Bloomberg opened its new European HQ in London this morning. It’s a fabulous, innovative building whose neighbourhood-friendly exterior hides some extraordinary, inspiring spaces – and what must be one of the city’s best office views, of St Paul’s Cathedral seen through a giant picture window.
Archaeologists will know the construction site as the source of a great haul of early Roman buildings and artefacts, not least remains of over 400 wooden writing tablets. Bloomberg naturally enjoyed the publicity when some of the dig results were published last year. In the MOLA monograph about the tablets, Mike Bloomberg wrote how a communications company was “thrilled” to have been at the heart of the archaeological project: Norman Foster’s building, he says, “preserves and celebrates the past”.
What may surprise some (including, perhaps, the Economist, which used the project to illustrate its claim that archaeology in London can delay construction and add costs), is the extent to which the site’s archaeology is embedded in the new building. In a couple of weeks they will open a gallery and museum, containing the restored fragments of the Roman temple of Mithras; these were excavated in the 1950s ahead of the first post-war building project on the site. There will, literally, be an exhibition of Roman artefacts. That’s great, and I can’t wait to see it. But it’s not that alone that makes me say that the Bloomberg European HQ is deeply historical.
It starts with Watling Street. The building is in two, unequal-sized parts, linked by high bridges. Between them is a wide walkway that follows the former line of Budge Row. This street disappeared when the site was destroyed by bombing one night in 1941, and was ignored by Bucklersbury House, the office building that rose from the ruins. As the route continued west, it became Watling Street. It’s debatable whether this is the same Watling Street that crosses London and heads out to St Albans (as I heard said this morning), but what’s not in doubt is that it was part of the Roman city; MOLA’s excavation actually found remains of it near the Walbrook stream (it’s Road 12 in their numbering scheme). Bloomberg has returned part of the Roman street grid to modern London.
The Walbrook is another feature celebrated by the building, that was of more significance in the past than is apparent today. It was a short tributary of the Thames that flowed from the north. Modern descriptions often conjure a wide, babbling brook with ships moored in its lower reaches, but the reality seems to be that it was more of a festering ditch. MOLA’s work suggests it was not tidal, could not be navigated (because of a bar as it joined the Thames) and was only a few metres across. However, the valley it had created, and the water it brought, together gave us one of London’s most significant archaeological deposits.
The stream formed the western boundary of the early Roman city, and roads crossing the valley had to be raised on wooden bridges. MOLA hoped to find waterlogged remains at Bloomberg (wood, leather and so on); the valley deposits had been profitably sampled ahead of the earlier construction of No 1 Poultry just to the north, when among other things a writing tablet was found, with a note about the sale of a slave-girl called Fortunata. But the quantity of wooden finds at Bloomberg was far more than had been expected.
They were there partly because the Walbrook’s water had preserved them. But they had to have been put there in the first place. For reasons that are not at all obvious, the landfill dumped in the valley to raise the ground was stuffed with artefacts, often of high quality and recyclable – and not usually seen in the Roman city in such amounts. The water had also preserved timber floors and walls of structures built on the successive land surfaces as the ground rose. These buildings and artefacts will be published next year.
Today the Walbrook is invisible, though its water still flows underground, seeping through the deep earth. The only obvious marker was the road on the west side of Bloomberg, named Walbrook. But now there is a new one – or strictly, three. Cristina Iglesias, a Spanish artist, has created what she calls “Forgotten Streams”, a direct reference to Walbrook. Using a concept she has developed in several other works, though not perhaps on this scale before, she has placed what look a little like three marshy ponds around the building at pavement level. Water trickles across layers of cast bronze branches whose collapsing green shapes form little meandering valleys.
The Walbrook is honoured inside too, in a work by Olafur Eliasson, the Danish-Icelandic artist who put the Weather Project in Tate Modern. The reference is not so blatant, but the work is central to the northern, larger, building and it is strikingly beautiful. It is called “No future is possible without a past”.
The main entrance to the building leads you into what they call the Vortex, a space framed by great oak-lined shells which meet high above, around a curved triangle of shimmering aluminium. Its shape evokes boats – it is a sail, or a hull – and it looks like water. The undulating surface of polished metal ripples as it reflects people moving below.
One of the key features of the building is a spiralling pedestrian ramp that rises in the centre through six floors, creating endlessly complex patterns and vistas around a hollow core (the building’s main supports have been moved out to the sides). At the base of this, and directly above the Vortex’s shimmering water, is the second part of Eliasson’s work. This triangle reflects the myriad tiny ceiling lights, like stars shining on the tide rippling across a beach, and can be seen appearing and disappearing as you walk up and down the ramp. We arrive, we are under water; in the office spaces, we are above.
As we drank coffee early this morning on the sixth floor, the one that is almost entirely devoid of internal support and has the view of St Paul’s, I asked Eliasson what he meant by his work’s title.
“A wave doesn’t exist without having a past and a future”, he said. “Especially a past.”
The economic hub that is Bloomberg, he went on, is built on decisions made in the past: not just regulatory and legislative decisions, but also choices about values. Bloomberg’s business is about investing in the future, about predicting. This draws not only on the “mechanistics or the pragmatics of the past”, but also on humanistic ideas of sharing and redistribution of wealth. Today, he added, there is a polarisation between wealth and poverty in what used to be more inclusive economies.
Well, no Roman stream there. But you see yourself reflected in the water, and I think many will be reminded of the Walbrook, the stream with a complex and fascinating past that preserved the city’s earliest financial documents, now given an enduring future.
There is much more art in the building. Michael Craig-Martin’s brightly coloured outlines of object fragments are prominent, slipping down the walls of three office floors. Arturo Herrera’s “Sortario”, a “wall painting” of machine-cut wool felt, apparently combines “bold, abstract shapes with subtle references to Roman artefacts uncovered on site by archaeologists during the construction”. I didn’t see this or the artist, but Roman remains featured strongly in the presentations.
This is the only building in the world, said Mike Bloomberg with pride, that is home to a reconstructed Roman temple. The building “celebrates the history of the location”. (“I know what it’s like to be a mayor”, said the former New York mayor looking across at London’s present mayor, Sadiq Khan.)
Khan named the temple in his opening sentence. He noted the many finds from the dig, and, of course, the oldest known mention of London on a Roman writing tablet. The site was at the heart of Roman London’s commercial centre, he said, and is now a message to the world of the value of this great city.
And we haven’t seen the temple itself yet.
The photo at the top shows Mike Bloomberg, Norman Foster, Sadiq Khan and Michael Craig-Martin.