Building a fortune

Leo Hollis charts the changing face of the City, from stones to screens

New Statesman
The City of London. Photo: Getty Images

What does a bank look like? A strange question, perhaps, but when we think of the home of irrational exuberance, what we see is the result of centuries of contemplating about how to turn the profit principle into stone. What do you want a bank to look like? A place of security or adventure? Ambition or steady assurance? Can architecture make you feel more comfortable about risk?

Once, straight-talking London merchants had no time for fanciful notions of architecture; decoration was an unnecessary expense. The Royal Exchange that stood at the centre of the City was based on the bourse in Antwerp, a temple to the arts of capital. Nearby, Sir John Soane imagined the Bank of England as fortress with a blank colonnade of classical pilasters. Up to the 1980s, the London bank was a symbol of safety and solid character, eschewing dilettante notions of fashion or ornamentation.

Yet with the Big Bang in 1987, things changed. The NatWest Tower and Richard Rogers’ Lloyd’s building heralded the age of the skyscraper and hi-tech. The Big Bang also coincided with a new way of doing business: vast electronic trading floors, dot matrix boards, brash traders shouting in front of multiple screens. In 1991, trading ended on the floor of the Royal Exchange altogether. And after that, banks started to move to the bigger towers in Canary Wharf that were now connected to a global market that never slept. The Docklands were designed so that the visiting Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities could not tell whether he was in New York, London, Tokyo or Singapore. This was the globalised Heteropolis, where big money made everything look the same.

There was another shift in the 2000s when the vast team of traders, analysts and brokers could be reduced to a large fibre-optic pipe, an algorithm and a clutch of red-eyed hedge funders who were happier to take a floor in the tonier neighbourhood of Mayfair than traipse across the City to E14. Now, when the complete company could fit into the corner office, hockey-stick profit charts, not floor space, became the subject for bragging rights.

The new addition at New Court, crammed in a short alley between Mansion House and Wren’s St Stephen, Walbrook, is an unexpected but hypnotic addition to the London skyline. Designed by Rem Koolhaas’s OMA studio as the new headquarters of Rothschild bank, it is an ultra-modern building so tightly packed into the medieval grid of the City that it is impossible to see the building as a whole; one has to snatch glimpses of it from different angles and street perspectives. From all sides, it is hard not to wonder what the building says about the current state of banking in a post-recession world.

OMA may seem an unlikely choice for Rothschild but the location is not. The financial giant has been at New Court since Nathan Mayer Rothschild first arrived here at the beginning of the 19th century. Since then, the company has funded everything from the Duke of Wellington and the Suez Canal, to Cecil Rhodes’s exploitation of South Africa. Today, the operation does not play with money, but trades a higher commodity: information.

The new building is to be the headquarters for a global company that conjures with the reassurance of history, a home for the world’s most respected alchemists of financial knowledge. Yet if form follows function, what should a building that, according to the website “provides strategic, M&A, wealth management and fundraising advice and services to governments, companies and individuals worldwide” look like? Quiet as a clubbable whisper; reassuringly expensive; a suggestion of transparency while also promising discretion and confidentiality; the virtues of legacy in new fabric; distinct but integrated into the system of the City. The safest pair of hands in town. As Koolhaas mentions in a video interview, the restrained nature of the building is a response to the “nervousnesss about the rat race of extravagance”.

On the ground level, the main body of the building has been lifted into the air, leaving an open courtyard, paved with creamy Travertine stone – the material of imperial Rome, and offering a view towards the churchyard of St Stephen, which itself was one of the boldest architectural experiment of its day – the very first domed building in London following the Great Fire of 1666. Wren rewrote the rules of what a church could be and OMA, it seems, wants to overturn our assumptions about what a bank might look like.

On the south side of the ground floor stands the reception – an expensive, empty space lined with Travertine on both floor and ceiling and fitted with a sliding curtain that creates private spaces within the hall. The purpose of such foyers is unclear. Is this void the physical expression of super-wealth? A display case for the latest triumphs, or an aquarium for smartly dressed sharks?

Opposite this space stands the Rothschild Archive, packed with leather bindings and historic ledgers. It is a compelling contrast, made even more emphatic by a glass wall, the surface of which has been overlaid with the ghostly apparition of Nathan and his four brothers (who first set up the international banking network). Elsewhere, historic images of the family are imprinted into the very fabric, impressing the relationship between business and the family, historic legacy and the action within the room. In a meeting, the Rothschilds are with you,
a spectral presence.

The core of the building – the middle third of which is sheathed in plate glass and steel – is where the business of business happens. Like the engine of an expensive car, this is superficially on display. The promise of transparency – long glass walls, open office spaces – is tempered by the need for discrete privacy: thick, vertical, steel veins run across the exterior, masking the machinations of what might be going on inside. The top section of the building, visible above the surrounding neighbourhood, is an elegantly constructed three-storey tower meant to be seen from all angles. Yet rather than a monument to transparency, it is an observation tower, standing tall over Mansion House. From here, the invited few (I was not allowed into the building when I made my request to the bank’s PR department) can watch across the city through vast windows.

New Court was commissioned in 2006 at the height of the boom, yet OMA is an architect’s office that does more than just listen to the requirements of the client – in this case there has been a clear attempt to redefine the physical bank. It is easy to think that much of contemporary City architecture of the past decade – the business-park modernism of New Labour triumphalism – was nothing more than the emperor’s new clothes. At New Court, the opposite is true. Here the tailoring is so subtle it is almost impossible to discern but it is there. Rather than the naked emperor, one is tempted to ask whether it is the suit who makes the wearer – perhaps Koolhaas’s discreet assemblage hides little more than an empty space? The modern bank is a exquisitely designed void that turns nothing into surplus.

Leo Hollis’s most recent book is “The Stones of London” (Verso, £25)