Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A monument to the city’s pre-millennial excess will now become a WeWork.
You can’t miss the postmodern hulk known as No. 1 Poultry on a visit to London’s financial district, even if you wanted to.
A fevered concoction in candy-striped sandstone, the James Stirling-designed office complex occupies one of the most contested and debated sites in central London. It’s now due for resurrection in a new guise as an 11,000-square-foot facility leased and run by WeWork.
That a co-working company is guzzling big city office space isn’t in itself shocking; the building isn’t even the largest of three new WeWork locations in London. However, the new site isn’t just any building. The site of No. 1 Poultry is as famous for its eye-melting structure as it is for its long-standing role as a bellwether showing the direction in which London is heading at any given moment.
Right now, the move suggests something notable. Tech-associated co-working spaces have moved beyond their recognized heartland, the ex-industrial and warehouse buildings that fringe the edge of central London. They’re now seeping into the financial district’s heart, gobbling up distinct buildings previously reserved for the city’s financial elite.
To understand why WeWork’s plans for No.1 Poultry carry such symbolism for observers of both London’s finance industry and architecture scenes, you need to dig back into the site’s history. Located in the heart of the city’s financial district, it was once occupied by a witchy slice of Victorian neo-gothic that had somehow survived the World War II bombing and ensuing postwar redevelopment that largely made London’s oldest section (the street name Poultry refers to a medieval fowl market) look like its newest.
In the late 1960s, the site was provisionally approved for Mies van der Rohe’s first and only London building. But by the time the developers had secured the extra forecourt space the planners had required them to get prior to full approval, Mies’s slab was out of fashion. Planners barred its construction and instead green-lighted its current occupant, the elaborate postmodern Stirling edifice that rose in its place in 1997, providing an unforgettable (if divisive) monument to pre-millennial excess.
And what a monument it is. Ship-like in its form, Stirling’s building has a wriggling, restless silhouette. A little bit ancient Egyptian, a little bit Mussolini, it comes across as both frivolous and hefty, fronted by a giant tower whose projecting platforms make it look like a masonry monument to the shrug emoji. Its rooftop garden, accessed via a restaurant, is the sort of place you can easily imagine some Gordon Gecko-Bond Villain hybrid pacing among its topiary, feeding bits of his enemies’ offal to pet peacocks.
The whole complex embodies the flashy, moneyed side of London in a way that has mostly—at least until recently—been kept in check by the city’s historical preservation orders and height restrictions.
This excess is no coincidence. The architecture reflects the City of London (as London’s financial district is called) at its peak of confidence in its role as an unassailable cockpit surveying the cogs and wheels of late 20th century-global capitalism. The so-called Square Mile seemed to embody London’s great advantages in the eyes of contemporary free market enthusiasts by marrying an E.U. location with a more transatlantic self-defined buccaneering ethos.
That era hasn’t necessarily vanished, but things have changed. The London-located finance industry took less of a bashing than other sections of British society during the financial crisis of 2007-2008, but a knocking it took nonetheless. And with Britain now due to leave the E.U., the industry may experience a further modest waning, as the long-predicted gradual shift of some institutions over to mainland Europe begins.
Meanwhile, within London itself, the finance industry has scattered. Many hedge funds are now located in the historically less business-oriented West End, while banks and other major institutions have moved east to the former Docklands. The might of the finance industry is by no means gone, but the map is being redrawn. WeWork’s takeover of No.1 Poultry, formerly occupied by insurance and savings company Aviva, is a reflection of that, a plan that will see it vacated by major companies and repopulated by largely freelance, casually-dressed sole traders whose entire commercial infrastructure consists of a laptop. Developers General Projects are adding stores and underground bike parking are being added in an attempt to bring the building up to date and generally roll up its sleeves.
When tech businesses and co-working spaces started springing up in warehouses on the City of London’s fringe in the 1990s, they were seen by many as evidence of big business encroaching on the defunct light industrial areas and lower income neighborhoods to its east. Now, the tide seems to be flowing backwards. The ex-industrial fringe is no longer cheaper than the city core, and the finance industry’s geographical reshuffle has freed up space even in centrally located buildings once considered temples to its might.
Whatever London’s financial district has meant in the past, reopening such a building as a co-working space suggests that the area’s character and the hierarchy of London’s business elite is undergoing a shift. Indeed with many startups having moved their offices to the district in the last 12 months, including Booking.com and Deliver, WeWork’s takeover is no outlier.