Meals and deals

High tea at Rothschild’s: OMA and the dynastic bank.

I was late, very late, but that was good. The press tour round OMA’s new headquarters for merchant bank N.M. Rothschild in the financial heart of the City of London had concluded on the top floor of its ‘sky pavilion’. I arrived to find a high-ceilinged, glass walled room giving new views across the City of London that for once justify the term ‘spectacular’. There were lots of people in the room, including Rem Koolhaas and his OMA design partner in charge of the project, Ellen van Loon, but everyone had finished looking outwards. Now they were all turned inwards, seated round a long table with a crisp white linen tablecloth, heaped high with delicacies. It was 3.30pm. An early high tea was being served. The sight of it, happening here, was simultaneously incongruous and marvellous. A vignette. Outside, an economic crisis was in progress, not that you’d notice.

High tea, for those readers not accustomed to anachronistic British meals, is a great and wonderful thing. It consists of finger food and cakes of various kinds accompanied by tea served from china teapots. It’s a complete meal, if you so choose, at what for many is an odd time of day (between 4pm and 5pm is more usual). I’m prepared to bet that the senior directors of Rothschilds take high tea on a regular basis. This is a bank that is all about tradition, and dining. And a bit of money.

It is an important building for OMA, on a site of maximum importance for the Rothschild dynasty. This is the exact site – New Court, off the narrow mediaeval alley of St. Swithin’s Lane, just behind the Wren church of St. Stephen Walbrook, and within hailing distance of the Bank of England – where Frankfurt-born Nathan Mayer Rothschild first set up his finance house in 1809. He had been sent to England by his father to diversify the family business, first plied his trade as a textile merchant in Manchester, then moved to London and started trading on the Stock Exchange. He helped fund the Napoleonic wars, and by 1825 was rich enough to bail out the Bank of England, handily close by. Soon the Rothschilds were British aristocracy.

They have always kept it an ultra-conservative family business, allergic to fashionable speculation: they claim to have been unaffected by the last financial crash, by simply not dealing in the rubbish that other banks did. The international price of gold is still fixed twice a day at Rothschild’s HQ, even though it is said that the family does not deal much in gold any more. It’s another tradition, like high tea.

Take that family history and caution, add the general conservatism of the City of London – especially in the immediate heritage-alert context of anything by Wren – and all in all, it’s a miracle that a ‘foreign’ firm of architects with a reputation for the outrageous won the 2005 competition to redevelop the site. So it is no surprise to find that this building is no challenging behemoth like Beijing’s CCTV (which, to be fair, is well away from the historic core) or the no less angular Seattle public library, or the landed meteorite of the Casa da Musica concert hall in Porto. Here at the heart of old London, you get an OMA building that is well-mannered, corporate, svelte, positively self-effacing.

The Dutch outfit worked with British architects Allies and Morrison (a good modernist safe pair of hands) with fit-out largely by another reliable and more workaday outfit, Pringle Brandon. It could all have turned out so terribly ordinary. But there are touches which raise it well above that. First, its height – stumpy in global terms at a mere 15 storeys, but expressed as an edge-on tower rising behind the tower and spire of the Wren church. In comparison, the curvaceous neighbouring Walbrook building of 2010 by Foster and Partners hunkers down very low. There was a trade-off: by jacking the main building up relatively high, the lost visual connection from St. Swithin’s lane to the church could be re-established beneath it. The raised building becomes a framing device for the back of the church: subsidiary, lower buildings flank it. From the other direction, the unexpected height is dealt with by expressing the tower as a dematerialising screen behind the church. At first I was astonished by this tower in this context: but having seen it now in all weather and light conditions, I have come round to it. The device of the ‘veil’ – achieved by a silvery-metal mesh layer in the glazing – works in the London light.

The main building is a cube with a roof garden, from which rises the pavilion, externally three tall storeys, internally two high-status floors above a plant level. Thus New Court avoids the curse of exposed rooftop plant as does Stirling Wilford’s celebrated/notorious high postmodern No. 1 Poultry building, close by. The main façade is structural, its steel verticals and bracing diagonals adroitly handled in this new understated OMA manner. Though the channelled aluminium-clad steels do look a bit like Scalextric slot-car tracks.

The sky garden is not yet finished (trouble with a contractor going bust, apparently) though its diagrid design of hedged outdoor sitting-rooms is clear enough. It’s nice, but no great event as are the roof top gardens of the Stirling Wilford building, where the OMA design team had many lunches.

It’s all about the views, really, and from that generously-proportioned top pavilion these are really very good. To the north, this otherwise Miesian box is subverted by having the top floor north-facing window (unveiled) tilting slightly outwards. It looks down on the Bank of England. Enough said.

The main office floors, fitted out by others, are unremarkable. OMA’s touch is however very clear in the ground floor with its travertine marble soffit outside and in, and the (by corporate standards) incredible device of a huge semi-diaphanous curtain that can be drawn round in a big circle to provide a temporary cloakroom for evening events up in the pavilion. As with the top of Foster’s Gherkin, this is prime entertainment space. The level below the top deck is perhaps more Rothschild in feel, however, with a west-facing many-tabled dining room (deals over meals being the family tradition), and several glass-walled meeting rooms, kitted out with existing antique furniture and paintings, even a bit of old wooden panelling in one room. Unlike Richard Rogers’ Lloyd’s of London building with its Adam room, however, here the architects have welcomed the old accoutrements rather than allowed them with gritted teeth. They have gathered all the family portraits and knick-knacks into two main displays rather than distributing them throughout the building as previously. And they have used some of the visual imagery of the family collection as graphic devices for partition walls, even using the old country house device of ‘secret’ doors in decorated walls or, in the ground-floor archive room, in oak bookshelves.

The City of London needs the Rothschilds, now perhaps more than ever. No wonder every effort was made, in planning terms, to re-accommodate them. For this family business to quit the City would be akin to the old legends of the ravens leaving the Tower of London: a portent of doom. For OMA, too, this is a key project: its first financial HQ – here, for such an instantly-recognisable name – demonstrates a new level of confidence and maturity. New Court will open doors to the practice that were previously closed: the view will be that if they can build here, they can build anywhere.

Yes, I wish it wasn’t on quite such good behaviour, that it tried a few more formal tricks of the kind we associate with the practice, that the sky garden was a more magical space. But let’s get real: the scope for this was always going to be very limited. They stuck it out: the result is a calm, handsome office building which makes the right urbanistic moves and is enlivened by some flashes of wit. Can we now say that OMA has grown up?

Text © Hugh Pearman, November 25, 2011. Photos © OMA, photographers Charlie Koolhaas and Philippe Ruault. Photo of Stirling’s No. 1 Poultry © Hugh Pearman.


Profile of OMA by Hugh Pearman in the RIBA Journal:
OMA website:
Rothschild family history: