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Martin Pawley: by mouse, not mouth

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'You heard an ungodly roar,' wrote Tom Wolfe in Bonfire of the Vanities. 'You couldn't miss it. It was the bond trading room . . . An oppressive space with a ferocious glare, writhing silhouettes and the roar . . . the sound of young men baying for money.'

Well, yes. It used to be like that. But Bonfire of the Vanities was written more than ten years ago. Today it is less and less like that. Tomorrow it will not be like that at all. Back in 1997, the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange (better known as Liffe and determinedly pronounced 'life'), got planning permission to build a monster financial services building in Spitalfields. Designed by Foster and Partners, the centrepiece of the new building was to have been a 10,000m2 trading floor purpose-designed for the derivatives' famous brightly clad shouting and gesticulating pit traders. Were it to be built today, the scale and grandeur of this £400 million building would quicken Tom Wolfe's pulse, for its roaring bear-pit would be an electrifying place. At once a gesture of confidence in the City of London as Europe's prime financial centre - there was a time when Liffe was going to locate at Canary Wharf - coupled with an unmistakeable challenge to Frankfurt, the new building would have generated self-satisfaction all round.

But that was before. Today it rather looks as though Liffe did not have everything sewn up as it seemed. The course of events, that famous evolutionary wild card, had still to be played. When it finally was, the members of Liffe woke up to the impending Germanisation of the derivatives market as a result of European Monetary Union and London's place not in it - let alone the belated admission that sepulchrally silent screen-based dealing is cheaper and faster than young men baying for money. Liffe is now coming to terms with the idea that the new building might be a millstone or a dinosaur, not part of the answer but part of the problem.

Just as it did when the underwriting crisis at Lloyd's mocked the elaborate provisions for growth built into the Richard Rogers building, and the property crash that followed it overtook the fast-track developers of Canary Wharf, old- fashioned architecture has again revealed itself as the Achilles heel of change. The tower at Canary Wharf symbolises the tragic slowness and inflexibility of the art. To this day, with a pair of binoculars, you can see where floor-to-ceiling heights of 4.3m, lovingly set aside for screaming dealers, were converted into ordinary office floors. At Liffe, they consider themselves lucky that their great dealing room has not yet been built.

Can architects, even the greatest, ever foresee the financial equivalent of an earthquake coming down the pike? The sophisticated argument is that it would do them no good if they did. There will always be wealthy and powerful institutions, riding for a fall, who will start putting the finishing touches to evolution by commissioning a grand headquarters supposed to serve them and their heirs for a century or more. Why should any architect say forget it, Portakabins would be better?

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