Visiting Foster + Partners’ new building, nestling inobtrusively behind the Victorian and Grade II listed City of London Magistrates court, you are somewhat unprepared for the delights contained within. As well as the contrast between relatively humble exterior and stunning interior, Bloomberg’s HQ is also a surprise in that it sees the financial information behemoth setting up its European base in London as the UK prepares to leave the EU.
Great architecture is not about biggest is best, it can be showy without being show-offy, and can retain a degree of humility appropriate to its setting while also being a celebration of design. This building is an amazing example of attention to detail, from its natural ventilation via beautiful gill-like bronze fins and an open core, to 2.5 million polished aluminium ‘petals’ that make up the ceilings, to the way the timber floors meet the facade.
Foster wanted a “London building” and externally its stone frame and low height does have some of that stoic seriousness of businesslike London buildings of the past. However this comes not from penny-pinching (and the project team won’t give a hint of how much this one cost), but instead it’s a result of a client wanting to blend in.
The irony of course is that this building was planned shortly after the financial crash, but company founder and 10th richest person in the world Michael Bloomberg didn’t anticipate the Brexit vote, and he gave a candid hint recently that he might have taken a different tack on where to site the HQ if he had known. In fact this straight- talking New Yorker had some scathing words for the UK about Brexit, saying it was “the stupidest thing any country had done,” until the US ‘Trumped’ it a few months later.
This former New York Mayor could have built a 22-storey macho monolith here, but did something very different, with curving bronze walkways and a sense of collaboration. He jokingly said that the project was the result of “a billionaire who wanted to be an architect working with an architect who wanted to be a billionaire,” however it is evident that the partnership between architect and client has been a very harmonious one.
Another Mayor was present, Sadiq Khan, somewhat predictably saying Bloomberg choosing this site “sends a clear message to the world about the value of investing in this great city.” He also said pointedly that “despite Brexit, it shows that London is open to business, investment and some of the best design in the world.” However, sitting in the opulent results of this intent, it didn’t sound like empty rhetoric.
Norman Foster spoke about how, as a patron, Michael was a “rare individual in that he practices what he preaches.” Also that he had written that “issues of sustainability were too important to be left to Government.” He has put his money where his mouth is – the building’s the greenest yet of its kind – but perhaps the equally important thing for inspiring future design is that it’s a fantastic place to be. And Bloomberg is keen to stress that the public won’t be shut out as they have been with the Gherkin, they will be allowed in to enjoy at least some of it.
As a chapter closes on London’s involvement in Europe, it’s an interesting irony that the new building is built over the ancient Temple of Mithras, now to be restored for free public access. It’s reportedly where the name of London as a settlement was first written down; could the amazing building above be one of the last temples to London as the world’s financial centre?