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?


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