Sunday, September 23, 2018


I've called Project Soane, a detective story and a jigsaw puzzle before, but perhaps it is better described as a Treasure Hunt: hidden clues, buried gold, one legged parrots ?  Seriously though, up to a couple of weeks ago I assumed that three out of four elevations inside the Bullion Yard were down to Sampson and Taylor, but as I looked more carefully at the vast hoard of reference material we have collected into a Box account (our treasure chest) … I began to realise just how much effort Soane put into remodeling the entire space.

This drawing of the West Side shows Sampson's fenestration in yellow on top of Soane's.  Basically there are 4 bays superimposed on three.  So it wasn't just a case of demolishing the back wall and rebuilding it as a shallow curve.  He must have taken them all down, probably one at a time, and rebuilt them with a different bay spacing.  But it doesn’t end there.  I finally convinced myself that he dropped the level of this courtyard down one floor to basement level.
Let's start with the curved wall.  In Sampson's successful competition design, the bullion passage comes in from the side to enter through the most northerly arch in the East façade.  Now the site slopes from front to back, so the lane coming up from Bartholomew Way would have to ramp up a couple of feet, but that's a fairly gentle slope, and all the better to carry the rain away methinks.

However, when Soane bought out all the remaining properties in that city block, acting as agent for the Bank, he was able to relocate the Bullion passage.  His scheme for a North East extension was ingenious, but required lengthy negotiations with the Building Committee to persuade them to spend rather more money than they originally anticipated.  In order to open up the middle of the site, and make space for a rational planning scheme, he had to demolish Taylor's file storage building (Consols Library) and rebuild it in the top corner of the site.  This allowed just enough space for a large Transfer Office between the library and the Bank Stock Office, but only by blocking off the side lane.

Now he was free to create a much grander bullion route, a truly symbolic statement for this activity that lay at the heart of the Bank's foundation: bringing in gold to finance the government's war debts, in exchange for pieces of paper (stocks and bonds)  Lothbury heads North West at an awkward angle, but luckily a perpendicular line from the centre of the Lothbury façade hits the centre of the Bullion Yard quite nicely.

There is a rather messy sketch showing what happens if you leave the North Façade of the yard as a straight line.  The cranked end solution is really horrible and I wonder if Soane produced this drawing just to prove to the Directors that they had to rebuild that façade to a shallow curve.  But Lothbury is also some six feet below Threadneedle Street.  For Soane this was another welcome opportunity.  He could ramp down gently a couple of feet and excavate the entire bullion yard down to cellar level.  Now you could unload bullion and feed it directly into the vaults below.

I have been puzzled for a long time by Sampson's section, which doesn't show anything below ground level.  And yet his plan clearly indicates the light well in the Entrance Court that is still there in photographs taken almost 200 years later.  I think there must have been an undercroft under the whole building.  That was a standard approach to foundations in those days.  Survey drawings of the cellars produced much later by Soane suggest that for the most part his work and Sampson's were built over brick vaulted cellars, but that Taylor's transfer halls were constructed with cheaper and shallower foundations.

Sampson's rear courtyard had open arcades along two sides.  They are primary means of circulation.  The one on the west side leads through to a triangular yard at the back where the privies were located.  But there are no arcades along the other two sides.  To cross from east to west you would have to use the yard.  So the yard must have been at ground floor level, gave or take.  I don't remember seeing any mention of the fact that Soane excavated this yard in the accounts that I have read.  Maybe I should go through them again carefully.  But maybe it's something you don't realise until you have spent a couple of years using the BIM pencil to search for hidden treasure.

So let's get to the bay sizes.  Soane has a wider passage.  I'm guessing that the constriction of Sampson's arch at the point of entry had been a sore point for some years.  In any case, a double storey archway such as Soane now had would have looked ridiculous with the same width as Sampson's arcade.  So his curved wall had two broad, arched windows balancing out the archway.  It's not completely symmetrical, but it's regular enough.

From here you just have to persuade the committee that the other three facades are going to look out of place.  Perhaps they are going to be unstable anyway when you commence excavation.  Whatever reasoning Soane used (and unfortunately the records of meetings for many of Soane's years are missing) he succeeded in his plan to unify the treatment.  Or did he?  Suddenly I remembered something that I noticed long ago but couldn't understand.  It's a photo looking down the tunnel, showing misalignment between ground and upper floors.  Were the side elevations also misaligned?  Difficult to say.  For the moment I'm going to leave the model fully lined up, on the assumption that this was what Soane "really intended".

The windows echo Sampson and Taylor's Palladian efforts around the garden court, but in a much simplified manner.  It’s all handled in the timber of frame, just a subtle thickening to allow for the boxes that carry the counterweights for the sliding sashes.  But you still have the effect of a glass arch spanning between the two sidelights.  I said before that this glazing was probably Taylor's contribution, & here is my evidence. Sampson's pencil drawings show a conventional Palladian window with no glazing over the arch.

There are variations on Soane's design scattered around his later work: (Lothbury Court, the Accountants Office) but he also glazed large arched windows more simply at times, with a rectangular grid.  Basically it comes down to whether there are opening lights or not.  A large fixed window can be glazed with a simple grid of metal glazing bars.

Taylor's West Wing, blocks off one corner of the Pay Hall.  The glazing over the arch is perhaps a compensation for this, but it's also an attempt to match his treatment of the new Court Room windows.  It looks like he also added an upper window on the side that isn't blocked.

I accidentally created this ghostly cross section that blurs across the period of these 3 architects. It was just a working image to help me scale the model of Sampson's bank that I knocked up quickly over the past week.  But then I realised that it conveys quite a lot.

I also decided to add the images of windows that I snapped in St Louis.  On the left you have a version of the approach that Sampson & Taylor followed: masonry arches and columns to create a rhythmic group of openings that can be separately glazed.  On the right is Soane's method, setting up his rhythms in a more subtle way with variations in the framing.

So here are the basic relationships between the areas I have been working on for the past few weeks.  You can see that the New Court Room is on axis with the old one, projected out to the West, dropped down to the ground and substantially enlarged.

This is model of Sampson's Bank as it stands.  Probably I will leave it now and come back later.  It's served the current purpose of understanding how Bullion Court was modified by Soane.

I quite like the way the city block is represented as bare earth.  The warren of alleys and narrow courts, with its workshops, inns, houses, workshops, stables and church are probably best left to the imagination.
And so the treasure hunt continues. Who knows what awaits next week?  Surely there can't be many more surprises like the discovery that Soane excavated the Bullion Court a full storey.  But you never know.

Here is an odd image to finish with.  It's an old version of the Bank Model linked in to my new model of Sampson's original structure. Most of the links are missing (screen walls, consols transfer office) and I've given it a bit of transparency.  There are areas of flat roof where I hadn't yet worked out what was going on.  So there's a sense of evolution here on two levels: the growth of the bank itself, and the traces of my own fumblings to dig up that history.

Monday, September 17, 2018


Almost a month back in Dubai and I've made a lot of progress on the Bank of England model. But I'm still falling behind in terms of recording my work here.  It's been such a mammoth effort to model the Bank and I find myself wanting to "push on a bit further" rather than breaking off to write up a post.  Then before you know it, the weekend is over.

This is a sequel to the "Backward Compatible Columns" post.

The windows mentioned in that post belong to the Court Room Suite, and can be attributed to Sir Robert Taylor, Soane’s predecessor. They probably took their cue from work by George Sampson, the original architect for the Bank. He built a double courtyard block on a deep site with a narrow frontage, hemmed in on both sides.

Sampson put a large Palladian window in the west wall of his Pay Hall, opening onto the greenery of the churchyard beyond. Later on, when Taylor expanded the Bank to the West, he demolished the church, but he wasn't allowed to dig up the graveyard. Instead, this was converted into the Garden Court, and Palladio-style windows continued around the perimeter.  I have reason to believe that the glazing above the arch was an innovation by Taylor.  Sampson's drawings show this portion as solid.  Perhaps it was a touch of bravado, or maybe he just wanted to bring more light into the room.  Presumably he modified the Pay Hall window to match,  He had to modify that end wall in any case because his new wing overlapped the corner, blocking one of the side windows.

The Pay Hall window uses Ionic columns, which are slightly larger than the Corinthian ones used in the Court Suite. Much grander in scale are the Ionic pilasters on plinths that divide the interior of the Pay Hall into bays. I had rather crude placeholders for these so it was a real pleasure to roll out updates using my modular system.  Note the blank panels to the right where the Court Room has blocked the corner.

The reference material for this space is patchy and inconsistent, so a leap of faith is needed. There are no photographs or survey drawings for the interior and Soane was never allowed to completely remodel it. Seems like an opportunity to test my own ability to operate in a classical mode.

I'm trying to capture the spirit of the Bank, and exploring history in the process. There is nothing to be gained from timidity or leaving spaces in unresolved limbo.  Note the feature on the East wall that mimics the Palladian window at the other end of the room.

The final contribution of my "Florida sessions" was to tackle the landscaping of the Garden Court. Some photographic evidence and an etching. Not clear who did what. Could be Taylor, probably some alterations in Victorian times. I added urns and some sunken paving. Needs stone balusters and raised planters that look a bit like stone coffins. That may not be what it was like in 1833, but it should look like a tidied up graveyard acting as a pleasant view for the benefit of the Bank's governing body, so at least we are making progress.

In fact I have made some more progress since that last image, so here is a more recent snapshot of the model.  "Spot the difference."

And to conclude, how about an updated view of the Court Room interior, with those splendid windows in place.  We need at least one more pass to add skirtings, upgrade the fireplaces, maybe show some paintings and furniture... but it's getting there.

Monday, September 3, 2018


Planned economy versus free market?  I'm not going to start that discussion in today's polarised atmosphere.  But the Bank of England has always been a strange beast, a hybrid: part national institution, part private enterprise.

It was set up in 1694 by a grouping of wealthy merchants, somewhat "nouveau riche", Whigs & Huguenots.  The first bank in England to operate on a Joint Stock basis, accountable to a board, scrupulously recording minutes of its operations, but secretive also, maintaining the highest standards of discretion and confidentiality.

For 40 years, it operated rather humbly, from rented premises.  The Grocer's Hall was home to one of the major liveried companies in the City of London, a symbol of respectability and a link to past traditions.  Their core business was raising capital for the government: War Loans essentially.  And they were very successful.  Private money was perfectly willing to subsidise king and country based on the Bank's guarantee of fixed returns.

So growing in confidence and size, they commissioned purpose built offices.  The site was close by, a large house belonging to the widow of a former Governor of the Bank. This was bought, demolished and replaced by a double-courtyard block, designed in the Palladian manner by a competent architect/builder, George Sampson.  The front court was public and the rear court "back of house" with access down the side via an alley for deliveries of gold and silver to the vaults in this "Bullion Court".

The transfer offices, where stock holders could buy and sell their government bonds and bank stocks, were located upstairs in the entrance block: cramped premises for a very lively trade.  This commercial, speculative business was central to the Bank's success, but deliberately kept away from the Pay Hall and the Court Suite behind it, which represented the respectable face of the Bank.

As business increased, the Bank decided to expand, buying up property to the East, and building new transfer offices grouped around a large domed rotunda.  This time they chose the leading architect of the day to display their growing confidence.  Sir Robert Taylor knocked up a grand facade around a somewhat flimsy and fanciful set of spaces with multiple domed skylights set into trussed timber roofs.

Continuing to grow rapidly, they bought up adjacent properties at every opportunity.  Taylor designed a records library at the back, a practical block with masonry vaults for fire protection.  He also relocated the Court Suite from the first floor behind the Pay Hall, to a new ground floor block overlooking the churchyard of St Christopher's.

Eventually the Bank obtained permission to demolish the church, but not to build on the graveyard, which became the Garden Court.  Taylor's final contribution was the West Wing, mirroring the façade to the East to create a very grand palace frontage along Threadneedle Street.

When Taylor died, the Bank were persuaded to try out a young architect of great promise who had built up a small practice designing country houses.  John Soane came from a modest background but his talent was spotted early.  By 1788 he had trained at the Royal Academy, been on a grand tour, married well and inherited money from his wife's uncle.  His first few years as architect to the Bank were taken up with minor additions and alterations.  He also surveyed the condition of the existing structures, and found Taylor's east wing to be in a poor state with leaking roofs and rotting timbers.  He persuaded the directors to let him rebuild two of the four transfer halls, and to substantially remodel the rotunda.

This began a period of intense activity.  He was authorised to buy up the rest of the city block, complete the screen wall and design an extension within this new, secure enclosure.  It was a challenging jigsaw puzzle, but by persuading the bank to move the records library and remodel the back wall of the Bullion Court he was able to develop a convincing solution, creating Lothbury Court in the process.  This was a ceremonial space, marking a new bullion route from Lothbury at the rear of the site.

No sooner had he completed this new "self contained island" than the Bank decided on a more ambitious expansion, buying land across the road, closing Princes Street, stealing part of the Grocer's Hall garden and building a new printing works that would put paper money on the streets for the first time.  Up to this point "Bank Notes" were the preserve of merchants and business men.  They did not compete with coinage for everyday transactions.  Soane's North West Extension would change all that.

He had to double the length of the Lothbury façade, and proposed a temple front at the junction of old and new to mask the bend in Lothbury where Princes Street had originally ended.  Eventually he opted for a simpler geometry, straightening up the Lothbury façade so that this road was widened at the sharp corner of the site.  Here he created a round temple front based on Roman ruins at Tivoli, outside Rome, a location which had made a deep impression on him during his tour.

Soane spent 45 years as architect to the Bank of England and ultimately stamped his authority over the whole rambling complex which had evolved in such an ad hoc manner over almost a century.  The analogy of natural selection working on random variations is appropriate here.  The result is jury-rigged as are our bodies (appendix, backache, narrow birth canal, etc) but nevertheless a triumph of unity, practicality, dignity and delight.  Ageing and widowed, but still full of creative energy he persuaded the Bank to replace Taylor's screen walls to create a consistent façade around the whole complex. Finally he replaced the last two transfer halls nestled in the SE corner with fascinating variations on a theme he had introduced decades earlier, when he designed the Bank Stock Office.

Tragically it was all swept away.  During the first world war, the Bank once more played a pivotal role in managing the financial demands of armed struggle and was bursting at the seams.  Soane had never hesitated to demolish the work of his predecessors when circumstances required it.  Sir Herbert Baker saw no reason to behave differently.

The Bank's directorate expressed a wish to preserve the screen wall, and the transfer halls, if possible.  Tivoli Corner was especially precious, and Lothbury Court was well loved.  Baker's approach seems feeble, sacrilegious perhaps, by today's Heritage standards.  But in his view it was sufficient to rebuild "in the spirit of Soane".

Ultimately he chose to build a central block in a kind of "Wren style" and throw in a few homages to his predecessors: Soane, Taylor and Sampson.  The whole was intended as a demonstration of his own virtuosity.  Personally I find it to be a rather ill-proportioned and pompous conceit, but to be fair, it was never going to be possible to preserve much of Soane while providing the square footage that the Bank needed.

His butchering of the screen wall saddens me, because I have come to know the original so well.  Baker simply sliced off all of Soane's idiosyncratic parapet ornament and replaced it with a monotonous stone balustrade.  He destroyed the symmetry of Lothbury to accommodate functional requirements, repositioning the service entrances and creating his own version of Lothbury Court.   I can understand his wish to simplify the wall, omitting many of Soane's niches and blank recesses.  He wanted a simpler base to complement his own grand superstructure.  Soane's screen wall stood on its own.  The elaborate skyline and fanciful details were there to animate a blank fortress perimeter.  Baker was providing a podium to support his own creation.

I guess we can also understand his wish to project the central block above Soane's central colonnade on Threadneedle Street.  Perhaps he was trying to tie everything together.  Sadly it doesn't work.  Soane's meticulous selection over 45 years guided the bank as it evolved into a rich and subtle metaphor: a city within a city within a city... an organic composition of narrow streets and open piazzas, with subtle inflections and sublime vistas.

Baker simply chops the heart out of this organism and grafts on a big lump of gristle.  To conclude with a suitably mixed metaphor, he replaces Soane's carefully balanced, seven course meal with a big, fat wedding cake, balanced over the remnants of Soane's pie crust.

I'm being unfair of course.  Can we blame Baker for operating under the evolutionary constraints of his time?  He did a professional job, and he was a talented designer.  The solution was always going to be top-heavy, given the nature of the problem.  Perhaps one of today's heritage experts could conjure up something less squat: more open, and lighter in touch.  Most of us now would prioritise Soane over his predecessors, try to retain more of his work intact.

But for many, the present Bank of  England building is a wonderful, rich treasure.  It represents tradition and craft skill in an age of endless glass boxes.  And who am I to say they are wrong?  Let's put it this way.  The dinosaurs went extinct, but it doesn't mean they were inferior to us.  Circumstances changed.  Their time had come.  For the moment, big brains and nimble fingers outrank big bodies with vicious claws and teeth.  To a large extent we have succeeded by adapting more rapidly.  We have perfected cultural evolution which changes at a blistering pace compared to the biological version.  But is there another twist in the tale?  Will we be undone by the runaway train of innovation for its own sake?