This is a long overdue article as ‘New Court’ on St. Swithin’s lane, was finished a year ago and obviously has been in the press a lot since it is OMA’s first building in London. However I am not sure how accurate is the critique of architecture that is only seen from the outside. In fact I believe that buildings are best evaluated by those who use them.
The Rothschilds are one of the most powerful banking dynasties in the UK or rather, in Europe. Their wealth and power is almost inconceivable and New Court is the new headquarters that Rem Koolhaas was been invited to build. According to the architects both the brief and their concept was to keep the building discreet reflecting the family ethos. Additionally the fact that the plot is neighbouring a church by sir Christopher Wren* inspired the team to open a vista towards it in order to make it visible from the street. Thus part of the building is raised on pilotis (some of the columns have a peculiar N shape) that is supposed to widen the alley that it is situated on. The pilotis create a quasi-public space at the end of which is a raised atrium that overlooks St. Stephen Walbrook church. Whether one is aware of the church’s existence or not is irrelevant as it naturally attracts the eye walking down St. Swithin’s lane. It is a distinct focal point that is framed by the volumes of New Court. I most definitely was drawn to it and went up the few steps that led to the atrium but immediately upon my entrance to the ‘piazza’ I was informed by a security guard who rushed to meet me that this was a private space and photography was not allowed.
Knowing that this is the headquarters of a bank one would expect the building to express the exclusivity and high security that such an establishment represents. The fact that there is no way for anyone interested in the architecture to ever enter the building is a proof of that. However what I found truly frustrating and hypocritical was that it has been advertised as a building that wants to be rather open and friendly to its surroundings. It definitely feels anything but friendly, it actually resembles more a secure fortress where practically no one but its ‘master and his court’ are welcome.
Still I cannot but admit that at least exteriorly, this is a good looking edifice. It is rather elegant and does not attempt in any way to attract attention. Of course this contradicts the fact that one of the most famous architects in the world was invited to design it.
And yes it is true that it has opened views to Wren’s church and its drawn-back façade widens slightly the street it is built on. However, to me those gestures were tactical decisions rather than design concepts that aim to create the illusion that this building is friendly and open.
I believe that OMA did a good job design-wise. More importantly they achieved to aesthetically counterbalance the extreme exclusivity that a bank headquarters represents in the most discreet way. Still what totally put me off was to discover that they got permission to exceed the maximum height allowed in the area. It is possible that this was awarded to them in exchange of the footprint space that they supposedly have given up to widen the street. However this piazza space is anything but inviting and even the church in the back seems almost like the bank’s private property. Somehow trapped and incorporated in the new building’s concept.
Walking around Bank station I tried to catch glimpses of the building from afar and the fact that it rises higher than anything else was once more truly off-putting. I somehow got stuck to the idea that the owners insisted on rising above all else to seal their superiority over the surrounding lands as was done centuries ago. And this was conveniently done by making people believe more public space was created along with the opening of visual access to a famous church. Unfortunately my suspicions were confirmed when I found out that the topmost floor of the ‘Sky pavilion’ is only reserved for the Rothschild family’s private functions.
*Sir Christopher Wren is one of the most famous architects in the history of the UK known for many projects one of the most important of which is St. Paul’s Cathedral read more about him here