Visit to see the work of Sir Herbert Baker in the City of London

Saturday 8 July 2006

Our first visit was to London House. Originally a residence for male students from the Dominions and Colonies of the British Empire, together with a limited number from the UK, it now caters for postgraduate students of both sexes from across the world. It was conceived and built, but not to the original plans, as a group of buildings that would occupy four sides of an island site leaving a quadrangle in the middle. This deliberately copied very much older colleges in Oxford and Cambridge whose atmosphere it hoped to recreate in London. The first sections, the south and east sides which contain all the main rooms, were designed by Baker in the mid-1930s. Enclosure of the quadrangle was not completed until after World War Two. The building with its stone dressed elevations blends comfortably with its Georgian neighbours. The ground floor Sitting Room or Common Room was considered by some to be rather heavy and oppressive, in contrast to the staircase hall with its broad staircase and the Parson’s Library which were seen as being more delicate and attractive.

For the first forty years of its existence the Bank of England operated from rented premises. In 1734 it moved to Threadneedle Street to what was probably the first purpose-built bank in the country. In the next half-century the extent of the site was increased and work was undertaken by both Sampson and Taylor. In 1788 Sir John Soane was appointed as Architect and Surveyor to the Bank. For the next 45 years it was his main preoccupation and he transformed the increasingly complicated labyrinth of buildings. Without doubt, to the general public his best known work at the Bank was the creation of the screen wall around the perimeter of the three-acre site which remains to this day. By the 20th century the Bank’s activities had expanded almost beyond recognition and the majority of the staff worked elsewhere in the City. In 1921 the Directors concluded that utilization of the Threadneedle site was inadequate and that all London operations could be accommodated by a complete reconstruction of its interior. However in order to preserve, as far as possible, the style and character of the existing building, the outside wall and as many as possible of the existing rooms should be retained. This was the task entrusted to Sir Herbert Baker – Sir Edwin Lutyens’s contemporary and sometime collaborator, sometime rival. Baker’s plan had at its core a building seven storeys high with a further three underground, and required an Act of Parliament to deconsecrate an old churchyard within the site. Whilst he recreated a number of fine rooms designed by his predecessors it did not prove feasible to retain the banking halls as had been intended. It was decided that the suitability of the building ‘must not be jeopardised by an excess of piety for Soane’s work.’ The Bank was rebuilt in sections whilst as much as possible of its work continued without removal elsewhere. Work commenced in 1925 and for all practical purposes was finished by the summer of 1939.

We were privileged to be escorted round the Bank by a guide who was at once knowledgeable, charming and enthusiastic: a winning combination. Amongst many fine rooms we were shown the Committee Room, where interest rate decisions are made, and the Court Room, still used by the Court (board) of Directors. Both were originally designed by Sir Robert Taylor and moved from the ground floor to their present location by Baker. In contrast, but entirely complementary, the much simpler Dining Room is all Baker’s work. The Governor’s Room, which is Mervyn King’s working office, looks out on to Baker’s Garden Court which had its origins in the old churchyard.

The Threadneedle entrance hall in the imperial classical style, used to such effect in New Delhi, with its cantilever staircase reputed to have been the longest in Europe, was greatly admired, as was Sir Herbert’s domed main lobby and staircase. Thanks were expressed to Paul Waite for arranging such an interesting and enjoyable tour.

Peter Grant