Building the Bank of England: Money, Architecture, Society By Daniel M Abramson.Yale University Press, 2005. 282pp. £50
'The virtual rebuilding of the Bank of England in 1921-37 is - in spite of the Second World War - the worst individual loss suffered by London architecture in the first half of the 20th century.' This was Nikolaus Pevsner's verdict in his Buildings of England volume, London 1, in 1957. In the updated edition of 1997, Simon Bradley says: 'Pevsner's judgement still stands.' The villain was Herbert Baker, chief victim was John Soane. In this exhaustive study of the Bank's evolution, Daniel Abramson doesn't quite excuse Baker but argues that his rebuilding 'has long been misunderstood and underappreciated'. The Bank needed to expand, modernise, rationalise its layout, and present a new symbolic face to the world; even the trustees of the Soane Museum acknowledged a need for change. Baker struggled to reconcile these demands with respect for Soane's creation, or at least some aspects of it, at a time when Soane didn't have the reputation that he has today (as a quote included from a 1921 AJ makes clear).
But Abramson's revisionism only goes so far - he concludes that Baker wanted to make Soane a more 'orthodox' Classicist than he actually was, and remained 'deaf to the ambiguity, novelty and tensions of Soane's work'.
Soane, of course, in Gandy's famous cut-away perspective, had envisaged the Bank as a ruin - but open to the elements like the Baths of Caracalla, not crushed under tonnes of Baker's masonry.
Analysing this drawing, Abramson points out that Soane has suppressed the work of his predecessors at the Bank, George Sampson and Robert Taylor, and made the building 'falsely' his own. This earlier history gets ample attention in Abramson's account.
However sincere Baker may have been in wanting to preserve parts of Soane's complex, what he did at the Bank of England was a spur to conservationists: the Georgian Group was founded in 1937, John Summerson would soon publish Georgian London (a wake-up call), and just round the corner was the Town and Country Planning Act of 1944, which introduced the concept of listed buildings. Today the Bank is Grade I-listed.
Abramson lets us decide for ourselves if that's at all ironic.