallery open to all (again?!), but the word ‘public’ doesn’t appear in Lloyd’s updates 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 were promising to share their “final vision” before October and the final design by their chosen architect no later than March, but now merely say it “will be revisiting our thinking on the future of the Underwriting Room in 2022”. Any works that do emerge will need planning permission and listed building consent, in which context it’s worth noting the wording of Heritage England’s designation description, developed with Lloyd’s and the Corporation of London. 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”, but listing is a bit like an insurance policy; you don’t really know what it covers until you claim.

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture