Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
A commissioned headquarters for a prestige occupier is a rarity in the City of London, and the literal and metaphorical dust is still settling around Bloomberg’s new European headquarters building. Ater five full years of construction the office floors in the main, north building and those in part of the south building are occupied, and the art space and reconstruction of the ancient Roman Temple of Mithras in the basement are open to the public. The retails units are operating but tweaks to the exterior only finished in the summer and the new entrance to Bank tube station, giving access primarily to the Waterloo & City line via its own ticket hall, lifts, escalators and passenger tunnels is not yet in service.
The site for the Foster + Partners building is a three-acre, right-angled triangle (minus the two acute corners) defined by Queen Victoria Street, Cannon Street and Walbrook. Legal & General had for decades occupied the existing buildings: Bucklersbury House, the first major post-war commercial building to be erected in the Square Mile, and its smaller, separate but intimately linked contemporary companion Temple Court. In the 1950s excavations for both uncovered buried Roman temple remains that attracted national and indeed parliamentary interest; their reinstatement above ground within the curtilage of the completed building, though well-intentioned, was latterly seen as a missed opportunity.
About a decade ago the British insurer partnered with Spain’s Metrovacesa to build a design by Atelier Foster Nouvel for speculative let. Called Walbrook Square, the 22 storeys of angled glazing topping one of its four buildings led to the nickname ‘Darth Vader’s helmet’ in the press. The plan collapsed after the developer withdrew. Fosters were retained however and Bloomberg, the American financial services firm founded and still headed by businessman and former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg, was identified as tenant of a revised scheme that would create its new European headquarters.
The redesign comprised two mid-rise blocks of ten storeys each (plus a very deep basement) connected by high-level glazed bridges over a publically-accessible pedestrian passage. This last was envisaged as an extension of Watling Street, which lies to the west on the other side of Queen Victoria Street. Both were deemed a more contextual response that – in Bloomberg’s words – gave something back to the host city. Below ground, Bloomberg agreed to fund a far more scholarly and sympathetic display of the Mithraeum, which would be moved back almost to its original position and lowered to what in Roman times was street level, several floors below today’s roads. Finally, Transport for London’s long-term plans for overcrowding relief measures at Bank station were to be incorporated via an extension of Bank station’s passageways and access.
Demolition of the old buildings began even before Bloomberg were on board. Engineering of the new structure reflected the complexities generated by dense, existing foundations, proximity to the London Underground and a discrete set of needs associated with the Mithraeum alone. These included public access to the underground display of the reconstructed remains, safeguarding of an unexcavated portion of the original building that remains in situ and facilitation of new archaeological investigations across the wider site. Of course the programmatic needs of Bloomberg itself drove much of this work, such as the helical central ramp rising through the northern block and the double-height communal space on the sixth floor there. Re-use of old piles, prefabrication, the early installation of permanent structural steel to brace the concrete service cores as they rose and simultaneous working upward and downward all assisted realisation of these plans. Forming the lowest basement slab alone involved pouring 1,800 cubic metres of concrete on top of 600 tonnes of reinforcement over 15 hours, whilst some of the piles are at 75 metres the deepest ever sunk in the City. Part-way through construction Legal & General sold the freehold interest of the site to fund manager M&G Real Estate, though Blloomberg remained as tenant. Construction above ground is best explored through the finished building.
Bloomberg falls in line with the majority of neighbouring buildings, and not only in terms of overall height and ameliorating set-backs. Reversing its predecessors’ bold Modernist massing of rectilinear volumes at right angles to each other, the new blocks present continuous elevations to the street line for the most part that fill the island plot. Open space has been made at each remaining corner, and the double-height ground and first floors have been set back around much of the perimeter to make publically-usable colonnades. At either end of the passage between the two blocks stand nominal pools, actually an artwork of patinated bronze roots and foliage by Cristina Iglesias marking the ‘lost’ Thames tributary of the Walbrook. Seating is integrated with this and the project’s wider hard landscaping.
The façade comprises a sandstone grid of some scale, defined by widely-spaced vertical piers and horizontal mullions every other floor. These comprise pieces that have been quarried in Derbyshire, shaped in Britain and Italy and applied to the structural steel elements of the building’s frame via a concrete substrate. They have been profiled to a fine edge, one that is almost aerodynamic – Foster is, famously, a qualified pilot. Within each grid square large bronze ‘fins’, welded and finished in Japan, combat solar gain but also incorporate automatically opening shutters as part of the building’s climate control system. Rather than sitting invisibly within the building in central cores, the lifts are pushed to the very edges of the floorplates; although still technically inside, they are nevertheless made of glass and sit behind glazed sections of wall so as to bring animation to the exterior as well as freeing space on the inside.
The ground floors of both buildings are largely given over to retail units and the tube station ticket hall on Walbrook. Here, two dozen etched glass panels by artist John Hutton that were recovered from Bucklersbury House and which illustrate the temple of Mithras and scenes from Roman life will be installed as a backlit frieze. The Mithraeum is two floors lower and reached either by a dedicated ground floor art space or from inside the principal office entrance.
This is to the north, and leads to the reception desk, semi-circular auditorium and circular break-out area equipped with serving bars. All three give onto the ‘vortex’ under the helical stair, whose intertwining walls curve in multiple planes and are clad in Pennsylvania red oak. The space is striking and technically well-realised, if perhaps slightly disorientating and a little oppressive. Passageways – surprisingly, this far into the building, blocked by security pass gates – lead to the lift clusters, and here again both the effect and the level of detail are impressive. Views out really do connect the spaces, the car indicators in simple illuminated glass are discreet but effective and the restricted palette of sandstone walls (these brought inside too), textured stone floor, timber-strip cladding and metal trim exudes calmness and quality. It also recalls Foster’s excellent Reichstag in Berlin.
A journey in the lifts allows more subtleties to emerge, such as how closely this mechanical transit system is integrated into the aesthetics of the building (the counterweights are clad in bronze to match the architectural components here).
At the top of this larger north block is the double-height Pantry, where is found the food court. This space acts as the staff hub and social focus for Bloomberg though despite firm protestations to the contrary it is hard to believe that requiring every employee to pass through here on entry to the building regardless of where they work is an efficient methodology. The principal view is to the west where can be seen, “behind a big glass wall, a majestic view of St Paul’s, as if it were itself a great stone fish captured and put in a tank”; critic Rowan Moore’s astute observation, referring to the aquariums elsewhere in the building, also alludes to the acquisitive spatial power that architecture seemingly confers on such a corporate enterprise (something similar is seen with the Panorama Room at OMA’s New Court for Rothschild’s Bank). Sliding glass doors give onto terraces at this level and seating is provided on the bridges that cross the public way below.
The office floors accommodate around 700 people each, at bespoke curved desks that sit beneath purpose-designed ceiling tiles described as petals. Combining functions of heating, cooling, lighting, CCTV (the most in any building in London – a curious boast) and acoustics, they typify the custom-made approach of the project. A private dining room occupies an elliptical room at one of the building’s ‘prows’; here, the craftsmanship at the junctions of wood, stone, glass and metal reaches a level that can only be described as exceptional. Retractable blinds and scrims provide privacy when needed.
Successive floors and spaces within those floors are unexpectedly but pleasingly varied, avoiding entirely the monotony of typical contemporary offices. Colour, shape, lighting and more ensure this. A media studio, fully equipped for television broadcasting and dazzlingly presented, sits on one – the City may have escaped Darth Vader’s helmet, but surely this is the bridge of his star destroyer. It – and the clutch of satellite dishes discreetly caged on the roof – is a reminder that the Norman Foster who inserted the softly sympathetic Sackler Galleries into the Palladian Royal Academy is also the techno-fetishist who seemingly machined the uncompromising 30 St Mary Axe out of a block of steel.
So what conclusions can be drawn from the experience of this building?
Its great bulk is notable and arguably excessive. That it is lower than Bucklersbury House is true but disingenuous, as that height only ever applied to a single central slab, which was slim and aligned north-south to minimise its impact. That said, Foster’s sandstone façades have both heft and elegance and reward examination. Their colour, controversial to some, has been justified by reference to the adjacent Victorian bank-cum-magistrates’ court and especially No.1 Poultry, for which Bloomberg provides the context that has been absent for 20 years. Personally I am unconvinced; as with Stirling’s building, Portland stone would have remained powerful but blended in more appropriately. The material was in fact tested for use at Bloomberg, and can be seen in promotional films. These, too, play down the sandstone colour, suggesting the final choice was not uncontested.
The bronze fins are less successful. They are fussy and awkward, and a subtler, finer-grained effect would have been more welcome. The slightly battered granite plinth that girdles the elevations at pavement level along with the gentle serpentine plan of the ground floor walls echo Foster’s glass-walled Willis Faber at Ipswich, and prompt consideration yet again of the dual nature of the practice’s work – next door is Foster’s much-derided Walbrook Building, for example.
Public access through the site via the new pedestrian way has been portrayed as something new but this is again misleading. The Bucklersbury House and Temple Court complex was more permeable than commonly supposed, principally via the charming Budge Row which traversed much of the site and hosted a dozen small shops. Today’s equivalent struggles to fully engage with the public, from its hi-viz-wearing security team (including dog handlers) to the labelling of the passage not as Watling Street after all but ‘Bloomberg Arcade’. Iglesias’s pools are an astonishing misfire – seemingly unfinished, their grim stagnancy compares poorly to the pretty fish-filled water feature a few minutes’ walk away on City Corporation’s own campus at Guidhall, let alone more imaginative private sector efforts such as at One Wood Street. And, for all the talk of openness and gift-giving, one wonders whether the fortress associations conjured by the western end of the new pavement passing over one of the pools like a drawbridge was deliberate or unconscious.
It’s necessary to look back twenty years to find the closest equivalent to Bloomberg. Merrill Lynch was faced with similar challenges at their new site, and the solution that emerged from Swanke Hayden Connell Architects in Newgate Street shares remarkable parallels with Bloomberg’s. Both clients were very large firms looking to consolidate their presence on a single site, both had to handle significant Roman archaeology at a location long held by others and both chose separated buildings linked by bridges and tied in to the existing street pattern. What resulted on Newgate Street is a recognised triumph, with a restrained grouping of buildings set undemonstratively within a richly historical landscape and featuring an intricate and persuasive public realm that effectively manages the relationship with the necessarily more private spaces very well.
At Queen Victoria Street, Foster + Partners have undoubtedly executed as challenging a brief with a comparable level of skill in many respects. Clearly more exposed than Merrill Lynch, the envelope is also more demonstrable, not always successfully since the quiet passages are lost in the apprehension of the immense whole. The interior continues this duality, sheer boldness tending to drown out the small things, though these make their point well enough when noticed.
Recreating the past below whilst the future rises above is a compelling story, especially in a time of economic, social and political uncertainty. The same applied half a century ago when Bucklersbury House was erected after the war and the Mithraeum was revealed. Whether Bloomberg fulfils the implicit and explicit demands of such a narrative is unclear, although it does form a bridge between two lost pasts and a found present.
Posted 10 February 2018, amended and re-illustrated 22
September 2018, edited 15 November 2020
Progession through the building unfolds a sequence of shaped, bespoke spaces and finishes, these of the very highest quality