Sunday, January 14, 2018

SOANE'S BANK - PART 2

Heading East down Threadneedle Street we arrive at the Entrance Building with its three round arches.  This is the front portion of Sampson's original double-courtyard block from 1734, but the external street frontage was completely remodelled by Soane as one of the last significant contributions he made to the design of the Bank: the final unifying gesture, stamping his identity on a rambling complex that had evolved over almost a century under the direction of three different architects.



Proceeding through the central arch we see the Pay Hall in front of us across the courtyard. You can imagine coaches and horses turning around in this space after dropping stockholders off to collect their dividend.  This facade is still basically Sampson's design. If you compare the photographs and survey drawings to the model you can see that the basic composition is there, all ready to welcome some lucky volunteer who wants to fill in the missing details: pediment over the door, mouldings around the first floor windows, the rhythm of modillions running along to offer support to the overhanging cornice.



Inside the courtyard we see two main facades by Sampson facing each other, and shorter side walls closing off the two sides by Taylor.  In fact this is one of the few areas where Soane's influence can barely by detected.  The rustication to the base of the Entrance Block is an interesting modelling challenge if someone wants to take it up.  And there are balustrades to be added to Taylor's side walls.  Turning left we can progress into the Garden Court, the second of Taylor's two major extensions.  Quite a lot more work to be done here.



Sampson's block was built next to a church, and this was the graveyard, which is one reason why it wasn't built over.  The directors decided that this leafy open space would provide a good view for the Court Room which was moved from it's original location behind the Pay Hall.  We need to recreate this churchyard atmosphere: add some trees, model the intriguing Venetian windows (probably not parametric, given the complexity, and I think we only need one size), what else.  There are more balustrades and rustication; one of the windows needs to be "blind" because the wall dividing the Court Room from the smaller, octagonal Committee Room hits it right in the middle.



Let's go flying again, floating upwards and backwards, until we can look back over the whole complex.  The upper storey on the Princes Street side of the Garden Court is by Soane and we have some very interesting drawings.  He had his pupils sketch the work in progress, so we get some real insight into the technology and processes involved.  This is little more than a box of four walls and a roof at present, so once again an interesting project for someone to take on.  There's a structural puzzle here that I haven't fully solved yet.  The walls are set back from the lower storey, so how are they supported?  No reinforced concrete cantilevers in Soane's day.



Why don't we swoop forwards and down, fly through one of those fancy windows, (the one in the end wall of the Pay Hall) so we can take a look at the interior.  It's the usual story: the basic elements are all there, but crudely modelled, basically Sampson but with some modifications by Soane.  It's not clear to me which of the drawings in the archive were actually implemented.  I think we will just have to make a judgement call, try to catch something of the spirit of the engravings.
Carry on to the far end of the Pay Hall, rise up through the ceiling and once outside, wheel around to look back at the roof of the space between the Pay Hall and the Rotunda.



This is an interesting space.  Taylor designed it as a lobby, part of a dog-leg passage connecting the Rotunda to the Entrance Court.  Soane modified it twice.  Early on he made the lobby narrower, to squeeze in some extra office space.  That must be when he inserted four Ionic Columns carrying arches that support a dome with a central lantern.  This a motif he was to repeat many times in different ways. More than twenty years later he created a shortcut route, by punching a hole in one corner of the Rotunda.  The lobby could then be walled off and converted into an extension of the Treasury.

Now let's slide sideways into the Rotunda itself.



Soane completely remodelled this space, constructing a new inner lining, supporting a masonry dome to replace Taylor's timber version.  The basic massing is there in the model, but we need to tackle the decoration which is quite an original take on predominantly Greek motifs.  I really like the undulating lines that snake around the arches of the high level lunette windows.

The rotunda is one of three spaces that Soane remodelled during his first major building campaign at the Bank.  He had done quite a lot in the previous three or four years since his appointment, but mostly smaller interventions around the back of the Bank.  Finally he had the opportunity to design a suite of three public spaces, proving himself to the directors and the world at large. 



The second of these spaces (a transfer hall for Bank Stock) is arguably the best known, and the only interior space that has been reinstated in its original form.  It now houses part of the Bank Museum.  I've visited it several times over the past ten years.  What I'm showing here is my version of this space, but there is a more detailed model by Alberto Vilas Blanco who was one of the winners in the first stage of the competition.  At some stage we need to carry out a careful review of his work and mine, compare this to the photos, survey drawings and Soane's own design sketches.  The photos are of two kinds: some from the early twentieth century which include minor modifications done after Soane's death, and a much larger number of the reconstructed space as it is today.

What impresses most contemporary architects is the level of abstraction in this space.  He has simplifed the classical orders down into bold geometries with a strong emphasis on parallel incised grooves.   The shallow segmental arches and dome are also seen as typical of the "Soane Style" which was very controversial in his day but highly respected today.  But the fact is that he didn't always work in this stripped down, idiosyncratic idiom. 

Taylor built four transfer halls around the Rotunda.  They all had complex timber roofs with skylights that seem designed to leak.  That's why Soane got the go ahead to replace them one by one.  He stripped each one back to a brick box and designed new masonry structures to replace Taylor's flimsy timber versions.  He was aiming for security, fire-proofing, durability.


Having completed the first two of these transfer halls, his attention was diverted elsewhere for 25 years before he got the chance to rebuild the remaining pair. These use essentially the same planning concept but with several differences.  Let's start with the Colonial office which is due south of the Stock Office. In place of the shallow arches, we now have soaring semi-circles which seem to spring out of the ground and sweep across in continuous curves.  So we have a loftier sense of space, and the high barrel vaults at either side of the central dome let in more light than the shallower groin vaults of the Stock Office.



Just for fun we're going to float up into the dome.  Lots of fascinating plaster detail to model again, including a Lion's head.  Russell found a CAD mesh version that he used in the Consols Transfer Office so we could recycle that.  There are some interesting joinery fittings to develop also.  Let's back out onto the roofscape again.  Some decorative details to be added to the lantern: a cornice all the way round and a parapet on two sides.


The roofscape itself is typical Soane.  When I started to work on the Bank I had no idea how complex this inner world would prove to be.  He loved to create effects of light, by stepping the roof levels and introducing light at high level from unexpected angles.  Swinging around to the left we come to the last of the four halls, the Dividend Office as it was called in later years. 



At first sight it is a clone of the Colonial Office but Soane was not one to repeat himself exactly.  It was much more fun to take a successful theme and play with potential variations.  So we will enter by the dome.  In place of the single row of Ionic Columns we now have pairs of Caryatids.  Again we can borrow from Russell.  There are some really impressive watercolour sections that show how Soane inserted an independent masonry structure within Taylor's rectangular shell.  The domes were built using hollow clay pots to keep the weight down so as not to disturb the original foundations.



Lots of reference material for the decorative plaster work.  There are lots of interesting comparative studies we could do of the way Soane handled variations on a theme.  The different plaster motifs used in the four replacement transfer halls would be one of these.



It would be good to fit the transfer halls out with joinery and whale-oil lamps, add some people in period costume.  Not sure how we would do that, but I would like to capture something of the atmosphere of the watercolours that Joseph Michael Gandy executed for Soane.



Now we are flying up again to get longer range shots of the complex, with its colour coded roofs: Red for Sampson, Pink for Taylor, Orange for Soane's NE Extension, Green for his NW extension.  Image 1 is taken from above the Pay Hall, looking East, then we pivot to the North for image 2 with Lothbury Court in the background.  Moving forwards and looking down we start to focus on the dome over the Chief Cashier's Office (part of the NE Extension)  This is incorrectly modelled with a hole for a lantern.  I was convinced at one stage that there must be a lantern, because this room is so badly lit without it, but more careful study of the drawings from the Soane Museum Online Archive has changed my mind.  So we need to correct that.


Dropping inside that space we find a very crudely roughed-out model.  Lots to do here, and a shortage of source material also, so we will have to make some intelligent assumptions.  We can be sure that Soane made some modifications to the space when he constructed the NW extension.  Did he add the gallery that appears enigmatically in the photograph as a small section of railing?  I don't know, but he must have made some alterations at this side when he rebuilt the adjoining spaces.



Well that's the end of part two.  Probably two more episodes to go in this series.  See you next week.



Monday, January 1, 2018

SOANE'S BANK - PART 1

This is a preliminary post, ultimately destined for www.projectsoane.wordpress.com

It is based on an Enscape3d export from the C4R model of the Bank of England.  You can create executable files with Enscape that are easy to navigate around and take screenshots from.  I generated almost 200 images in a couple of hours covering most spaces in this intricate building complex in quite some detail.  From these images I am creating collages, spiced up with relevant reference material collected over the past two and a half years. 



In doing this, I have tried to interweave the story of the Bank's evolution (from 1734 when Sampson began the work, to 1833 when Soane retired) with a commentary on the current state of the model, hinting at its shortcomings and potential tasks for participants to undertake.  Hopefully this will inspire more enthusiasts to contribute and bring the entire project up to the rich level of detail that Russell and Alberto achieved in their work.

So let's begin.

At the top in Red, is Sampson's original double courtyard block, unpretentious, pragmatic, bog - standard Palladian. To the right, in pink, the remnants of Robert Taylor's bold and bombastic expansions: representing a period of aggressive confidence for the bank. To the left, and sweeping around, counter-clockwise across the foreground, John Soane's more thoughtful and enigmatic contributions, gradually reshaping the Bank of England into a complex, somewhat aloof, national institution.



Swinging around we hover over Lothbury Court, the keystone of Soane's first great extension, shown here in Orange, the colour of the Dutchmen who invented so much of the financial wizardry that underpins the bank's remarkable success story.  On display here is another kind of skill, no less impressive. Soane took an unpromising jumble of irregular plots to the rear of the existing bank and rearranged them with a series of subtle shifts, inflections and sweeping curves, into an axially composed sequence of dignified formal spaces.



The functional excuse for this virtuoso display is a new bullion route. This proceeds by way of a triumphal arch into Sampson's rear court, the inner sanctum. The geometry involved is tricky but deftly handled by an architect fully aware that this is his moment, his chance to go down in history.



Glancing to the right we notice the residence court, hiding shyly behind a screen of four tall Corinthian columns atop a grand flight of stairs. This is Soane's bank at its tallest, a full four storeys high.  A smaller, inset stair leads down to the basement storey: kitchens, laundries and store rooms. Two principal floors above provide comfortable apartments for two senior staff members (Chief Accountant & Secretary)  Finally an attic floor gives sleeping accommodation for servants. This is standard planning for London Townhouses, similar in fact to Soane's own home in Lincolns Inn Fields.



If we float backwards up a second grand stair, we can stand in the shadows behind another screen of giant columns and watch the bullion wagons trundle past, entering via the Porter's Lodge on our right and exiting through the triumphal arch.

What did the classical language mean to Soane, the subtle mouldings, the urns and statues?  Memories of his Grand Tour through France and Italy, symbols of his spectacular rise from humble beginnings as a bricklayers son. A sense of belonging to a rich and deeply rooted cultural heritage.

Have we outgrown that?

Why have we traded the pride and vigour of Soane's generation for the shame and guilt we seem to crave today?



But let's follow the money.  Through a series of tall archways with sentry posts discretely placed on either side we proceed towards the light at the end of the tunnel. Does this symbolise the achievements to come over the next few decades?  Factory production was already underway at Cromford Mill in Derbyshire. Bolton and Watt were busy perfecting Steam Engines, railways would follow, slavery would be banned, gas lighting was starting from replace the whale oil lamps that were themselves quite recent innovations.



We emerge in the Bullion Court, safely back in Sampson's Palladian world when the flying shuttle was just an idea rattling around in Kay's brain. We are now one storey below street level, mostly because Bartholomew Lane, to our left rises rather steeply. To our right there is a stream, Wallbrook, but it has long since been channelled underground.

I have shown the double doors into the Bullion Rooms as studded. This was a typical device of Soane's, expressive of strength and security, but also a practical way of incorporating steel sheets into timber panels. We are wandering around a BIM model. It's actually a digital database in the cloud, well isn't everything these days.



In some ways it's the modern equivalent of a measured drawing. That's a device that has been used for generations to teach students to look more carefully and critically at our built heritage.  Soane did a lot of it in Italy. But it's more like modelling than drawing, actually it's more like building than modelling.

Looking down on the Bullion Court and turning back towards the passage where we entered, you can see that Soane demolished Sampson's straight back wall and substituted a gentle curve. This is sleight of hand to resolve the weird angles and preserve symmetry; cleverly done.



Our model is far from complete and full of minor inaccuracies. No apologies. The journey is what counts.  We are here to learn and it's a messy business. The building no longer exists, or at least it has been transformed beyond all recognition. We have a lot of reference material but it is often confusing and somehow contradictory. I'm sure historical research is always this way.

Let's drop down to the ground floor and slide sideways through the wall. There should have been an external staircase to land on but we haven't built that yet. We find ourselves in a corridor. Sampson had an open arcade here, but Taylor and Soane have had their way with his modest cloister. By now it has become one leg of the long passage, an L-shaped route that Soane inserted into the fabric as part of his second grand expansion project. This was a new and private way for VIP visitors to access the governor and his deputy. Their quarters are to the left, through a doorway set in a curved recess.



We have entered that door and arrived in a lobby designed by Taylor. It's square with a dome and a lantern. The model is rather crude at present, lacking all the fussy detail that Taylor proudly added to his Interiors. Ahead of us is a fireplace,  and to the right of that a passage designed by Soane.



This appears a little dark, but in reality Soane's highly inventive top lighting would have provided a warm glow. All the same a more brightly lit lobby beckons ahead. The North-west extension is very different from it's predecessor. None of the curves and angular shifts. Everything is strictly rectangular in plan. But the way these boxes are varied in size and shape makes for just as elaborate a jig-saw puzzle.



He is dealing with a deep plan and tightly packed spaces. The game is all about varying the heights so that sections of wall are exposed at high level. I think these he inserts windows of all shapes and sizes.  The centre lobby has two lunettes, fitting snugly below barrel vaulted ceilings. The offices of the governor and his deputy are accessed from this space.



Beyond, through a doorway in one corner is another space, the Rustic Lobby. This is like a tower with small arched windows arranged in triplets up aloft and a central lantern. Doors lead off in all directions, to waiting rooms, the director's library and down another passage.

But we'll come back to that. Let's go flying again, and look back at that tower over the rustic lobby. Below is the large pink roof over the court room. Pink means  Taylor remember, ares where Soane did not get the chance to rework the design to any great extent.  To the left a double storey block that housed the original barracks. The Gordon Riots had left the Bank and the government nervous least the French Revolution should prove infectious. A detachment of soldiers arrived each evening to patrol the battlements.



Green denotes the rectilinear patchwork quilt of Soane's North West extension.  Floating over this we come to the Waiting Room Court. Looking down you can see an open-sided loggia in Soane's highly distinctive mature style : Classicism stripped down to it's essentials, rather flat with linear incised grooves. Once again the model is far from complete,  but still you get a taste of the spatial drama that Soane could conjour up.

Let's drop down into that loggia and look East as if we are important clients coming for a meeting. In the distance you can see the passage that began life as Sampson's cloister.  That's where we would turn right, and eventually right again,  skirting around three sides of the courtyard. At the extremely right of the picture is a window looking out from the Governor's Room. Perhaps he is watching us being shepherded along by a footman with a pink jacket.



But we are going to slide sideways again and take a look at the courtyard itself.  This has been roughed out quite successfully in the current model but much work remains to be done.  The loggia side is meant to be open of course, but the two flanking sides should have windows in them, and the larger arched openings in the basement storey should be glazed.  There are other shortcomings: Corinthian columns should not be fluted, expressed joints in the stonework absent, along with various ornamental details. 



But let's return to the loggia and back up to its point of origin, known as the Doric Vestibule.  This is a new VIP entrance that Soane designed, leading off Princes Street.  It's a domed space lit by semi-circular windows at high level. Once again all the basic setting out is in place, but detail is lacking.



Backing up even further we find ourselves in Princes Street itself, looking at the detailing of the external screen wall.  This was much criticised at the time for its idiosyncratic treatment of classical themes.  Nowadays we think of it as a classic example of Soane's distinctive style and lament the gross simplifications that Herbert Baker imposed upon it when he rebuilt the bank in the 1930s.  Note the extreme flattening of the pediment over five arched openings that marks the doorway we have just backed out of. 



This part of the screen wall was built as part of the North-West Extension, but moving south towards Threadneedle Street, there was an existing screen built by Taylor.  Soane only managed to persuade the directors to replace this much later.  So for almost two decades, the perimeter of the bank was a strange mixture of styles: now Soane, now Taylor, now Sampson.

The evolution of the screen wall is a story on it's own: a drama in three acts with Soane summoning up new reserves of inventiveness each time, to re-establish a unified scheme as additional territory was incorporated.  In every case he blended existing themes with new motifs to keep the rhythmes fresh but unified.  Here the model is quite well developed, but for some detail at the corners and the recessed horizontal joints which are only indicated as a surface pattern in the material definition.



We will break the story at this point and pick it up next time.  Please forgive the rough edges and occasional typo.  Remember this is a dry run for a future page on
www.projectsoane.wordpress.com 

And, as always we are still looking for students and other enthusiasts willing to lend a hand at improving the model - no matter what your skill-set.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

DIGITAL FUTURES AND BIM FOR FUN

I've been involved in a couple of events here in Dubai in the past month.  The second was a round table discussion organised by a local media house.  The article just came out and you can view it here.




It was actually quite a fun discussion. I've been thinking quite a lot recently about how fundamentally our world will change when we are able to automate construction as completely as spinning and weaving were automated at the tipping point of the industrial revolution.  Could be that we see another huge expansion of education.  The mechanisation of cloth making in the North of England in the late 1700s had a snowball effect, fast-tracking the improvement of steam power and creating the initial economic motivation for railways in the 1830s.  Demand for steel rose, driving further innovation in places like Sheffield where I lived in the 1970s as that industry was being hollowed out.  Factory production based on fossil fuel power spread rapidly across the manufacturing sector, transforming the economies of Europe and North America.

In 1803, John Soane was 50 and at the height of his powers.  He was fascinated by the new technologies that were appearing, using Argand lamps in his own house and at the Bank of England.  In the 1830s he installed steam heating systems designed by an American inventor called Perkins, once again at both the Bank and in Lincoln's Inn Fields.  But during his lifetime he needed a small army of domestic servants to maintain the lifestyle of a prominent architect.  I doubt that he would have imagined the virtual disappearance of domestic service and agricultural labour over the next century or so.  But I'm sure he would have approved of the enormous expansion of education that replaced the long hours of manual toil for children of the poor in Europe.

Imagine how a city like Dubai will change when it no longer needs to import huge numbers of semi-skilled workers man the construction, retail,  and transport sectors.  Will those human resources shift to education and leisure? Will the driving engine of our economy be a cross between a theme park and a university perhaps, I wonder.  Perhaps using BIM to explore history will be much more of a mainstream activity when we no longer need hundreds of people roaming around our building sites and when the combination of AI and robotics slims down consultancy sector also.  I touched on this topic at the BIM summit here on 1st of November during a panel discussion.



There are two current trends currently which may offer clues to the future.  Firstly the design-build-operate paradigm, and secondly the whole "theme park" phenomenon which is blossoming in the UAE.  If construction goes the way of say agriculture, we may need a fraction of the workforce to design and construct buildings of the future.  Will the big construction companies waste away? Perhaps, but maybe they will transform themselves into entities which handle the whole lifecycle of enterprises (design-build-operate)  Maybe future careers will be much more flexible.  Instead of a boring old architect, the "me of the future" might be a designer/researcher/performer. 

Those large workforces could be maintained if the mega-contractors of the future employ everyone involved in running a facility that I have called a cross between a theme park and a university.  A career trajectory could start as a tour guide, progress to a part-time involvement in facilities management, include significant time spent on education and research, move on to designing the exhibits and experiences of the future and culminate in long-term strategic planning, including the decommissioning of obsolete activities and structures.


I am reminded of "The Desert Pumpkin" scenario that I dreamed up in 2014 for Zach Kron's last Parametric Pumpkin competition.  At the time it was conceived as a tongue-in-cheek parody of Dubai's mega-project obsession, but I am starting to wonder if it might not be more prescient than I had imagined.  Think of the life story of the English working class in Soane's day: back-breaking manual work from the age of 12 or 13, perhaps 70 hours a week. Now young people commonly continue education through to their early 20s, work in office environments performing digitally enhanced tasks, and can spend roughly half of those 70 hours pursuing personal goals and interests.


Extrapolate the Industrial Revolution to the Digital Revolution.  In a world of autonomous vehicles, on-line shopping, and automated construction where robots build from a BIM model with minimal human supervision, we might spend most of our lives doing things that we would regard today as educational and recreational activities.  What will be the role of BIM in such a world?  Right now the BIM discussion is dominated by "business speak".  It's all about Return on Investment, competitive edge, Disruptive Technologies, career progression, etc. 


I have always found this really boring.  I've been trying to promote a more expressive and exploratory, personal approach to BIM for several years now.  The response has been mixed.  Sometimes people are inspired, but sometimes I get a "this is not relevant to my job" reaction.  More recently. the topics I am proposing for overseas conferences are being declined as "too niche" or "not relevant to the regional market".  I'm not complaining.  Conference organisers are also running a business and "competitive edge" topics sell an event better than the oddball topics I am likely to propose, just because it's an area I would like to explore.  To be honest I am starting to think it's time to move on.  RTC (now BiLT) is a great community and I've really enjoyed the conferences, especially the people I've got to know, but the work I've been doing on Project Soane is starting to talk to a much broader audience. 


I love BIM geeks, but I want my "BIM pencil" to communicate to anyone who likes buildings, wants to understand them better, is fascinated by the history and culture that informs architecture.  I guess I am saying that the BIM community has become too obsessed with itself, too introspective, talking its own arcane language, losing touch with the world of designers and artists, falling in love with technology for its own sake.  Perhaps I'm just jealous of the younger generation who live for "coding" and computational complexity.