Tuesday, 28 July 2009

NatWest Tower, Bishopsgate EC2

The NatWest Tower is not the greatest skyscraper in the world, but it pulls off one of the most difficult tricks in architecture - extending a great classical building in an unashamedly modern style without either ruining the old or compromising the new.
The original headquarters of the National Provincial Bank was designed by John Gibson in 1864. It is a procession of giant columns, just one storey, as if the bank was boasting that it could afford to build low when everyone else was cramming in as much floor space as possible on their sites.
A century later, the NatWest wanted to make a more modern statement with a bigger, brasher HQ. They brought in Colonel Siefert, a man who never put art before money, but he saw that adding extra floors on the Gibson building would destroy it, and would not provide the space required either.
So he built London's then-tallest building behind Gibson's hall, making it into a plinth for the tower. It works outstandingly well.
If only the Bank of England had had the courage to do the same, instead of allowing Sir Herbert Baker to plonk a massive and stupendously boring stone block on top of Sir John Soane's masterpiece, one of the 20th century's great acts of vandalism.
Where was I? Oh yes, the NatWest. It is covered with high-quality statuary. Between the giant columns are panels representing the usual Victorian themes of commerce, trade, honest toil etc. They are by John Hancock, a friend and admirer of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
The panel over the doors shows the Angel of Commerce armed with the fasces or bundle of rods representing justice, standing next to a hive for prosperity.
From the left, traders from India, America, Africa and China bring their produce to her feet. She waves them on to a group of merchants who record, weigh and value the goods. The banker on the extreme right is sitting on his bonus.

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