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Shades of Grey: SOANE'S BANK - PART 1

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    Shades of Grey: SOANE'S BANK - PART 1

    This is a preliminary post, ultimately destined for

    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 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.

    Click here to view the entire blog post.

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