Open for business

Bloomberg’s new European headquarters is a big step away from recent landmark City buildings, with a highly bespoke, super-sustainable design whose disciplined exterior conceals a contrastingly open, dynamic interior. James Parker reports

In 2010, Michael Bloomberg, three-time New York Mayor and the owner of the financial information giant that bears his name, began constructing the company’s European headquarters in London. One of the world’s 10 richest people, he admitted at the building’s launch late in 2017 that the decision to base the firm here might have been different if he’d been able to predict the result of the Brexit vote. Despite this, the legacy of a close collaboration with Foster + Partners is a groundbreaking building with a modest yet handsome skin, and some very exciting interiors.

Unlike most City office buildings, Bloomberg London is owner-occupied, and as a result the client has put an unusual amount of investment into pushing the design envelope of the interiors, for the benefit of both its employees and the wider community. This privately-owned firm has spared little when it comes to delivering high-quality materials and an open, collaborative place for staff – the build cost reportedly came to £1bn.

This building brings over 4000 Bloomberg employees, previously spread over four sites in London, under one roof. That includes 800 software engineers, nearly three times as many as the company had four years ago, with increased investment in artificial intelligence approaches to financial analysis. In addition there are countless media professionals working across the company’s TV, radio and print channels, including in a state of the art TV studio.

A good neighbour
BREEAM rated Outstanding with a score of 98.5 per cent – making it the world’s most sustainable office building – Bloomberg London sits in a compact and triangular 3.2 acre site between Cannon Street and Bank stations – the pulsating heart of the City. It actually comprises two triangular buildings, the larger building to the north separated from the other by a covered pedestrian ‘arcade.’ This reinstates the Roman route of Watling Street, connecting through from Cannon Street to St Paul’s Cathedral – at either end have been added public plazas plus a further one by the main entrance. The north building contains most of the current key functions, with the south building for expansion space, Bloomberg having taken two floors so far.

One of the major design drivers for Mike Bloomberg, who took a very hands-on approach as client, was that this building would not impose itself on its immediate environment. He commented at the launch: “We wanted to respect London’s aesthetic traditions, as a company founded in the US we were conscious we were a guest in London.” He continued: “Norman Foster recognised the opportunity this project presented to do something extraordinarily modern and eminently British”.

The result is a civic-scaled building which, even though it’s only 10 storeys, steps back both at ground floor and the two top two levels, presenting an unassuming face to its neighbours. These include another Foster + Partners office building, the more outwardly flamboyant The Walbrook – finished in 2007. Bloomberg’s chunky Derbyshire sandstone frame combined with large bronze ventilation and shading fins covering its facades offers a simultaneously elegant, and polite addition to the streetscape.

In addition to its similar height to nearby buildings, such as the adjacent Magistrates’ Court, the fact the building’s structural frame is that same Derbyshire sandstone as that of the court also helps it sit comfortably in its surroundings. The client could have created a much higher glass edifice as commonly seen recently in the City, as project architect Michael Jones confirms. “If he’d wanted to, Mike could have built up to 22 stories over part of this site, it could have been a high rise.” He adds: “He is a rare individual who practices what he preaches.”

It was no small challenge to accommodate 1.1 million ft2 of floor in such a modest building height – also constrained due to viewing corridors from St Paul’s Cathedral. Despite this, as Michael Jones puts it, some “breathing space” was achieved. “Various interventions and cuts were made into the mass once we had achieved it, to deliver both public spaces and routes. There was a strong desire line through the site from commuters.”

Building intrigue
Rather than present a typical square corporate lobby, there are various stages of entering the building which unveil its nature in an intriguing way. There are two spaces for public and community events, in

addition to Bloomberg’s own events. The ‘pre-function’ space is a white circular room with a woven artwork by Pae White with ancillary spaces off it. Adjacent is a 250-seat auditorium complete with a ‘voice lift’ system that enables free-flowing communication by avoiding the need to hold microphones. It also has Huddersfield- made worsted wool panelling – generally, materials have been sourced and manufactured in the UK where possible. The spaces can be (and have already been) used for a variety of functions, from major political speeches, to events for the Mithraeum – the Roman Temple of Mithras restored by Bloomberg and now housed in the basement of the building as a free public amenity.

The sense of theatre is dialled up as you enter the spectacular lobby (pictured on facing page), which is a dramatic contrast to the somewhat sober exterior. The ‘Vortex’ is a double-height, exciting space with curving sides faced with American oak, the entire lobby being a ‘reciprocal structure’ whereby each of the timber shells “relies on the other to stand up,” as Jones explains. It contains little apart from a set of turnstiles, a smallish reception desk, and a two-sided silvery artwork by Oliver Elisasson located in the oculus (its top side viewable from the atrium above).

Jones says that the finishes play off traditional English design. “It’s literally a wood-panelled lobby with a twist, and continuing the referencing of classical English architecture, it’s a Regency blue ceiling.” He says it reinterprets some of the “quintessentially English ideas that you see around the City,” one of which is to have a contrasting restrained exterior and flamboyant interior – which Bloomberg London emulates. He cites the 1920s Lutyen’s bank now converted into The Ned, as an inspiration for the way Bloomberg’s unveils a more dynamic personality the deeper you go.

The big ‘reveal’ still doesn’t happen until you take a lift from the lobby up to the sixth floor, and step into The Pantry. This is a slightly misleading name (arising from its snack bar) for what is a cavernous communal area, and a feast for the senses. You are greeted by an amazing view of St Paul’s through huge glazing units, and a green wall, and realise the ceiling is sparkling. That’s because it’s made up of two and a half million polished metal ‘petals’, reflecting light from the LEDs dotted around them. Above, a bronze ramp spirals up through the heart of the building.

Passive impressive
Its design inspired by New York pressed metal ceilings, a major part of Bloomberg London’s passive low-energy strategy centres on its ceilings, and their design is a Foster + Partners creation which in its own right makes this building worthy of note. The aluminium ‘petals’, fabricated in Glamorgan, are shaped like open, slotted letter envelopes, and have been arranged into a carpet of flower-like formations. Their shape is bespoke-designed to not only reflect the light from half a million LEDs, but also to cool the air for the IT-heavy spaces below, with chilled water in copper coils behind each petal, and provide acoustic attenuation.

Michael Jones explains why the ceilings are central to the natural ventilation approach, developed with consultant Breathing Buildings: “If you had a normal chilled ceiling, and you were drawing summer air in, you would get condensation. So we needed to devise a ceiling that had a much greater surface area”. Part of their visual effect is the fact the LEDs’ light is ‘washed’ back upwards, giving a glowing effect.

The second key part of the strategy is the bronze fins, termed “gills” by Lord Foster, due to their shape and the fact that they enable the building to ‘breathe’. When the outside air is at the correct temperature, “which is anticipated to be the majority of the year,” says Jones, the back of the fins open, air passing over the glazing to smooth temperature peaks and troughs, and into the building through large vertical vents.

With their shapes designed to optimise air intake as well as shading, they have an attractive, organic curve, which needed to achieve a large draw of air given the relatively low building height. This was developed by Foster + Partners with the help of fluid dynamic analysis, and finally a 1:1 scale model in a Battersea warehouse, with simulated climate “from the coldest winter to the hottest summer”. Jones notes that with the rapid moves to cleaner engines and electric cars, air pollution in the City is becoming less of a concern. While engines are also quieter, the fins’ design helps moderate traffic noise.

Aesthetically, the fins’ varying forms give each facade a subtly different look, and also a deceptive solidity. Michael Jones: “We were asked to deliver an all glass building that looks solid – a contradiction. So from afar they look quite solid, but locally they open up.”

Ramping up
Unadorned natural materials have largely been chosen for their ‘self-finished’ qualities in this project – stone, steel, aluminium, timber, wool, and in the case
of the external fins but also the key circulation route internally, bronze. Spiralling up through the atrium to form a dramatic triple elliptical helix through three floors, is a ‘step ramp’. This patinated bronze-clad hybrid of a wide-tread stair and a ramp provides a place wide enough to encourage workers to stop and chat while others can continue walking.

“They wanted it to be graceful, social, and a place of interaction,” says Jones. It’s an extremely effective, relaxed way to combine collaboration with circulation while opening up the floorplates, as well as fantastic views up and down the building through teardrop-shaped gaps, helping staff visually feel more connected. It also slightly overshadows the not-unimpressive achievement of the glass lifts being cantilevered off the stone exterior, developed alongside manufacturer Kone with minimal resulting steel frames.

An open plan
As Michael Jones puts it, “Open plan is very Bloomberg – it was a very good meeting of minds, because a lot of
what drives them drives us, the openness, the idea of equality of workspace, and they were very willing to try and push the boundaries.”

From generous landings on each of the seven office levels, you are presented with a sea of desks, and very few columns. The architects began with a standard column grid, and “effectively took every other column out,” says Michael Jones, leaving a 13.2 m span triangular grid. Notably, in the Pantry there are no columns at all, with the structure suspended from the roof via a lot of design ingenuity. Jones says this was one of the outcomes of Mike Bloomberg’s approach of “the fact that something is new and will take a lot of development is no reason not to do it.”

Desks are a bespoke, curved (slightly boomerang-shaped) ‘120’ design developed by Foster + Partners, generally arranged in circular clusters. That overarching idea of democratic equality extends to Mike Bloomberg himself having the same desk. Kate Murphy says: “We studied workplace trends, but realised that quite a lot of organisations are providing small desks. So we deliberately provided quite a generous desk to aid collaboration.” The idea behind the clusters was that “you can spin round, have a quick meeting and spin back to your desk.”

Despite the fact the architects researched current trends, she says “We didn’t want to be clouded by them – Mike wanted to do what he thought was right for the organisation.” For example, the designers didn’t adopt the hot desking trend, preferring to let staff have their own space, however there are very few meeting rooms, which is more in line with current trends. There are a ‘ring’ of meeting spaces at the very top (tenth) level, under the skylight.

As ever on this project, workplace design was evidence-based – around 100 of the desks were tested out in Bloomberg’s New York office. Says Murphy: “In order to deliver this amount of innovation we had to test everything.” They even developed a phone app so people could find their way to their desk – no mean feat with the floors holding 600-700 people, although each floor is dedicated to a different discipline, whether it’s software development or media. In a final twist of innovation, the office floors are made of precisely finished timber strips, each with a fridge magnet-type material on the underside which enables them to be individually lifted for maintenance purposes, and does not interfere with IT because placing a strip back in its position closes the magnetic field.

At the building’s opening, Lord Foster said that once its hoardings came off, Bloomberg quickly became a “working part” of its neighbourhood, with people instantly using its plazas and colonnade. “It was an overnight phenomenon, one minute a build- ing site, the next minute, alive with people and totally part of the public domain.”

He applauded the “shared patronage” that characterised the project, with the client investing heavily in quality, public benefit, and sustainability, which has led to a justly celebrated result. “I pay tribute to that civic pride and social idealism, and the extraordinary collaboration between the public world and the private world.”

This building, while a temple to finance, is also a shining example of sustainability that reflects a client with a very strong focus on philanthropic actions, and community outreach. It’s a joyful, unpretentious and highly functional place, blending seamlessly into its context rather than loudly pronouncing its arrival. It’s also a statement of belief in London’s global importance – albeit one that was made before the winds changed regarding the UK’s place in the EU. Bloomberg himself and others must be secretly hoping it will not turn out to be a spectacular monument to the City’s heyday.