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The base of the Commercial Union building, an elegant Miesian tower with its own plaza, and the Nat West tower, less elegant but a landmark in the City of the time.



Since the day it opened Richard Rodgers' Lloyds insurance building confirmed itself as the most important piece of modern architecture in London since the sixties. At the end of the millennium it remains so.

In visual terms, nothing so unusual had broken the London skyline since the Post Office Tower. It has always been much more than a new silhouette whose novelty would wear off in a few months. It was a building that addressed, in architectural metaphor, some of the concerns of late-eighties Britain.

More practically, it answered some of the questions about architecture that London failed to tackle for 20 years.

This new building for the Corporation of Lloyds was not one beholden to the theories of the past. It paid few dues to the cosy classical architecture to be found in nearby Leadenhall Street and Bishopsgate.

More assertively, it paid little regard to recent modern architecture in the capital. It accepted that modern architecture was ordered but asserted that it was not hierarchical. It does not borrow a pediment here, or the ghost of a triumphal arch there, as did postmodernism, for its own imagery.

This in a decade when, in Britain, many frequently spoke up against buildings that had no vestiges of hierarchical design, particularly in their elevations. The semblance of hierarchy still mattered, at least in Britain.

Elsewhere, hierarchy was under attack by management gurus like Tom Peters. Indeed, in Anglo-Saxon countries, ideas from management culture would, in the nineties, come to be a very influential part of cultural generally, until the internet culture began to make them no longer the issue of the day.

The Lloyds building, though, in its time, seemed to playfully acknowledge already that London was a world that might be full of elites but where hierarchy would matter much less.

The Committee of Lloyds was cosseted comfortably on the eleventh floor but otherwise all the underwriters and their underwriting boxes were treated equally on four underwriting floors.

The architecture made a point of making no conscious distinction between them and this was unusual for Britain in the eighties, though not at all so now.

The next startling thing was that the structure was much more English than might be expected from the international architects who had designed the Pompidou centre.

When the Pompidou centre was built near Les Halles in Paris, the brightly coloured pipes soon came to be viewed as peculiarly Parisian. Piano and Rodgers had built a backdrop for part of modern life in the French capital.

It was the best thing that could happen to Paris at the time and until its recent closure for refurbishment remained the the most visited building in France.

In Britain, brightly coloured ducts would not have survived the windier climate well, as the damaging effect of rain, snow and hail on paint is greater in windy climes. The shiny, grey aluminium was likely to last much better and suited the sober tastes of the City of London better, too.

Inside it is like a spartan English corn exchange, standing the wrong way up, in which English draughts still contradict the air conditioning.

The plan was very simple. Rectangular trading floors, with offices above, pierced by a rectangular 12-storey atrium soaring through the middle.

On opening 'The Room', the underwriting area where insurance is transacted, was composed of four floors, open around the atrium, and connected by ever-moving escalators. To provide for market expansion, more floors, open to the atrium, could be pressed into service, retaining a unified market.

Outside, six service towers composed of lifts, services and stairs powerfully but cheekily articulate the elevations.

This descendent of Lloyds Coffee House was not too frightened of the past. Towering with great aplomb and confidence from amidst its neighbours, it made a break from what might be called 'imperial' architecture.

At its base, on Leadenhall Street, the 1928 arch to Sir Edwin Cooper's earlier Lloyds building stood literally broken from its surroundings. It remained, though, imposingly and happily part of the tradition, part of history, unrejected next to its new neighbour. Even a sight to admire.

Likewise the classical Rostrum, containing the Lutine bell, stood restored, as a meeting point at the bottom of the atrium. If anything the scale of the Lloyds building was mildly patronizing to the grandeur of nearby classical architecture.

Here at last was self-assurance, for so long lacking in a modern building in Britain.


Postscript 19 December 2011

Opened 25 years ago in 1986, the Lloyds of London building was today listed Grade I by English Heritage.