Victor Heal ,1960New Change Buildings
|Borough||City of London|
|Materials||portland stone, red brick|
New Change Buildings is an enormous curiosity. It is an office complex at the heart of the City, built at a time of great innovation, yet managed to ignore all notions of modernism, of lightness and of structural honesty. It is an increasingly rare example of the initial reluctance of the City of London and its commercial partners to accept new architectural styles, but is now subject to comprehensive redevelopment. It was one of the last of a series of traditional-style office buildings that sought to re-establish the business of the square mile in its pre-war architectural envelope of stripped Classicism and Neo-Georgian.
During the war the City of London, in typically insular fashion, produced several of its own plans for rebuilding. ‘Reconstruction in the City of London’ by F.J. Forty, the City’s chief engineer, was published in 1941. Much of its bulk deals with the setting of St Paul's, “a site of eminence,” which ought to be opened up at street level and be visible as much as possible via classically conceived squares and boulevards. A later plan, “The City of London; A Record of Destruction and Survival” of 1947 by C. Holden and W.G. Holford, made more progressive recommendations on architectural form, but cemented opinion as to the treatment of buildings within St Paul’s precinct. New Change was born out of these concerns and the context of the cathedral.
An earlier scheme for the site by Sir John Burnet, Tate and Partners for free standing blocks at right angles to one another was turned down on the basis that it did not show due consideration for its mighty neighbour. During a time of hard fought building licences and scarcity of materials, New Change Buildings was spurred on by Government investment as a ‘Lessor scheme.’ The newly nationalised Bank of England would be its first tenants. Construction on the present building by Victor Heal began sluggishly in 1953. When finally completed in 1960, the scheme’s regressive styling was ridiculously out of step with contemporary practice (see Bucklersbury House) and sat uncomfortably with its heavy bulk.
New Change Buildings makes full use of its massive site. It followed the backward tradition of the street line and is uniformly finished in rather utilitarian red brick with Portland stone at ground level and at cornice lines. In terms of scale it was a new type of building, perhaps too big. Its massive steel frame was dressed in a reactionary set of architectural details all too meanly executed. Effort was made to soften the shattering impact of so much brick by dividing the mass into a variety of ranges some of eight storeys, the maximum reaching eleven. On all the elevations there can be found various combinations of columns, arches and heraldic sculptural motifs and embellishments by Wheeler, Esmond Burton and others, but its variety of treatments pulls the building in many ways.
The symmetrical order facing Newgate Street anticipates the long since abandoned grand square opening up views of St Paul’s put forward by the plans of 1941 and 1947. Had a formal space been provided, it may have found some purpose. At Cheapside the elevation is recessed to form a small shopping parade and, rather bizarrely, at Bread Street sunken courtyards with well-tended lawns and 18th century style fountains by Ernest Gillick are provided. Traversed by bridges they lead through stone arches into a similarly themed courtyard; the Arcadian diversity of it all is corrupted only by the entrance to an underground car park. Pevsner apparently found the whole experience ‘almost beyond apprehension.’
The failings of New Change Buildings are numerous. It attempted greatness without the resources to carry it off in an age indifferent to its aspirations. It is an odd quirk of a building and, like all awkward creatures, rather charming with occasional grace. The gently curving arc onto New Change is uniquely successful. Its loss will erase an important chapter in the City’s architectural history.
In 2006, redevelopment plans by Land Securities were approved and in 2007 demolition began. In a repeat of history, the new scheme by acclaimed French architect Jean Nouvel (his first in London), was expected to show due consideration for the setting of St Paul’s. The new scheme faced in opaque glass, basically mirrors the established bulk of the old, except for the cunning insertion of a pedestrian route designed to provide a new vista of the cathedral. The pursuit of arcadia continues!