Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

Merrill Lynch Financial Centre 

 

The Merrill Lynch Financial Centre (the English spelling is correct, despite the firm’s US origins) is a vast complex in the shadow of St Paul’s yet is barely visible in many respects. Reticent, humane and universally praised, it has woven itself quietly into the fabric of the City since completion in late 2001. For David Walker, lead architect for the project when at Swanke Hayden Connell Architects and who accompanied me and my small private tour group around the complex, the path that led to that point had a welcome simplicity: “Merrills took a very old-fashioned approach,” he says. “They bought the site, they hired an architect and they built a building for themselves”. The site’s rich mix of history, engineering and architecture plus tough planning requirements placed considerable difficulties in the way, however, even without a goal of bringing back “public permeability” to a previously closed part of the Square Mile. Appropriately, then, Walker – born in Canada, raised in the United States and now living in London – sees the result as a “very English building in many ways”, thanks to its narrow alleys and small gaps to open up interesting views between the various structures.

 

The story began when the American bank bought the British stockbroking firm Smith New Court in 1995. A need to bring both firms and cultures together, combined with the physical requirements of a dealing operation and associated support, saw Merrill Lynch commission Swankes the following year to find a site for a new European regional headquarters building. Many locations were examined, including the redeveloped Paternoster Square where two building plots would have been merged into one, but only that bounded by Giltspur Street, Newgate Street, King Edward Street and St Bartholomew’s Hospital and then occupied by the General Post Office proved suitable. Remarkably, Merrill Lynch were to become only its fourth owner.

 

The first was the Greyfriars’ monastery in the 13th century. The second was Christ’s Hospital school, which occupied the monastery’s buildings; Christ Church Newgate Street was then built by Wren, with its churchyard overlaying the monastery nave. The third was the GPO, which erected two grand Edwardian buildings for the public with a more prosaic sorting office and depot in reinforced concrete behind, this using the Hennebique system which permitted fewer columns than other methods. By the time of Merrill Lynch’s involvement the depot had been listed at Grade II, the church reduced to a shell through wartime bombing and road widening carried out as recently as 1974 and the churchyard had become a park.

 

The protected depot aside, English Heritage wished to safeguard the Edwardian blocks and retain a terrace of Victorian shops along Newgate Street that was still under the theoretical threat of demolition for more road widening. The Corporation of London wanted to preserve, and allow some form of public access to, a slice of the City’s Roman and mediaeval wall which lay just below the ground floor of the depot. Further down lay the tunnels of the Post Office’s narrow-gauge, automated underground railway, which would restrict basement excavation, whilst rooflines would be limited by the St Paul’s Heights rules. A three-dimensional envelope of constraint therefore existed across the site.

 

Presenting it to the client, Walker stressed that those issues “were real good opportunities. The complexities, complications and challenges of the site were what gave it its potential,” though he also recognised that “it was a quantitative decision” from Merrill Lynch’s point of view as the site at its most basic gave them the space they needed. In the delicate negotiations that followed, English Heritage was eventually persuaded not to oppose demolition of the depot in exchange for an undertaking from Merrill Lynch to keep and refurbish the shops and address the church remains. It was an early sign of a close, productive, intelligent relationship that for now left the way clear to proceed.

 

In designing the complex Walker summarises his standing philosophy as being conscious “of the building being what it wants to be, the site informing what the building wants to be, and the detail, the architecture, giving it its character.” All three were to be brought together with remarkable facility.

 

The footprint of the depot alone proved large enough to allow a ‘groundscraper’ housing 4,700 people to be erected – starting in early 1999 – that reached six occupiable storeys in height in places yet still kept below the planning cap. Walker describes this main building, self-deprecatingly, as “a big rectangular box.” The basement level accommodates the staff restaurant, built around a retained and visible bay of the depot’s Hennebique structural system. Its ground floor contains various support functions including a large auditorium. Stacked on the first and second floors are a pair of trading floors which, at 6,200 sq m, were the world’s largest. The 12-metre structural steel beams needed to create these spaces with the fewest columns possible were pushing at the edge of what was technically possible in 1998, and even with a pre-formed camber to minimize deflection, a slight movement of the floors under live load was apparent for some time before the components settled.

 

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DSC_5484mod Plan - axon DSC scan4

The spire and walls of Christ Church and the GPO building on Newgate frame the main building of the Merrill Lynch Financial Centre

Axonometric of the entire scheme looking north west, highlighting  the spires, domes and turrets of neighbouring buildings (SHCA)

The new 'palazzo' of the west buiding (right), taking its place alogside those of St Bartholomew's hospital which head north on Giltspur Street