The City of London has progressed past its original Square Mile perimeter physically. Now what businesses want culturally from the urban landscape has also changed
The City of London is built for change. We think of it as the financial centre of London, but that’s not its past and might not be its (only) future. Originally, the City of London was simply London in its entirety, the Roman city, the city of Shakespeare – who lived off Bishopsgate. All of London life was there. Arguably the founding of the Royal Exchange in 1565 and later the Bank of England and Lloyds of London started the City towards being a financial district. The Bank was established in 1694 as William III decided he needed £1.2m to build a new navy to beat the French, and nobody would lend him the money directly. The new Bank, the world’s eighth, raised the money in 12 days. Lloyds of London famously began in Lloyds Coffee House (more of coffee houses later) in 1688. The Exchange, the Bank and Lloyds then spawned the greatest concentration of financial institutions in the world.
So, when I started to work in the City as a lowly year out student in 1973 on the (soon to be demolished) Museum of London, the City had become a monoculture of finance houses and support services – lawyers and accountants and such like. It had a very distinct and very traditional English culture. It was hierarchical, with public school boys at the top, and it was formalised for everything from dress codes to attitudes and behaviors. Once you were in this white male club, if you scratched my back I would scratch yours, and the brightest and the best looked after the weaker brethren.
But embedded in this seemingly monolithic structure was an ability to change. The City is governed by a unique body politic – the Corporation of London. Anyone attending a Corporation of London function for the first time will think they have woken up in Ruritania, as every different rank of “elected” officer from the 25 wards has a fancy dress outfit more extreme than the next. But the electoral system is unique – basically, businesses have the vote, there are no political parties and the City is truly run like a corporation. This gives it an unrivalled ability, unfettered by party politics, to change the City to match modern business needs.
In the 1980s Thatcher deregulated the City, bringing in a wave of big international banks. The City buildings within its medieval street pattern could not deliver the floor plates the banks wanted so, led by Credit Suisse First Boston and Morgan Stanley, a group fled to Canary Wharf to get the football pitches they desired. The City woke up and responded with Broadgate (thanks to Stuart Lipton’s vision) and a rash of new buildings. To grow, the City has adopted an “upwards and outwards” policy resulting in towers inside the City boundaries (but outside of the protected view corridors) and developments outside in the City “fringes” like Bishops Square – Foster’s great groundscraper in Tower Hamlets. As one City executive told me – the City is bigger than the City.
The technology media and communications boys and girls won’t work in tin ceiling land and they won’t be chained to a desk. They want innovative, collaborative, even recreational spaces
The 2007 crash led to new challenges. The banks went in the sin bin for what will be the best part of a decade and London has seen the rise of the TMT market – technology media and telecommunications. Moreover, every company is now a tech company, even the banks. We may think of, say, Barclays as a bank with a technology department, but it’s equally a tech company in the banking field. Most big companies’ processes and products are now driven by technology – so there is a war for tech talent. As the rents in the West End are ridiculous, even the new tech powerhouses, such as Amazon, are eyeing up great floor plates that the City and the City fringes offer at reasonable rates. And the City is in a great place, right next to hipster heaven, the home of the TMT startups, a place brimming with talent and innovation – Shoreditch.
The only fly in the ointment is culture. The TMT boys and girls won’t work in tin ceiling land and they won’t be chained to a desk. They want innovative, collaborative, even recreational spaces. Think Shoreditch House, WeWork, Second Home and Macquarie Bank. They want cultural content and authenticity – and not only inside the offices; they want the City to be like this too.
And so we are back where we started, at the Lloyds Coffee House: commerce and innovation bred by interaction in convivial surroundings. The City gets this and is planning a whole raft of townscape interventions to make the City’s urban landscape friendlier. The best developers, like Stuart Lipton (again) at 22 Bishopsgate – which got planning permission last week – are building urban villages with great content and contribution to the urban realm.
So the City moves on. Goodbye bowler hats, hello skateboards and jeans.
Jack Pringle is principal, managing director EMEA at Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will