London On The Ground
Number 1 Poultry: Stirling work divides opinion
A postmodern City of London building shows how the Establishment can assimilate outsiders.
Number 1 Poultry was designed by the architectural practice of James Stirling Michael Wilford and Associates and completed in 1997. The outer facades are dominated by alternating horizontal bands of pink and yellow limestone within a wedge shape that is formed by Queen Victoria Street and Poultry and points at the City's Bank junction.
The highly idiosyncratic apex of the wedge features a cylindrical clock tower and projecting balconies. The curves and angles call to mind the bridge and prow of a ship, or perhaps a submarine's conning tower.
The building contains five floors dedicated to office space, with retail units also on the ground floor and in the basement. The basement currently houses an indoor mini golf course. The top floor is home to French restaurant Coq d'Argent, which has a terrace and roof garden offering views over the Bank junction and the City's eastern cluster of skyscrapers.
The façades on Poultry and Queen Victoria include angled glazed areas above and below curved stone walls. The windows here reflect the buildings across the road (the 1924 former Midland Bank office on Poultry and the 2018 Bloomberg office on Queen Victoria Street), inviting a comparison of architectural styles.
There is also an open atrium or courtyard within the building, entered from the pavement through openings on both Poultry and Queen Victoria Street, which provides public space and brings more light into the offices. In contrast to the main pink and yellow limestone theme, the courtyard also has walls lined with dark blue glazed tiles and its windows are framed in pink, light blue and yellow.
The courtyard is open to the sky, but playfully has an oculus looking down from one corner. An oculus is an architectural device more usually seen inside a building with a dome or roof as a means to let in light. An open space does not need one, but Number 1 Poultry's atrium has one anyway.
Scottish architect James Stirling led on the design of Number 1 Poultry until his death in 1992, five years before its completion. His partner Michael Wilford then saw it through. Although Stirling did not like the postmodernist tag, it has stuck to the building since it displays many of the movement's characteristics and is a clear departure from modernist architecture.
Modernism had emerged in the early 20th century and enjoyed popularity after both world wars. It was founded on rationality, contemporary materials (such as concrete, steel and glass) and the elimination of ornament and historical or local reference. Modernism was in part a reaction to waves of neoclassical and Gothic revival architecture in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Postmodernism then emerged in the 1960s, in reaction to modernism, and established itself in the UK from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. With a freer approach to materials and design, postmodernism has been described as the return of 'wit, ornament and reference'.
Although Number 1 Poultry was built after the heyday of postmodernism had passed, it certainly has these qualities.
In addition to its nautical references, many observers view its apex façade as a nod towards Nicholas Hawksmoor's church of St Mary Woolnoth, which was completed in 1727 and is within nodding distance just off the Bank junction.
Nevertheless, Number 1 Poultry was always controversial.
The controversy began a long time before the building itself was even conceived. Property developer Peter Palumbo spent 20 years seeking planning permission to demolish the Victorian listed building that had stood there since 1870.
Occupying the same wedge-shaped footprint, the gothic revival structure housed royal jewellers Mappin & Webb in its apex. Officially called Mansion House Buildings, it was popularly known as the Mappin & Webb building. Palumbo's planning appeals reached House of Lords, before the building was eventually demolished in 1994.
(Image above left: By Unknown author - Unknown source, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1800151)
One small symbol of the Victorian gothic building remains. The Mappin & Webb clock that had adorned it at street level at the apex is now in the atrium over the entrance to the Number 1's offices (currently occupied by serviced office providers WeWork).
Palumbo's original plan for the site was also controversial. In the 1960s, he asked German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design a public square and a bronze-clad tower for the space, to be named Mansion House Square. Mies van der Rohe, a pioneer of modernism, had been the last director of the Bauhaus school in Germany until it was closed by the Nazis in 1933 and he emigrated to the USA.
The architectural Establishment was excited at the prospect of a modernist London tower by the great man, who died in 1969 shortly after completing his plans for Mansion House Square. Richard Rogers, one of the UK's leading architects, called the plan "the culmination of a master architect's life work".
However, more conservative Establishment opinions disagreed. Criticism by Prince Charles in 1984 ("yet another giant glass stump, better suited to downtown Chicago") ensured that the plans were scrapped. It also damaged his friendship with his polo team mate Peter Palumbo.
Prince Charles' objections focused on the proposed tower. Not only did he not like the look of it, but he was also concerned that its 19 storeys would dwarf St Paul's Cathedral. His views may have chimed with popular public opinion, but ignored the benefits of the large pedestrianised public space proposed in the heart of the City of London.
The tower was to be at the western end of the site and the square at the eastern end, centred on where Number 1 Poultry's apex now stands and bordered to the east by the Mansion House, residence of the Lord Mayor. The square could have been used for mayoral events, concerts, exhibitions, festivals and markets.
Some have argued that the 1980s Thatcher government did not want more public spaces in London, since they provided opportunities for public demonstrations and unrest, and this may have influenced the outcome.
James Stirling actually defended Mies van der Rohe's design, before the firm he owned with Michael Wilford was commissioned in 1986. However, the result - when it eventually appeared - pleased neither side of the debate.
The architectural establishment turned its collective nose up when Number 1 Poultry opened in 1997. Postmodernism (PoMo to those in the know) had by then gone out of fashion.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Prince Charles was also less than enthusiastic, likening the building to a 1930s wireless. Moreover, the people of London also expressed their disapproval: readers of Time Out magazine voted it London's fifth worst building in 2005.
At least some of the negative reaction stemmed from Number 1 Poultry's daring to be different in what is an important and central City location.