Sunday, January 14, 2018

SOANE'S BANK - PART 2

Heading East down Threadneedle Street we arrive at the Entrance Building with its three round arches.  This is the front portion of Sampson's original double-courtyard block from 1734, but the external street frontage was completely remodelled by Soane as one of the last significant contributions he made to the design of the Bank: the final unifying gesture, stamping his identity on a rambling complex that had evolved over almost a century under the direction of three different architects.



Proceeding through the central arch we see the Pay Hall in front of us across the courtyard. You can imagine coaches and horses turning around in this space after dropping stockholders off to collect their dividend.  This facade is still basically Sampson's design. If you compare the photographs and survey drawings to the model you can see that the basic composition is there, all ready to welcome some lucky volunteer who wants to fill in the missing details: pediment over the door, mouldings around the first floor windows, the rhythm of modillions running along to offer support to the overhanging cornice.



Inside the courtyard we see two main facades by Sampson facing each other, and shorter side walls closing off the two sides by Taylor.  In fact this is one of the few areas where Soane's influence can barely by detected.  The rustication to the base of the Entrance Block is an interesting modelling challenge if someone wants to take it up.  And there are balustrades to be added to Taylor's side walls.  Turning left we can progress into the Garden Court, the second of Taylor's two major extensions.  Quite a lot more work to be done here.



Sampson's block was built next to a church, and this was the graveyard, which is one reason why it wasn't built over.  The directors decided that this leafy open space would provide a good view for the Court Room which was moved from it's original location behind the Pay Hall.  We need to recreate this churchyard atmosphere: add some trees, model the intriguing Venetian windows (probably not parametric, given the complexity, and I think we only need one size), what else.  There are more balustrades and rustication; one of the windows needs to be "blind" because the wall dividing the Court Room from the smaller, octagonal Committee Room hits it right in the middle.



Let's go flying again, floating upwards and backwards, until we can look back over the whole complex.  The upper storey on the Princes Street side of the Garden Court is by Soane and we have some very interesting drawings.  He had his pupils sketch the work in progress, so we get some real insight into the technology and processes involved.  This is little more than a box of four walls and a roof at present, so once again an interesting project for someone to take on.  There's a structural puzzle here that I haven't fully solved yet.  The walls are set back from the lower storey, so how are they supported?  No reinforced concrete cantilevers in Soane's day.



Why don't we swoop forwards and down, fly through one of those fancy windows, (the one in the end wall of the Pay Hall) so we can take a look at the interior.  It's the usual story: the basic elements are all there, but crudely modelled, basically Sampson but with some modifications by Soane.  It's not clear to me which of the drawings in the archive were actually implemented.  I think we will just have to make a judgement call, try to catch something of the spirit of the engravings.
Carry on to the far end of the Pay Hall, rise up through the ceiling and once outside, wheel around to look back at the roof of the space between the Pay Hall and the Rotunda.



This is an interesting space.  Taylor designed it as a lobby, part of a dog-leg passage connecting the Rotunda to the Entrance Court.  Soane modified it twice.  Early on he made the lobby narrower, to squeeze in some extra office space.  That must be when he inserted four Ionic Columns carrying arches that support a dome with a central lantern.  This a motif he was to repeat many times in different ways. More than twenty years later he created a shortcut route, by punching a hole in one corner of the Rotunda.  The lobby could then be walled off and converted into an extension of the Treasury.

Now let's slide sideways into the Rotunda itself.



Soane completely remodelled this space, constructing a new inner lining, supporting a masonry dome to replace Taylor's timber version.  The basic massing is there in the model, but we need to tackle the decoration which is quite an original take on predominantly Greek motifs.  I really like the undulating lines that snake around the arches of the high level lunette windows.

The rotunda is one of three spaces that Soane remodelled during his first major building campaign at the Bank.  He had done quite a lot in the previous three or four years since his appointment, but mostly smaller interventions around the back of the Bank.  Finally he had the opportunity to design a suite of three public spaces, proving himself to the directors and the world at large. 



The second of these spaces (a transfer hall for Bank Stock) is arguably the best known, and the only interior space that has been reinstated in its original form.  It now houses part of the Bank Museum.  I've visited it several times over the past ten years.  What I'm showing here is my version of this space, but there is a more detailed model by Alberto Vilas Blanco who was one of the winners in the first stage of the competition.  At some stage we need to carry out a careful review of his work and mine, compare this to the photos, survey drawings and Soane's own design sketches.  The photos are of two kinds: some from the early twentieth century which include minor modifications done after Soane's death, and a much larger number of the reconstructed space as it is today.

What impresses most contemporary architects is the level of abstraction in this space.  He has simplifed the classical orders down into bold geometries with a strong emphasis on parallel incised grooves.   The shallow segmental arches and dome are also seen as typical of the "Soane Style" which was very controversial in his day but highly respected today.  But the fact is that he didn't always work in this stripped down, idiosyncratic idiom. 

Taylor built four transfer halls around the Rotunda.  They all had complex timber roofs with skylights that seem designed to leak.  That's why Soane got the go ahead to replace them one by one.  He stripped each one back to a brick box and designed new masonry structures to replace Taylor's flimsy timber versions.  He was aiming for security, fire-proofing, durability.


Having completed the first two of these transfer halls, his attention was diverted elsewhere for 25 years before he got the chance to rebuild the remaining pair. These use essentially the same planning concept but with several differences.  Let's start with the Colonial office which is due south of the Stock Office. In place of the shallow arches, we now have soaring semi-circles which seem to spring out of the ground and sweep across in continuous curves.  So we have a loftier sense of space, and the high barrel vaults at either side of the central dome let in more light than the shallower groin vaults of the Stock Office.



Just for fun we're going to float up into the dome.  Lots of fascinating plaster detail to model again, including a Lion's head.  Russell found a CAD mesh version that he used in the Consols Transfer Office so we could recycle that.  There are some interesting joinery fittings to develop also.  Let's back out onto the roofscape again.  Some decorative details to be added to the lantern: a cornice all the way round and a parapet on two sides.


The roofscape itself is typical Soane.  When I started to work on the Bank I had no idea how complex this inner world would prove to be.  He loved to create effects of light, by stepping the roof levels and introducing light at high level from unexpected angles.  Swinging around to the left we come to the last of the four halls, the Dividend Office as it was called in later years. 



At first sight it is a clone of the Colonial Office but Soane was not one to repeat himself exactly.  It was much more fun to take a successful theme and play with potential variations.  So we will enter by the dome.  In place of the single row of Ionic Columns we now have pairs of Caryatids.  Again we can borrow from Russell.  There are some really impressive watercolour sections that show how Soane inserted an independent masonry structure within Taylor's rectangular shell.  The domes were built using hollow clay pots to keep the weight down so as not to disturb the original foundations.



Lots of reference material for the decorative plaster work.  There are lots of interesting comparative studies we could do of the way Soane handled variations on a theme.  The different plaster motifs used in the four replacement transfer halls would be one of these.



It would be good to fit the transfer halls out with joinery and whale-oil lamps, add some people in period costume.  Not sure how we would do that, but I would like to capture something of the atmosphere of the watercolours that Joseph Michael Gandy executed for Soane.



Now we are flying up again to get longer range shots of the complex, with its colour coded roofs: Red for Sampson, Pink for Taylor, Orange for Soane's NE Extension, Green for his NW extension.  Image 1 is taken from above the Pay Hall, looking East, then we pivot to the North for image 2 with Lothbury Court in the background.  Moving forwards and looking down we start to focus on the dome over the Chief Cashier's Office (part of the NE Extension)  This is incorrectly modelled with a hole for a lantern.  I was convinced at one stage that there must be a lantern, because this room is so badly lit without it, but more careful study of the drawings from the Soane Museum Online Archive has changed my mind.  So we need to correct that.


Dropping inside that space we find a very crudely roughed-out model.  Lots to do here, and a shortage of source material also, so we will have to make some intelligent assumptions.  We can be sure that Soane made some modifications to the space when he constructed the NW extension.  Did he add the gallery that appears enigmatically in the photograph as a small section of railing?  I don't know, but he must have made some alterations at this side when he rebuilt the adjoining spaces.



Well that's the end of part two.  Probably two more episodes to go in this series.  See you next week.



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