Wednesday Live: The History of Buildings

In my search for a business name for Obelisk in 2010, I decided to opt for probably the oldest man-built structure in London – Cleopatra’s Needle. With this baptism, I suspect my interest in architecture is a bit of a giveaway. So it was that recently Obelisk hosted an event on the history of the office buildings in which our clients work. The talk, by award-winning architect David Kohn (see, David’s Projects here), was inspirational on many levels – not least that it captured the constant tension between the past and the future that architects contend with as they try to adapt to new stylistic preferences.

The client evening was inspired by us discovering the history of our new office building at 30 St John’s Lane in Clerkenwell. Let me share with you my surprise when I discovered that our offices were the residence of a judge and later, in the 19th Century, the building used to be a pub – the Baptist’s Head. The pub was a stopping place at one time for prisoners moving from Clerkenwell detention prison to Newgate. It is also believed to have been the site of the anecdote leading to the saying “Refuse a drink and die” – an apprentice when offered his last privilege declined and so left two minutes before a messenger arrived with his reprieve.

David Kohn’s talk covered our clients’ buildings located within a mile of our office – from Goldman Sachs on Fleet Street, ING on London Wall to BT at Newgate.

He also talked about a couple of his own architectural projects that show how they approach a project, end to end. David’s approach to work is to design buildings with a story. Perhaps this commitment to creating something new by referencing the past is most striking when compared to the legal profession, which is going through a period of soul searching post-deregulation. Perhaps David’s best known project – A Room for London – is the ultimate example of a move away from ‘faceless architecture’. The boat that is perched on top of the Southbank Centre, which was a 2012 Olympic project – was designed following instructions found in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness.

In many a new building one can identify a ‘nod’ to what was classed as innovation centuries before. The message to lawyers is simple – whatever you may see on the outside, the style of any new build is the result of an inside out view of the world. Innovation comes from within, it’s not the result of external pressure. And what better place than architecture – to learn from all that surrounds us which is man-made?