“Buildings are not idiosyncratic private institutions: they give public performances both to the user and the passerby. Thus the architect’s responsibility must go beyond the client’s program and into the broader public realm. Though the client’s program offers the architect a point of departure, it must be questioned, as the architectural solution lies in the complex and often contradictory interpretation of the needs of the individual, the institution, the place and history. The recognition of history as a principle constituent of the program and an ultimate model of legitimacy is a radical addition to the theories of the Modern Movement.”
(Lord Richard Rogers, Architect – The Lloyd’s Building, Pompidou & Millennium Dome)
I am hurtling up the side of the Lloyd’s Building in one of its numerous exterior glass, cage-like lifts. The view is simply extraordinary. The tapestry before me depicts a city always transforming, transient in its being, like a shifty organism with an itch it can’t quite satiate. The disorderly lines of brightly coloured cranes sporadically break up the layers of Portland stone, glass, cement and steel. Across the road stands 30 St Mary Axe, Norman Foster’s ‘Gherkin’ building for Swiss Re, a little to the south one can clearly see Renzo Piano’s ‘Shard’, not yet complete but already a recognisable icon of the London horizon, and yet even further east you can just make out the Olympic Stadium in its last stages of completion. These modern-thinking buildings have all been greeted with mixed diatribe, mocked and lauded in equal measure, yet like most things, once we get used to them we are sure to end up loving them on some subconscious level. I, for one, am filled with feelings of reassurance and delight when I spot the Gherkin from my seat in a plane, but will not deny that my initial reaction was to chuckle and throw around a few churlish remarks. The Shard seems a tad more promising, but lets not dare approach the subject of Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit structure for the Olympic park for I fear I do not have enough tissues or vocabulary in expressing my disdain for it. As for Richard Rogers’ utopian Lloyd’s building, my fascination has been drawn each and every time I have walked past it. A colossal structure of ‘winking’ stainless steel and glass that seems to have been assembled unmethodically from a child’s Lego box, this ‘inside-out’ construction has been likened to a mammoth-sized coffee percolator or motorcycle engine. To believe they even forgot to remove the cranes from the roof would be enough to have us all rolling in the aisles. But finally given the chance to view it for myself, I discovered that not only did my laughter quickly subside to a sigh of reverence but also that the ‘truth’ to be a revelation beyond all my expectations.
The curious configuration surrounding the Lloyd’s Building dates back as far as the medieval times. The roads still reflect what would have been the perimeters of crop fields, and such is the stubborn nature of this city that when Christopher Wren drew up plans to reorganise and gentrify the mapping of the streets after the great fire of 1666, the residents immediately took up and rebuilt upon their land, with the smouldering embers hardly having time to extinguish themselves. For all the chaos and clutter that denotes the exterior of Lloyd’s, it is inside where logic and calm overrides. The ambience is almost cathedral-like, with light streaming down from the stadium-sized atrium, down the concrete well to the white marble floor of the Underwriting Room where the oddly irreconcilable Lutine Bell hangs from within the altar-like Rostrum. The bell was recovered from the wreck of The Lutine, (translation: “the tormentress”) a magicienne-class frigate of the French Navy that was captured by the Royal Navy and re-commissioned as HMS Lutine before being lost in 1799. The bell was recovered, entwined amongst the chains that ran from the ship’s wheel to the rudder on 17th July 1859. Historically, a ship’s bell rings out when another ship goes missing, once for a loss of ship and twice for her return. The bell now serves at the Lloyd’s Building so that underwriters and brokers are simultaneously informed of important happenings, commemorative ceremonies, Armistice Day or when key figures die. Again, one stroke for bad news and two for good.
When Richard Rogers was awarded the job of designing this fourth reincarnation (the original was built an the same site in 1928) he continued with his innovative style from when he designed The Pompidou in Paris with Renzo Piano of positioning all services such as lifts, staircases, water pipes and electrical power conduits on the outside, leaving a meticulous, well-ordered and breathable space inside. The cranes were ‘ingeniously’ left on the roof for future exterior and easily accessible maintenance work. Around the central rectangular well sits 3 main towers and 3 service towers, spanning 14 floors and 88 metres. Each floor, from where the insurance business is conducted, is modular and can be adjusted with the introduction or removal of partitions and walls. The large ceiling lights double up as air extractors and the triple-glazed external layers act as air ducts from ceiling to floor. The 11th floor houses the starkly contrasting Committee Room, – an 18th century dining room drafted for the 2nd Earl of Shelburne by Robert Adam in 1763. Piece-by-piece it has been painstakingly relocated from the previous Lloyd’s Building (1958) across the road. The 12 glass lifts were the first of their kind in the U.K. Lloyd’s of London is currently the world’s most significant insurance market and the reason it has seen so many transformations is due to problems of overcrowding and expansion. This is the very reason why Richard Rogers was chosen for the job. The infrastructure is sympathetic to the emotional and physical needs of the people who use it, not only for the present but also for the future. Rogers goes on to say, – “whereas the frame of the building has a long life expectancy, the servant areas, filled with mechanical equipment have a relatively short life, especially in this energy-critical period. The servant equipment, mechanical services, lifts, toilets, kitchens, fire stairs, and lobbies, sit loosely in the tower framework, easily accessible for maintenance, and replaceable in the case of obsolescence. The key to this changing juxtaposition of parts is the legibility of the role of each technological component, which is functionally expressed to the full.”
Rogers has largely taken influence from the avant-garde architectural group ‘Archigram’ of the 1950’s. Their futurist designs were considered by many to be pro-consumerist yet lacking in self-importance. They experimented with hypothetical projects through modular technology playing with ideas of mobility through the environment and mass-consumer imagery. Such mega-structure designs included the ‘Plug-in-City’ (a framework into which a dwelling can be slotted), the ‘Walking City’ (roaming pods) and the ‘Instant City’ (floating pods brought in to stimulate underdeveloped towns). It was very much about thinking outside the box. Archigram group member David Green explains, “if we consider for a moment Christo’s seminal work, ‘The Wrapped Coast’, we might see it in two ways, – as a wrapped cliff or, preferably, as the point at which all other cliffs are unwrapped. An Archigram project attempts to achieve this same altered reading of the familiar (in the tradition of Buckminster Fuller’s question, ‘How much does your building weigh?’). It provides a new agenda where nomadism is the dominant social force; where time, exchange and metamorphosis replace stasis; where consumption, lifestyle and transience become the programme; and where the public realm is an electronic surface enclosing the globe.” Rogers has very much taken this on board, having found an even distribution between technical coherence and architectural eloquence. All structural components are fully in evidence giving both the pedestrian outside and the patron inside a comprehensive understanding of just how the building is secured and sustained. In 2008, The 20th Century Society called for the Lloyd’s Building to be a listed Grade 1, – the tide of taste and reckoning has turned already. And I’m sure the Gherkin will follow suit. Most worthy additions to our enthralling London skyline, – yet, the verdict on Mr. Kapoor’s structure will no doubt have its day of retribution in the coming year. And I know exactly where I stand on that one.
For a more in depth history of the Lloyd’s Building, click ‘here’