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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.

left picture:approaching the building from St. Swithin's lane/Middle picture:the pilotis/right picture:View of the building from St.Swithin's lane

left picture:approaching the building from St. Swithin’s lane/Middle picture:the pilotis/right picture:View of the building from St.Swithin’s lane

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.

left picture:St. Stephen Walbrook by Sir Christopher Wren as seen from New Court's atrium/middle picture:New Court's library with prints of Rothschild family members portraits/right picture:view of the building from the atrium

left picture:St. Stephen Walbrook by Sir Christopher Wren as seen from New Court’s atrium/middle picture:New Court’s library with prints of Rothschild family members portraits/right picture:view of the building from the atrium

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.

reception as seen from the piloti/right picture:view of New Court from St.Swithin's lane

left picture:the N column/middle picture:view of the reception as seen from the piloti/right picture:view of New Court from St.Swithin’s lane

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 it is obvious that the building exceeds allowed maximum height for the area

Walking around the buldingn it is obvious that the building exceeds allowed maximum height. Left picture St.Stephen Walbrook church on the left and Walbrook building by Norman Foster/Right picture seen from Bank Station

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.

New Court's Sky pavilion

New Court’s Sky pavilion

*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

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The reviews for the OMA/Progress exhibition at the Barbican have been quite positive and this can be easily justified . The layout is rather unique, mainly because it was curated by the Belgian collective Rotor and their non-architectural point of view is certainly refreshing. Their goal was to make the exhibition accessible to the general public and not just to architects. Even though the choice of exhibits is quite unconventional and one is intrigued  to figure out the architects’ rational (or is it the curator’s way of thinking?) it does imply that there is an aura of genius around anything that OMA is involved with. This might possibly explain why we need to read with religious piety hundreds of emails OMA exchanged with their clients, or see random snapshot of their computer screens. Even trivial things seem important …is this what makes them so wonderful? Or is it the fact that they feel confident enough to publicise without editing  thoughts, documents and possible mistakes?

Actually the publication of private office information does not help that much the visitor  to grasp the whole  ‘work in progress’ idea . It rather seems to be an expression of an architect’s inflated ego (an unfortunate occupational hazard) that urges them to show off in a childlike manner. Not to mention the advantages of advertising and most importantly the establishment of OMA as a ‘brand’ which does not stand out because of a specific design style but through their ‘special’ approach in solving architectural problems . Nevertheless there is something unique about this architectural practice. What is special about OMA  is featured quite explicitly in the exhibition and it is a sort of old-school approach and devotion towards the architectural synthetic  procedure.

It is obvious that they take the time to experiment on materials and models, when other practices have hardly produced any physical scale models since 3D CAD was invented. Apparently it costs too much and offers too little. Still the building materials on display (often developed and patented by the practice) along with the substantial number of models remind us something OMA know well. That architecture is an art and it ‘speaks’ its own language, the elements of which are those mundane tiles and bricks and the possible ways of experimenting with them.  OMA  do take the time and the risk to step into unknown territories and find new ways to speak the architectural language, even if at times they fall into the trap of believing they speak it better than anyone else.

As far as the aesthetics of their architectural idiom or the ethics of their practice are concerned, the exhibition offers loads of material for the visitors to make up their own minds. After all, one thing OMA cannot be accused of, is being afraid of criticism. Any publicity is good publicity.

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