Is the Lloyd’s building a monument to reason or just a wilful mess? Contributing editor Ian Volner hazards an irreverent guess as to the motives behind Richard Rogers’ inscrutable design.
American readers of a certain age – although, begging your indulgence, few if any British ones – will recall with a nostalgic twinge the 1980s public television show 3-2-1 Contact. It was an educational programme aimed at early teens, something like Sesame Street but more sophisticated, and with a special focus on science and mathematics. In one memorable segment, young audiences learned about a fascinating subject called architecture, courtesy of a synth-driven hip-hop track featuring a pair of female rappers with overdrawn New York accents. (“It’s awk-i-techa… Awkitecha!”) The key moment: during a brief musical breakdown, the video cuts to a shot of the Lloyd’s of London building, with a City stockbroker standing in front of it, wearing a bowler about three sizes too small for his very ample head. “Well,” says he, with a disapproving sniff, “I think it’s got its outside off and its inside in.”
Did he mean it the other way around? Ever since its debut in 1986, Richard Rogers’ Lime Street tower has been a source of general confusion. It practically demands some kind of explanation – an architectural close reading, taking into account its Victorian glass vault, its medieval silhouette, its brutalist separation of service and served spaces. Yet it stubbornly resists any such analysis. No apprehensible hierarchy, no visual key appears ready at hand; its programmatic logic, its processional order, its very relation to the human body, all are obscure to the casual observer. For as much as the building seems to expose, it conceals even more and in the absence of clarity, the critical imagination runs riot. Is the design simply the last gasp of 60s-era techno-trippiness? Or is it an earnest pass at architectural truth, a riposte to the false machine-age pietism of the old modernists? Perhaps it’s a sort of vertical expression of London’s jumbled-up streetscape. Maybe it’s just a wilful mess.
Maybe it’s just a wilful mess”
In the telling of its creator, the whole thing is actually rather simple. “The Lloyd’s Building was designed as a flexible machine for a financial marketplace,” says Rogers, “but also as a carefully considered expression of those activities, designed both for the user and for the enjoyment of the passer-by.” Those words, from the architect’s 2017 memoir, make the project out to be a straightforward exercise in old-fashioned humanism – “a place for all people” as the title of his book has it, no more and no less. A voice at least as authoritative as Rogers’ own, that of the late historian and theorist Reyner Banham, appears to concur. In the year before the tower’s official debut, while introducing Rogers at his RIBA Gold Medal ceremony, Banham traced a line from Lloyd’s straight back to the Greeks, comparing the building’s wide-open atrium to the sacred void at the heart of the Parthenon, both of them “cradled” in webs of structure and circulation. “The true quality of Rogers’ work,” Banham went on, “is in making designs that can be well built, however unconventional they might be.” Given that the speaker was the man responsible for popularising the terms “high tech” and “bowellism” – the two tendencies with which Lloyd’s is most closely associated – his assessment deserves some consideration.
And yet – oh, and yet – there is room for doubt. It is, of course, not unusual for an architect to excuse the apparent novelty of a given design by claiming that, however eccentric their choices might appear, the solution was in fact only a natural expression of the brief. Come to think of it, it would be refreshing to hear an architect not say that; to proclaim, just once, that their solution is no solution at all, but a perverse acte gratuit hurled against the city, against nature. In this instance, though the insurance company in residence (despite occasional rumblings about moving house) has presumably grown comfortable with it, the irreverence of the design is so extreme as to hint at stranger, more subversive motives, perhaps even ones of which the designer himself was not aware. So, since Lord Rogers of Riverside will not oblige us, and since even a building as loud as Lloyd’s cannot actually speak for itself, we might enter into evidence a few suggestive if admittedly circumstantial clues:
The buidling conceals more that it reveals. Hierarchy, programme and processional order are impossible to read.
Item. Rogers mentions two peculiar episodes in his autobiography. As a teenager, while living abroad with his Italian relations, the future architect was hurled into prison after a fist fight with a stranger; he was freed in part because the judge was acquainted with his family—not with his illustrious architect cousin Ernesto, but with his grandfather, who had risen to prominence in Trieste owing to his success in the insurance industry. Only a few years later, Rogers fell in love with a budding architect named Georgie Cheesman (later a collaborator); though their romance had its “highs and lows”, the author says that the greatest obstacle was Ms Cheesman’s father, who subjected Rogers to a torrent of threats and verbal abuse. The man’s job? A Lloyd’s underwriter.
Item. Lloyd’s of London, as the architect knew, began life in the 17th century as a coffeehouse; three centuries later, in response to the client’s demand for a “classic” boardroom, Rogers rooted through the corporate archives, found a disassembled 18th-century John Adam dining room, and installed it on the tower’s uppermost floor. A building that sprung from a café therefore rises to a dining room. On its completion, no less a personage than the then-chairman of Lloyd’s declared that the building “looks like a Neapolitan ice cream”.
The moment worked because the building is about everything you’re not supposed to see or do on a city street”
Item. Writer Owen Hatherley, in a perceptive 2014 profile, likens Rogers’ early work not to the ancients but to that of the second-wave neo-gothic pioneer William Butterfield. The comparison is spot on, more so than perhaps Hatherley knew—some of Rogers’ happiest childhood memories centre around St John’s School in Leatherhead, whose oldest buildings were designed by Benjamin Ferrey, a contemporary and fellow traveller of Butterfield’s. Architecturally, Lloyd’s exhibits many of the hallmarks of the Ecclesiological movement, the wild polychromy and the fraught piling-up of volumes; but there is a darker interpretation of Butterfield’s work, one favoured by the late American scholar George Hersey. Looking at the overworked forms, the straining complexity in plan and section that defined a Butterfield church, Hersey saw “a building that can cause suffering …an injured and malevolent being”. Only a “sadomasochist”, he concludes, would be capable of such architectural aggression.
What does it add up to? Not much—only a knitwork pattern of love and hate and family and appetites and anger and desire, woven around and perhaps into the story of Lloyd’s. None of which necessarily refutes the architect’s conscious intention. The building may be every inch the monument to reason that Rogers, now a national institution and centre-left bien pensant, would have us believe. But the joke was plain even to a 13-year-old boy, watching that fat-headed executive (“the most bank-clerky of Englishmen”, in the words of Ezra Pound) goggling at it, so at a loss for words that he couldn’t tell “in” from “out” anymore. That moment worked because the Lloyd’s of London Building is about everything you’re not supposed to see or do on a city street—it’s a guzzling, leering, abject creep, and that is its glory. And who knows what mysterious inner promptings, buried deep in the memory and in the heart, could have come to bear in its creation? One’s whole future might spring from something as small as seeing a weird building on an old TV show, and falling in love with architecture.