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Martin Pawley: a tale of one city

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Ruthless John Ritblat, chairman of British Land, thinks that pictures of buildings are boring because they all look the same. Nonetheless, in addition to buying up the rest of Broadgate, he has purchased 175 Bishopsgate, the only bit of Lipton and Bradman's creation that has a real history.

The saga of No 175 started when the European Bank of Reconstruction & Development, founded in 1990 to invest in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe, was ordered by Brussels to locate itself in London. Under its flamboyant French president Jacques Attali, the bank set out to find a suitable building. That this search ended up in what Attali described as a 'terraced house' at 175 Bishopsgate is common knowledge - as is the fact the Attali was later forced to resign because he spent £66 million on structural alterations, fitting out and decorating the building in an attempt to raise its status. This was more money than his bank lent to struggling Eastern Europe over the same period.

When the search for premises started, the bank's French architects, Berthet & Pochy, thought it would be easy to find a high-quality 25,000m2 office shell in Central London. Instead they found that, apart from Broadgate, it was practically impossible. They carried out feasibility studies on no fewer than 35 London buildings before reluctantly settling for Bishopsgate at the end of 1991. The list included premises at Canary Wharf, Grand Buildings in Trafalgar Square, the Lutyens Midland Bank building in Poultry and - Jacques Attali's own emphatic choice - Embankment Place at Charing Cross. But, for one reason or another, none of these worked out. In the end the Bishopsgate building was accepted as a cheap option that could be made palatable by means of a grand interior. Berthet & Pochy did wonders in transforming the gloomy 1980s would-be dealing floors into the headquarters of a major European institution, but it was not enough. Neither the practice nor its client had really known what to expect in London. Certainly not the ira bomb of April 1993 that exploded during a boardroom meeting at the bank, nor the tabloid hue and cry that went up once the stories about Attali's hewn-marble lift lobbies got out.

By the summer of 1993, when Attali resigned, it must have looked to everyone in Brussels as though, despite its financial reputation, London was the last place in the ec you would want to locate a European institution. And sure enough, after another ira bomb in 1994, Brussels decided that the ebrd's big brother, the European Central Bank, would not be located there after all.

There is a sequel to the history of 175 Bishopsgate. After his departure Attali wrote a novel about life in the twenty-first century that settled a few old scores. In it he foresees the uk reduced to anarchy and London seething with homeless beggars. In the shires, desperate Lloyd's names are selling off their vital organs to raise cash. Since the Channel Tunnel has been blown up by terrorists, the rest of the ec has written our island off as a bad job. Perhaps John Ritblat should glance at a copy.

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