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Pipes, Spiral Staircases, Glass-Box Elevators : 'The Room' at Lloyd's of London Is Worth Insuring

November 16, 1986|GREGORY JENSEN | United Press International

LONDON — Something new and dramatic now looms above London's crowded financial heart--a new Lloyd's of London headquarters which looks like a modernist symphony to stainless steel. Or maybe a chemical factory.

The building for Lloyd's, the world's most famous insurance market, sticks out from London's staid classical structures like a stranded oil refinery cloaked in shining steel.

"There are people who say it looks like an oil rig," said a Lloyd's official. "Some people like it. Some hate it.

"But I've not met one single person yet who has been inside here and hasn't said, 'Wow!' "

Sweeping Views

The public may say its own "wow" when visitors are allowed onto a fifth-floor gallery later this year to view the sometimes frantic activity of Lloyd's insurance underwriters. But they will never see the sweeping views of London from its top floors or the 200-year-old room hiding above their heads.

The building's remarkable exterior, however, can be seen now.

Its architect is Richard Rogers, 52, who with a partner designed France's most popular building, the Pompidou Center in Paris. His $245-million Lloyd's building is rather like the Pompidou Center set on end.

Like the Pompidou, its exterior is festooned with pipes, spiraling staircases, glass-box outdoor elevators, with every duct and tube normally hidden under a building's skin.

Can't Ignore It

"A building should be read, like a book," Rogers has said. "You should be able to see what makes it work."

"Readers" of this building may like it or loathe it, but they cannot ignore it. Which is part of the point.

Worldwide, a startling new headquarters has become the latest corporate status symbol.

Examples abound:

--The billion-dollar Hong Kong and Shanghai bank just opened in Hong Kong, probably the world's most expensive building.

--Proctor & Gamble's new headquarters in Cincinnati.

--Architect Philip Johnson's "Chippendale" skyscraper for AT&T in New York.

--Manhattan's whistle-shaped Citicorps Center.

Design Competition

For its own status symbol, Lloyd's posed rigid requirements to 50 architects in a design competition almost a decade ago. Their essence was "The Room."

Ever since it began in a London coffeehouse nearly 300 years ago, Lloyd's insurance business has been conducted in one room. Lloyd's always puts "The Room" in capital letters.

"The Room is unique to Lloyd's," the official said. "It is its very heart. So the requirements of The Room are of central importance."

When The Room in its 1928 building grew too small, Lloyd's built a new neoclassic headquarters across Lime Street in 1958. That became overcrowded even more quickly.

Redefined 'Room'

Now Rogers has re-defined the very word. His "room" occupies four floors--the entire ground floor plus three U-shaped galleries. They are linked by crisscrossing interior escalators.

If more space is needed later, underwriters could move their high-tech but tradition-based desks, called "boxes," up to more floors of the 522,936-square-foot building. Meanwhile, these spaces will be subdivided into offices.

Rogers' building has stirred controversy since the moment its design was unveiled.

Its upended rectangle shape is complicated outside by six satellite towers. Inside, where an ordinary building has a central core holding elevators and services, it has a vast void.

Clear and Uncluttered

This towering atrium leaps 212 feet upward, capped by an arched glass roof. Each vast, U-shaped floor around the atrium is clear and uncluttered from wall to triple-layered glass wall.

"As architecture, the new Lloyd's is really rather crude," wrote architectural critic Gavin Stamp. "The spaces are simplistic, the detail repetitive and boring." Other critics have been more savage, though Colin Amery said the interior is "remarkable and, in its way, beautiful."

"Mind you, they said the same rude things about this building," said a Lloyd's doorman in the 1958 headquarters. "A monstrosity, a white elephant, all that.

"To me, it's a challenge, the new building. I like it. It'll work fine."

Gee-Whiz Technology

Lloyd's begins moving next spring. The public gallery will be open after a grand opening planned for autumn.

Visitors will learn about new building's gee-whiz technology, but they won't sample the upper-floor views--and they won't see the surprises.

One of these is a wood-paneled library with an elaborate plaster apse, preserved from the 1928 building and now rebuilt in a basement. The biggest surprise is on the 12th and 13th floors.

"It's about 200 years old, this room," the Lloyd's official said inside a cool confection of ornate sculpted plaster.

This is a country house room designed by the great classic architect Robert Adam. It has no windows, thus ignoring one of London's finest views.

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