Like hundreds of other Londoners, I was curious to see the insides of The Bank of England at this year’s London Open House. And like hundreds of others, I thought it would be a good idea to come early to avoid the historic queues. Well, arriving a mere 7 minutes after official opening on Saturday wasn’t good enough, it turned out – lengthy queues had already formed along Threadneedle Street. It took a lot of patience and one large cup of tea (nicely offered by the lovely couple waiting behind me in line, who made a detour to Starbucks as we slowly progressed past the ‘One hour until the tour’ sign), but after two hours and ten minutes I was finally allowed in.
The 30 minute tour, however, was well worth the wait. A knowledgeable guide of the Bank’s museum led us through several rooms, corridors and courtyards of the historic and grand spaces of the Bank of England.
And lovely it was: we saw masterly crafted mosaic floors, great statues, wonderful paintings, rugs and artwork (like ‘Dividend Day at the Bank of England, showing how the shareholders picked up their quarterly dividend in person, all dressed up in their finest attire accompanied by wifes, children and even pets!), ancient furniture, a stunning cantilevered staircase rising up 10 floors and the beautiful old courtyard with mulberry trees. Even though the Bank is an ordinary and modern workplace for 2000 staff everyday, the spaces gave an interesting impression of how the good old days must have been inside this historic institution. I particularly remember the special wardrobes, designed to hold dozens of bowler hats each, since all staff was required to wear a bowler hat to work until the 1950s. Upon inquiry, our tour guide had to admit that this was not true of all staff strictly speaking, since females were not required to wear bowler hats, but it was (and maybe still is, I don’t know) such a male dominated area that females didn’t really feature.
Two more things specifically struck me: firstly, how old and historical the building felt, even though it is relatively new. The building we now know was constructed between the First and Second World War by Sir Herbert Baker, demolishing the historic spaces previously designed by Sir John Soane. What was necessary to support a structure 7 floors up and 3 floors down into the ground in order to accommodate increasing staff numbers, was later famously called ‘the greatest architectural crime in the City of London of the 20th century’ by architecture critic Nicolaus Pevsner. Materials were certainly reused and of course the majority of decoration and furniture was kept, so maybe this is the reason why the whole building still feels almost ancient despite its relatively modern origin.
The second extraordinary aspect of the Bank of England is the stark contrast between the grandeur of the representative areas and the dreary looking ordinary workspaces. Not that the ordinary workplaces of the Bank of England staff would have featured in the tour. I did ask the guide, though, and he was mildly surprised by such a request. But then at one point of the tour as we passed along another corridor he directed me towards a door with a small window, through which it was possible to catch a glimpse of one of the open plan offices. Of course it is difficult to appreciate the quality of an office from just peering through a window, but what I saw didn’t look promising: a muddy-coloured carpet, old-fashioned brown desks, low ceilings, dark green partitions between desks. Now, this really looked old despite the fact it was probably more recently designed than the representative areas. And it looked a bit sad, as if no one really cared for the workspaces. Maybe this impression is all wrong and the Bank of England is a great place to work at with the right type of workspace for what employees need. It just didn’t look like it.
I still wonder why historic and venerable institutions like the Bank of England believe that the general public is only interested in the grandeur and style of the old days. If they had fantastically designed modern workspaces to suit the knowledge economy of the 21st century, than why not show off with this as well?