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BUILDING STUDY: Swanke Hayden Connell Architects has taken an inaccessible backland in Newgate and created a 'simple', 'undemonstrative' HQ for financial powerhouse Merrill Lynch that complements, rather than competes with, the City of London's historic p

'An invasion - and one more of Vandals than Goths, ' was Lord St John of Fawsley's view (back in 1990) of the influx of American architectural practices into Britain. The former chairman of the now-defunct Royal Fine Art Commission saw London as threatened 'with a rash of quite unsuitable buildings. . . Urban design is not the American architect's strong point.'

The irony was that, even as Lord Fawsley spoke, American architects were imposing some formal order on the London development boom fuelled by the pro-enterprise policies of Margaret Thatcher. Even Richard Rogers - no admirer of Thatcher or of the Post-Modernist style adopted for a number of buildings there - saw real merit in the air of quality and attention to detail evident in the Canary Wharf development, masterplanned by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

Here were generous public spaces, gardens and public art works, as well as millions of square feet of state-of-the-art office space.

The contrast between Canary Wharf and the random mess conjured up elsewhere in Docklands by the London Docklands Development Corporation (also now happily defunct) was striking.

When it comes to vandalising historic cities, in fact, the British are probably the world champions - as evidenced by the history of the site at Newgate, in the City of London, where the giant investment bank and asset manager Merrill Lynch has recently completed its British headquarters. It has taken a practice with its roots in the US, Swanke Hayden Connell Architects (SHCA), to perform a near-miracle and produce an attractive series of public spaces, as well as a highly efficient financial powerhouse, out of an inaccessible City backland.

In the vandalism stakes, King Henry VIII has few rivals. The Protestant Reformation, which he unleashed on England, launched a Taliban-style assault on the country's artistic patrimony. Henry's dissolution of the monasteries, though fuelled by greed rather than conviction, changed the face of London. Most of the religious houses were quickly demolished. The Franciscan house at Newgate was an exception. The Franciscan order (the Greyfriars) came to London in 1224, two years before St Francis's death. The Newgate site, close to the north-west angle of the City wall, was assembled over a number of years. Here, in 1306, the friars began to build a magnificent preaching church, 300ft long, the grandest in the City after St Paul's, with cloisters and other monastic buildings to the north and west.Over the next two centuries the church became the burial place of many members of the London elite - its founder, Queen Margaret (wife of Edward I) was interred close to the high altar - and was enriched with stained glass and other works of art. In 1429 Richard ('Dick') Whittington, Lord Mayor of London, donated his magnificent library to the Greyfriars. Little more than a century later, the friary was dissolved and the buildings pillaged - the splendid funeral monuments were sold as scrap for £50 - but not destroyed.

The desecrated choir of the friars' church was subsequently converted into a parish church, Christ Church, with the King's printer using the nave as a workshop printing bibles and prayer books. In 1552, Christ's Hospital, a school catering for poor children, moved into the abandoned monastic premises. It remained on the site for 350 years, surviving the Great Fire of 1666 which destroyed the church and many of the other buildings - though Whittington's library survived. Wren, responsible for the new Christ Church (built in 1677-1704 on the site of the former monastic choir, using the footings of the old piers, with the site of the nave as its churchyard), also worked on the reconstruction of the school, assisted by Nicholas Hawksmoor. Later buildings there included a remarkable Great Hall of the 1830s, replacing the Whittington library.

Once on the edge of the City, Christ's Hospital found itself increasingly hemmed in by commercial development. In 1902, it moved to more salubrious surroundings in Horsham, Sussex, and the bulk of the Newgate site was sold to the Post Office for redevelopment, with the northern edge going to St Bartholomew's Hospital. The move was described by the Survey of London as 'the heaviest blow that has been dealt to lovers of London for many years', and the subsequent clearance operation as 'among the worst and most shortsighted cases of vandalism in the past 50 years'.

The school premises, which included remnants of the medieval cloisters as well as the buildings by Wren and Hawksmoor, were flattened. The Post Office had moved to this quarter of the City in the 1820s, steadily expanding its operations westwards from St Martin's le Grand. Christ's Hospital was replaced by a huge sorting office constructed, in 1907-11 (to designs by Henry Tanner of the Office ofWorks), of reinforced concrete on the Hennebique system. This innovative, but utilitarian, structure, with attached service yards, effectively filled the core of the site, which was totally closed to the public. Formal frontages by Tanner on Newgate Street and King Edward Street politely concealed it from view.

With the completion of its new buildings, the Post Office employed nearly 4,000 staff on the Newgate/St Martin's le Grand site.

The years following the Second World War saw it steadily downsizing, with the former Christ's Hospital site the last element to close - providing what SHCA's design director David Walker describes as the 'ideal' site for his client's requirements.

'There had been, in effect, only three previous owners in 700 years, ' says Walker, 'the friars, Christ's Hospital and the Post Office, and the deal involved a direct sale by the Post Office to Merrill Lynch.'Merrill Lynch - a vast operation, with about 60,000 employees in 40 odd countries handling client assets of $1.5 trillion (sic) - is one of the American institutions (its chief competitors are Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley) which have thrived in London since the 'Big Bang' of 1986. A 1996 merger with the former Smith New Court bank had further increased pressure on the firm's existing sites at Farringdon Road and Ropemaker Place (close to the Barbican). The search was immediately on for a site where various elements in its business could be brought together. As Dan Donohoe, Merrill Lynch's director of corporate initiatives and the overall manager of the five-year project, makes clear: 'Getting the businesses together was seen as vital.We formed an idea of a model building. Big dealing floors, of at least 3,700m 2each, were essential. But the market was offering us buildings, with floorplates which were of no use to us. It appeared that any spec building we took on would need to be expensively adapted, so we began to look for sites where we could construct what we needed.' Net space of not less than 45,000m 2 was required.

The search ranged far and wide - Paddington, Canary Wharf and Southwark all featured in a shortlist drawn up by SHCA from an initial list of more than 40 possible locations. Paternoster Square in the City was also considered - 'but the buildings planned there were simply too small', says Walker. So, in the end, Newgate emerged as the favoured site. Perhaps it was no accident that Merrill Lynch ended up close to the heart of the City - this is where its competitors are, in the heart of things. Sheppard Robson had already obtained consent for an office development on the site and there was an assumption that the Hennebique sorting office, though listed Grade II*, could be demolished. Yet the site still came with complications from which many prospective developers might have shied away.

The final chapter in the long history of vandalism at Newgate had taken place in the early 1970s.Wren's Christ Church, like many other City churches, had been gutted by wartime bombing. Inexplicably, it was not rebuilt (as were, for example, St Mary le Bow and St Bride, Fleet Street) but left as an empty shell. Since the end of the Second World War, the City's reconstruction plans included a provision for the widening of Newgate Street as a principal traffic artery.

With the completion of London Wall (once known as 'Route 11') as a major through route, there seemed to be logic in linking the two. So most of Wren's church, excluding its fine steeple and some sections of wall, was demolished by the Corporation (and replaced with a garden overlooking the widened road), King Edward Street widened into Little Britain (also systematically cleared), and the connection made.

The issue of Newgate Street remained.

The north side was lined with Victorian commercial buildings, typically of four to five storeys, in Corporation ownership, with the listed Viaduct Tavern, a handsome 1870s gin palace, at the west end, opposite the Old Bailey. The longer that these buildings survived, the more futile seemed the City's stated aim of demolishing them - especially since English Heritage was committed to their retention. In fact, the Merrill Lynch project provided the opportunity for this dated proposal to be finally buried forever.

Dan Donohoe admits that a run of Victorian shops, with small offices above them, was not an obvious addition to Merrill Lynch's property portfolio. 'But keeping them and doing something with them was part of the deal with the City and EH' - the office spaces have, in fact, adapted well for the use of support services while the refurbished shops are fully and profitably let.

Part of the 'deal' involved a rescue operation for the remains of Christ Church. There was talk of complete reconstruction but the agreed strategy was to reclaim the eastern end of the site and extend the garden to mark the outline of the lost church. The churchyard, on the site of the Greyfriars nave, remained a public space but would be improved as part of the scheme. There also had to be provision for a precious fragment of the City wall, a Scheduled Ancient Monument buried below a Post Office vehicle yard, to be made available for public viewing.

As constructed in 1998-2001, the Merrill Lynch Financial Centre has an essentially simple diagram - 'dumb' is David Walker's adjective. The central element in the project is the series of trading floors on two levels of the very large building occupying the former sorting office site, two of which are of 6,200m 2, which accommodate about half of the total staff on site (currently about 3,500, though capacity is 4,200). The building rises to seven storeys to the east, falling away to six on its western section, in line with St Paul's Heights controls. The separate western block (about 9,300m 2, running through to Giltspur Street) is also of five storeys. The former Post Office building on King Edward Street has been refurbished, with the imposing colonnaded hall at street level restored for conferencing space and a small display about the history of the site, open to the public.

When David Walker uses the term 'dumb', he does so with some precision. 'We wanted to be straightforward, simple, undemonstrative, and authentic but certainly not to compete with Wren, ' he says.

'For me, architecture is about mass, stasis, rather more than lightness or movement in the High-tech tradition.' The client's preferences, says Dan Donohoe, were for the understated - 'solidity, a sense of stability and of timelessness were maybe the qualities we wanted, not ostentation, and we wanted this to extend through the project'.

Perhaps there was a degree of fellow feeling between architect and client, given their common American origins (though both are keen to be seen as firmly rooted in London). The project certainly benefited from a clear line of command, with Donohoe reporting back to Merrill Lynch's executive committee on matters of principle, but not on lesser issues - 'You can't do big projects with a committee peering over your shoulder'. Donohoe managed the project with GTMS, dealing directly with main contractor and 95 subcontract packages, with the fit-out entrusted to SHCA to ensure an integrated aesthetic. It was completed on time, to budget and is, says, Donohoe, 'successful in all respects - the end-users love it'.

But, he concedes: 'You need deep pockets, big resources to do it this way, though our savings were actually very substantial.'

For David Walker, the most satisfying aspects of the project are urbanistic. 'My generation in the US was reared on Colin Rowe, Ken Frampton, Tony Vidler, Aldo Rossi, ' he says. 'I remember hearing Richard Rogers' lecture in the 1970s and disagreeing profoundly even then with his view of the city as about human activity, movement. For me, it is more about buildings and the spaces around them, about the street, the square'.

The architecture is plainly, but undemonstratively, modern, with a clear expression of structure but clad in brick and stone so that the frame, rather than the glazing, is the dominant element. (The look is that of SHCA's earlier Deutsche Bank building on London Wall - see AJ 20.5.99). The buildings frame a series of public and communal spaces which open up what was a closed site. A green central quadrangle between the main and west blocks can be accessed from the west and south, where a new public route runs behind the restored Newgate Street shops. To the east, a narrow alley skirting Christ Church leads into a generously scaled arcade or 'cloister', roughly on the line of the Greyfriars' cloister overlooking the former churchyard, with its restored railings. Here a new paved way marks the central aisle of the monastic nave. Another satisfying space, shared by cabs and pedestrians, has been created between the dealing floor building and the King Edward Street block - everything is kept simple: just two trees, well-conceived paving and the enormous boon of splendid views of the dome of St Paul's beyond the spire of Christ Church.

The focus of the development for those who work there is the glazed galleria which flanks the main block, extending east-west through the site. This could have been the final link in the public route through the site. In practice, it is restricted to those who work or have business there - a disappointing, if understandable, decision. A new link building taking the corner from Newgate Street into the churchyard contains escalators plus cafe and meeting room areas, set apart from the dealing floors and screened from the galleria by a slatted timber screen.

This building is connected to the principal office spaces by a series of slender bridges.

In the US, it is not unusual for large office developments to generate gains in terms of public space. Broadgate was one of the first developments in the City to take up this theme, though its spaces - developed from scratch on former railway land - are somewhat sterile and corporate. At Newgate, SHCA has boldly confronted the history of a site ravaged by destroyers. What it has achieved has been variously hailed as a triumph for the City (stemming the drift to Docklands) and for the cause of low-rise over tall buildings. More significantly, it evokes Aldo Rossi's dream of a city 'that is beautiful because of the wealth and variety it contains. . . a place where the fragments of something once broken are recomposed'. At Newgate, SHCA has produced that uncommon quantity: architecture which is both commercial and civic, addressing the needs of a City whose commercial vigour is only now generating a worthy modern architecture.

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