O. Campbell-Jones & Sons ,1957Roman House
|Borough||City of London|
|Materials||marble, portland stone|
Roman House is a modest office block built extremely quickly and with great economy. It was the first building to be completed as part of one of London’s greatest and most ambitious pieces of urban renewal. The office block is a discreet and well-behaved component in the much larger London Wall development.
Constructed between 1957 and 1976, London Wall was part of a movement of amazing optimism and faith in the ideology of architectural modernism and its promise of a new built form for the city following the devastation of the blitz. It demonstrates what was possible within the breadth of vision following the Second World War and the new powers of centralised planning control. The London that emerged from the ruins of war was to be the remedy to the haphazard milieu of previous. London Wall emerged as a segment of architectural clarity, symbolic of the efforts of the public body to exercise control over the built environment and crucially attempts on the private sector.
London Wall owes its conception to longstanding calls for a northern traffic bypass for the City of London. The first concrete proposals were put forward in the 1947 Town Planning Committee publication, “The City of London; A Record of Destruction and Survival” by C. Holden and W.G. Holford. In the document London Wall is referred to as Route 11 and shown as a dual carriageway running from Aldgate (east) to Ludgate Circus (west). The Holden/Holford plan espoused the virtues of new building forms in the city. It is a landscape characterised by the separation of traffic and pedestrian. New roads are lifted above new and intimate public spaces mimicking the City’s ancient lanes and courtyards. The plan suggests a continuity where people would relax and socialise amid gardens, shopping precincts and cafes. Crucially it also makes rather thorough recommendations on providing adequate daylight for workers through the reorganisation of the office building. This call was, “for something of an architectural revolution in the City.”
In 1944 a Town and Country Planning Act granted power for local authorities to acquire land through compulsory purchase to create a, “simpler and more expedious procedure for redevelopment of areas of extensive bomb damage.” In this year the City of London Corporation gained by compulsory purchase the 40 acre site north of St Paul's , which was to become London Wall and later the Barbican. In 1947 a further act nationalised the planning process and crucially granted the LLC planning control over the City Corporation, “much to the city’s disgust.”
Roman House was the first building to be granted planning permission as part of an overall plan for the Barbican area agreed in 1955. The central component of the plan was characterised by a comprehensive scheme for 6 identical office towers at equal distance from one another placed at acute angles to Route 11 and raised on a common pedestrian deck. Roman House sits within the street map of this new commercial development, but is not part of the architectural unity proposed by the City and the LCC’s ‘Martin Mealand’ scheme. It is more of a supporting element.
The L-shaped block is an extremely straightforward building. Its design is down to the combination of a tight budget and the desire to provide flexible office accommodation quickly that would be bathed in natural light. A concrete frame supports a grid of pillars placed at 12 ft intervals and forms its external facade of glazing panels with light cladding in Portland stone. This repetition of elements defines its interior spaces with services placed inside the angle where the two wings of the building meet. At the seventh floor the office space is recessed to provide a sun terrace, while at basement level a reinforced box houses a car park for twelve vehicles.
For some time the building stood, amidst bombed out ruins and can be seen in numerous pictures of the time as something of a white beacon. It was eventually joined by other buildings of the London Wall scheme and frames a landscaped garden complete with a surviving fragment of the Roman London Wall. This intimate space is one of the City’s best-kept secrets and provides a somewhat Arcadian spot from which to view the scheme. The foliage softening the impact of a diverse range of architectural finishes.
Subsequent development around the building has overshadowed Roman House, buts its economic design has proved popular with commercial tenants. It is an elegant example of the fast disappearing 1950s style of utility modernism and importantly an unthreatened one.