Turning Midland Bank's former headquarters into a hotel

former Midland Bank head office
Image caption 27 Poultry, once a bank, soon to be a hotel

Something is happening deep inside one of the City of London's most distinguished 20th Century buildings. After being disquietingly empty for some eight year, the builders have just moved in to turn No 27 Poultry into a very expensive hotel, brandishing (it is said) six stars.

Close to the Guildhall and the Bank of England, this building is better known as the former head office of Midland Bank, for some decades from 1918 the largest bank in the world.

The grade one exterior and the fine banking hall were designed in the early 1920s by the eminent architect of empire Sir Edwin Lutyens, who went on to create much of New Delhi.

Look hard and you may discover something slightly strange about the splendid Midland Bank facade, now propped up with steel supports as the interior redesigners get to work.

On the narrow street Poultry (named after the produce once sold there), Lutyens designed the distinguished head office to look its best from the side, not full frontally. (A glance across from the Mansion House will confirm this).

Opposite the Midland Bank is a very prominent site which gave the planners some famous headaches. The developer Peter Palumbo and his father spent years accumulating freeholds there, including the bristling gothic Mappin and Webb building on the triangular corner of Poultry and Queen Victoria Street.

Lord Palumbo is a driven man, or he was in the 1970s. He wanted this notable site to accommodate the only building in Britain to be designed by the modernist international architect Mies van de Rohe, famous for his immaculate glass clad boxes such as the Seagram Building in New York.

The design was commissioned, but Mies died in 1969; Lord Palumbo fought a ferocious battle with the planners to have it erected.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The City of London has changed radically since the Midland Bank built its headquarters

One of the arguments in its favour was said to be that the plaza surrounding the black 18-storey skyscraper would put enough vacant space into the site to allow the Midland Bank head office to be seen head on, which it was (as I've explained) seemingly not intended to be.

The proposed Mappin and Webb demolition complicated the matter. Eventually the Mies plan was scrapped, and permission granted for a bulky No 1 Poultry building designed by the British architect the late Sir James Sterling: denounced by that influential architectural critic Prince Charles as looking like a 1950s wireless.

It has now tragically become the haunt of City people bent on suicide by jumping off the top.

Walk-in bank vault

But I wish I could have taken you round the Midland Bank head office before they started tearing out the interior, mostly designed not by Lutyens but by John Alfred Gotch, whose firm designed many important Midland branches.

It was quite splendid, and revealing of how bankers felt about themselves in the glorious days of the mid 20th Century.

There were long blue carpeted corridors with messengers manning reception desks on every floor. There was a magnificent walk-in vault used in the 1960 James Bond movie Goldfinger, to be preserved (it is said) as a bar in the new hotel.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Midland's massive bank vault featured in the James Bond film Goldfinger

There was a theatre used for performances by the staff theatrical society. The company boardroom was a grandiloquent two-storey space reminding me (on the only occasion I peeped into it) of a mediaeval banqueting hall. There may even have been an open fireplace, but I'm not sure now.

Even more revealing was the main door to the building in Poultry. I only discovered its secret after an interview with the chief general manager (as CEOs were termed then) many years ago.

I was making to go back the way I'd come in, past the reception desk in the great banking hall, when my escort showed me to the chairman's lift. Set into an alcove just the main door, this was a discreet small manned lift which bank executives could use to leave the building (or enter it) without being seen by the rest of the staff.

It merely awed me then, 30 years ago. But I now wonder whether the seeds of Midland's decline were not sowed by the exultation of the bank's upper classes symbolised by that chairman's lift.

Electronic architecture

Anyway, the world's biggest bank fell upon hard times. In 1992 it was taken over by HSBC of Hong Kong, and the Midland name disappeared in 1999.

Image caption The Midland Bank name itself disappeared in 1999 - as part of HSBC

HSBC moved HQ to Canary Wharf. The Midland head office was eventually sold, and is now being redeveloped. I hope they keep some of its interior grandeur intact.

HSBC had huge ambitions; it went on rapidly diversifying from its roots as a bank based in Asia. In 1999 it acquired the rich person's Republic National Bank of New York from the founder financier Edmund Safra, who later died in a fire in his apartment in Monte Carlo.

Safra's Geneva bank interests became HSBC Private Bank Suisse. This is the branch that is now causing huge political and ethical waves.

That magnificent Midland head office at the centre of the City of London was erected 90 years ago to symbolise a bank at the peak of its global success. But I wonder if there's quite another architecture at work in banking in the 21st Century: the architecture of electronics.

From bricks to bytes

British banks started computerising in the 1960s. They used their huge mainframe machines to replicate the physical branch banking structure that the computer was simultaneously making almost irrelevant.

They did not seem to realise how banking was effectively going to become an electronic enterprise.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Like others, HSBC has moved its headquarters to Canary Wharf

Banks such as Midland/HSBC expanded rapidly in the following decades. They waded into credit cards, financial markets, investment banking, foreign exchange trading, building a vast international presence.

But at the heart of the computer systems they used was an electronic architecture based on the original requirements of those 1960s banks. People in the know say that later business additions were sort of bolted on to the existing frameworks.

And banks singularly failed to pass on to their customers the huge efficiencies gained by electronics. Maybe the people who ran the banks had little first hand knowledge of just how powerful their computer systems might be, and (at the same time) just how limited the oversight these legacy computer systems offer them of the complexity of a 21st Century bank.

Bankers used to dwell in marble halls because that elaborate architecture gave their customers the confidence to entrust the banks with their money.

But now that the architecture of banking has shifted from bricks and marble to the shape and size of their computer systems, how do we know who - or what - to trust?

Remember that when - eventually - you check into 27 Poultry. The hotel, not the bank.

Related Topics