Visible/invisible, public/private, iconic/bland: OMA’s Rothschild Bank is simultaneously contradictory, but pulls it off, writes Rory Olcayto
So what if there are great new views across the City of London and St Paul’s from the ‘Sky Pavilion’ in OMA’s new building for the Rothschild Bank? You’d hope so, given that it’s taller than the surrounding buildings in the Bank conservation area, whose height restriction rules it breaks (‘make it exceptional,’ city planning officer Peter Rees said, granting permission in 2007). This is a private space you’re unlikely to ever see.
Actually, Number One Poultry looks pretty good from up here, like one of James Stirling’s axonometric drawings of it. Nice roof garden. Better than the spartan-looking effort here by OMA. Poultry’s garden is solid. A proper, moulded, public part of the building. And there’s Foster’s Walbrook scheme, looks ready to burst… Really, it does. You can see how Foster has eaten up the whole site footprint. But it’s probably a very good building, in a BREEAM Excellent kind of way. But so what? Because high tea is being served and Rem and the Rothschilds are waiting. Fill it all the way up please. I don’t take milk.
It’s just one more stage-managed event undertaken by so-utterly-now architects OMA as they celebrate the completion of their first two buildings in the UK (the other is a Maggie’s Centre in Glasgow, AJ 20.10.11) and a major exhibition at the Barbican. Their point here in the Sky Pavilion, where they have lured Britain’s architectural press for a cup of tea, is an obvious one. This is a building more concerned with the city into which it has been woven, than one concerned with itself.
Video: New Court explained by Ellen van Loon of OMA
Nevertheless, the multi-purpose panorama room is a wonderful space, the highest of three double-height volumes locked into the glass-lined cube that floats above the main block of New Court, the fourth home of the bank to occupy the medieval St Swithin’s Lane site since Nathan Rothschild established the business in 1809. It must be one of the finest new spaces in London, but you’re unlikely to ever see it for real. This is where the famously secretive Rothschild family conduct their social affairs.
More significantly however for the vast majority of Londoners, especially the city workers who dash through the lane, is what OMA’s low-key, context-friendly headquarters does down below. By raising the main block – 10 storeys of open-plan offices – off street level, views through to Christopher Wren’s St Stephen Walbrook Church, and its 19-metre dome, have been opened up. Instead of competing as accidental neighbours, says Koolhaas, church and office form a ‘twinned urban ensemble, an affinity reinforced by the proportions of their towers’.
For the Pritzker laureate this ‘status of limited visibility’, unique in London to buildings in the City, is a condition to be cherished. From nowhere around can you see New Court in its entirety. The best more-than-partial view you’ll get is from St Mary Woolnoth on King William Street to the north of the lane.
You might argue that limited visibility is the City of London’s great contribution to the ‘public realm’, with an endless variety of enclosed street pictures emerging from the dense, expressive townscape as you walk through its streets and lanes. It’s why despite its hulking footprint, the steampunk aesthetic of the Lloyd’s building, glimpsed alongside the soaring spline curves of the Gherkin and the 16th-century stone of the church of Saint Andrew Undershaft, compensate in part for the meagre public space in the ancient borough. Sometimes an interesting street view really is more civic than a chunky granite bench.
OMA’s New Court, which replaces a 1960s Fitzroy Robinson design no longer fit for purpose, has been forged with this in mind. The great trick it pulls is the sense that it has created public space in St Swithin’s Lane, when in fact it has just opened a view to the green space of the Walbrook church’s graveyard beyond a newly instated colonnade that marks the site footprint.
There is much visual interest here to entertain the passer-by. An ornate clock, typical of the City, hangs down from a sloping soffit of aluminium grills. Steps up to a travertine forecourt have a solitary – huge to the point of cartoony – oak handrail. The underside of the main block, also in travertine, frames a view of Wren’s copper-clad dome, lantern and cupola (‘Majestic’, said Pevsner) beyond.
A glass barrier, deep into the plan, bars entry to the graveyard. On one side of the forecourt, there’s a large reception with a shimmering curtain; on the other, an archive of oak bookshelves, which forms the ground floor of one of the three annexes fixed to the main 10-storey block. Another one of the annexes, a tower of ghostly white glass, lies to the west, and is best viewed from the junction of Bucklersbury and Queen Victoria Street, where it collages with Wren’s spire magnificently. The detailing and build quality is all very good, for which OMA partner Ellen van Loon and executive architect Allies and Morrison could fairly take credit.
There has been talk of this project marking a key moment for architecture in the City. It may not have the immediate visual flair of the recent clutch of new icons such as One New Change or the forthcoming Pinnacle and Walkie Talkie, and at 15 storeys it’s hardly a giant, but its deferential urban design and curious, sensual details do far more for London.
Yet its agglomerative form suggests New Court is the not-so-distant cousin of the Lloyd’s building, that most spectacular example of iconic design. New Court’s form, a central cubic volume with extensions sideways and upwards is a straight borrow from Richard Rogers’ masterpiece. But OMA’s ensemble, aesthetically blank in comparison, works harder contextually: the smaller volumes adjacent to the larger central volume calibrate with the changing scales of the immediate townscape, and generate Gordon Cullen-style views from street level.
Apart from the Sky Pavilion there are few other internal diversions, although the client meeting suites on the top two floors of the main block are a step up in terms of quality, if not charm, from the bland open-plan decks below. OMA has decorated the could-be-anywhere office rooms with laser-etched aluminium freezes and the ‘Heritage Walls’ – silkscreen prints of images from the family business archive. Others have smart glass partitions, which go from milky to clear at the flick of a switch. One has a fortress-like, wall-thick door made of metal – for reasons unapparent. Somehow however, despite the care and precision, these details don’t really add up to much. It even feels a bit cheap. Like the floors below, a competent fit-out by Pringle Brandon, there’s nothing special going on here.
Despite New Court’s street-level experience – which is pretty special – the Sky Pavilion brazenly outs Rothschild’s location in the City by giving it a skyline presence for the first time in 200 years. It is the most public of the building’s architectural moves, but like the rediscovered graveyard, it remains strictly off-limits. Perhaps Rothschild’s should join the Open House programme as a genuine concession to the public realm.
Start on site Demolition April 2008, construction August 2008
Completion November 2011
Gross internal floor area 13,000m2
Contract value Undisclosed
Type of contract Construction management
Client NM Rothschild & Sons
Executive architect Allies and Morrison
Fit-out architect Pringle Brandon
Structural engineer Arup
Services engineer Arup
Fire engineer Arup
Project manager Stanhope
Cost consultant Davis Langdon
Construction manager Lend Lease
Planning consultant DP9
Property consultant Knight Frank Newmark
Townscape adviser Peter Stewart Consultancy
Rights of light GIA
Lighting consultant Gia Equation
Access consultant David Bonnett Associates
Archaeology consultant MOLAS
Landscape consultant Inside Outside