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Speculative office blocks have always had problems of scale -- particularly those in the City of London where most developers are blind to human concerns. Here is one which sets rather different standards.

If you go to a high place, the top of the London Eye for instance, or the glass attic of Herzog & De Meuron's Tate Modern, you become aware that the City contains the largest collection of second-rate commercial architecture in the world. Postwar reconstruction is for the most part shoddy and dim. The '90s produced huge behemoths with vast floor plates; they loom over their dreary neighbours, flaunting themselves with clumsy gestures and flashy stone cladding. It all makes the big Edwardian and '30s office blocks, which were thought to be so gross forty or fifty years ago, seem generous and humanly scaled.

But if you look carefully at the skyline, you will see at least one new building which does have those virtues. This is 88 Wood Street by the Richard Rogers Partnership which stands at the corner of Wood Street and London Wall (on the line of the old Roman city defences), which is one of the City's unsuccessful postwar attempts to come to terms with Modernism, with the street turned into a dual carriageway, windy podia and tall grim slabs and towers. To make matters worse, one of the '90s behemoths is next door. Across Wood Street to the east of the Rogers site is Wren's gothick tower of St Alban, the rest of which was destroyed during the war; it is one of the very few reminders of the scale of the place before bombs and planners destroyed it.

Of course, the volume required by modern commercial development does not allow return to seventeenth-century heights -- even if they were desirable. The new building rises westwards from the 10-floor block over the public entrance on Wood Street to the most westerly part which is 18 storeys high, matching its neighbours on London Wall. In the middle is a piece of 14 storeys, but each major mass is modified by an east-facing terrace, so for instance the Wood Street facade seems at first to be no more than eight floors high, with six office floors above the double-height entrance hall that runs the whole length of the building from east to west.

Ingenuity in section is elaborated in plan, in which each of the masses is articulated with deep re-entrants on the London Wall side. These, in turn, are elaborated with glass lifts, and glazed escape stairs with main steel structure emphasized in yellow. All these moves break down the scale of the north and west sides, making what is in fact a very large building seem almost like three separate ones. Cladding is big clear full-height glass panels and the storeys are articulated in groups of four vertically by expressing the concrete frame and its diagonal steel bracing. The glass panels are in fact triple-glazed units, with blinds in the wider cavity automatically activated to cut down insolation. The strategy of a deeply fretted plan and masses of glass may seem peculiar, but the intention is to introduce as much daylight as can be into the necessarily large dealing floors, and offer as many people as possible views out over the City. The architects argue that the approach reduces the need for artificial li ghting, which in conjunction with the blinds, significantly cuts down cooling loads compared to a conventional curtain walled slab block.

Office floors are indeed more full of daylight than usual in such large areas, though obviously in the middle of the building, artificial light is needed all the time, particularly where the south wall is hard up against the new next door building (not one of Foster's best). Floors can be arranged in any configuration, with single plates for dealing floors as big as 2230 sq m in the largest parts of the plan. The most impressive space is of course the long tall entrance hall that you enter from Wood Street through a long row of circular concrete columns. On the left (south) side is a polished plaster wall which divides the floor plate in two, with the southern side occupied by general purpose space. To the north, the glass onto London Wall moves in and out, following the massing of the upper floors. The whole volume is large and airy, with external landscaping related to planting inside on the north side, making the place seem larger and masking the traffic on the dual carriageway. At the west end, you look o ut on a little garden, which is supposed to be on the site of Shakespeare's London lodgings.

No 88 is undoubtedly one of the most distinguished office buildings constructed in the City of London since the War. It could not have been made without an enlightened developer, the Japanese company Daiwa, who initially wanted it as their own European headquarters. They held an invited competition in the early '90s, which was won by the Rogers practice. After many vicissitudes, including total stop during the London property slump, it was partly redesigned and completed last year. It is now no longer Daiwa's headquarters, but is being successfully let off to a variety of other companies. But the original design intentions remain and have not been compromised, nor has the client's ideal of achieving a landmark that would be 'light, airy and transparent'.
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Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 1, 2001
Previous Article:DAWN OF A NEW AGE?

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