The Bank of England’s Disappeared Body Parts:
A Story of Sequences, Deconstruction and Networks of Self-Sufficient Clusters
Relationship of Tectonics and Language of Fragmentation
Sir John Soane’s Bank of England in London has been often described as ‘an infinite sequence of interior spaces’ (Fabrizi, 2016). Designed over the course of 45 years, the building was a clash of different generations, opinions, and values that have been carefully stitched into a neurotic whole. It was Soane’s persistent work that made the bank the true spectacle of various architectural figures delicately positioned next to, in-between or even on top of each other. It was due to the orientation of the adjacent streets which, although bringing an order to individual phases of the building as they were designed by Soane and his predecessors, were responsible for the numerous collisions within the whole. “The process of fragmentation is often considered as a result of isolation and disintegration. Thus, it is no coincidence that it is commonly recognised as symptom of chaos. In many areas, however, the fragments prove to be the key to better understanding. For instance in art, surrealism, cubism, or collage often use fragmentation in order to shape an overall sense, offering a deeper meaning of the whole.” (Bouse, 2013, 20)
If there was one architect truly inspired by the fragment and its rather twofold capacity, it was Sir John Soane. Designing the whole through fragments is one of the most important characteristics in Soane’s Bank of England and it is worth mentioning his work with individual elements in favour of the whole, as noted by Dorothy Stroud in her book on Soane: “Knitting the new to the old with great ingenuity, he was working with the fragments in order to reinforce and provide for the whole institution of the bank” (Stroud, 1996, 78).
Fragment Within Whole / Whole Within Fragment
Today buildings could often become the product of a cluster of accidental, scattered or residual spaces compromised throughout the design process for various reasons; the poetry of the assembled elements inside the overall volume is difficult to maintain. As Rafael Moneo put it in an essay about Soane, ‘For most historians, the essence of all architectural experience is the spatial sequence. This was recognised by the second generation of Modern Movement architects, such as Paul Rudolph or Eero Saarinen – something no longer present today when architecture is seen more as the result of assembling elements. Space in architecture today is more often the accidental result of the design process. It is very often a residual, interstitial space but no longer generates the building as a whole.’ (2018)
However, in the case of Soane’s Bank of England, the internal volumes become a finely arranged jigsaw puzzle of figural pieces knitted together to form “coalescing figures into a homogenous field” (Middleton, 1999, 26) creating extraordinary sequences and juxtapositions of spaces.
Moreover, in order to understand the way sequences are formed, we need to look at the morphology of this urban block. The Bank of England seems to have a strange similarity to Piranesi’s Campus Martius - a masterplan showing an imaginary reconstruction at the centre of Rome where strongly figural shapes, the thickness of their walls, poches and other various circular spaces serve as hinges to allow one chunk of program to realign and disengage from another. Looking at these two in comparison, the parallels are clear. The hinges become the knots between the different parts of the building and signify importance of space and change of use. Soane creates bizarre distortions through the poche in order to solve technical and spatial problems but also ramp up the emotional value of the architecture. Soane’s reinvention of the void helps to create series of self contained primary spaces that route their way through the infinite swelling and contracting corridors to form a carefully curated succession of fanciful events. In that sense, as one entered the bank, they would immediately know that they were no longer on public ground, because it was also due to the very contrasts, the changes of dimensions of rooms, distances between walls, sudden grips, and anticipated loosenings, that people were dragged into or out of individual spaces which in their characteristics suggested certain behavioural patterns.
Aims and Objectives
The aim of this study is to analyse, dissect and follow the logic of these dynamic sequences through the method of deconstruction. Separating the building into series of autonomous fragments aims to reveal
essential qualities about their morphology and complicated spatial infrastructure often muted by the overlapping relations of the plan and dense clusters. The absence of adjacent context in the deconstructed plan fragments emphasises the self-sufficiency of the clusters containing primary spaces and surrounding circulation while highlighting what we can observe, that the ‘individual additions of the building often have their own logic, symmetries, and expressions’ (Bouse, 2013, 20). The 2D line drawings intend to provide a fragmentary experience “that can be best described as a juxtaposition of random conflicts, whimsical inclusions, systematic exclusions, multiple overlays, endless alterations, recurrent uncertainties and half-forgotten stories” (Ibid, 2013, 20). The voids trace a rhythmical flow of movement, the morphology of which reveals important information about use. Narrow long corridors stretched between courtyards aim to slow down and provide surveillance. Short and spacious transitions dramatically open up to the visitor and embracing the volume with light and grandeur. These intricate circulation differences are revealed best through their morphological identity and geometrical arrangement in relation to primary spaces.
The Frankenstein Experiment
The deconstructed plan fragments are later repurposed into a new, imaginary sequence in order emphasise their autonomy. The reassembled ‘body parts’ of Soane’s infrastructure of the Bank form the same language of randomness, tempo and contrasts with a Frankenstein-esque carpet of double lives and meaning.
Form Follows Relation
The character of the elements proves to be defined by the autonomous construction of relationships with other elements rather than by their predetermined character. In other words, we can say that the form did not follow function, but a possible relation. A similar exercise was executed by John Hejduk in his entry for the 1984 Prinz-Albert-Palais competition in Berlin for the construction of a memorial park. Fabrizi writes “Hejduk’s entry develops some of the principles of his previous project ‘Berlin Masque’ proposing an intervention which is meant to be developed over time and become ‘A growing, incremental place – incremental time’. A central recurring theme of research in Hejduk’s projects of that period is the development of the concept of ‘Masques’: architectural structures embodying a character, specified by the construction of relationships with other elements.” (2015). Hejduk himself points out that “the constructions are all autonomous objects configured like characters in a play. All of them are titled, with each name signifying the role of the single object in the construction of the project” (1983, 21).
Parallel to this, what seemed to be important for Soane was “incorporating a fragment into a larger narrative, rather than thinking it as a mere disassociated artefact” (Bouse, 2013, 22). Bourse’s statement does not seem surprising considering Sir John Soane’s Museum’s “architectural experiments” (Bryant, 2014, 5) with the arrangement of artefacts. Reading the history of the fragment through his own time and genius, what he attempted was to take the fragment and use it as an element in order to create something new.
The eagerness of Soane to rearrange and decontextualise his architecture in order to allow his work to be reimagined and seen in a new light can be seen in couple of Joseph Gandy’s drawings. Fig. 24. had various purposes among which was to promote designs and open a dialog with clients but most importantly it was to illustrate Soane’s search for new qualities, meanings and contexts. Similar to this, the drawing on fig. 23 explores similar themes and, above all, reminds us of Soane’s impulse to catalog, measure, quantify and collect. Furthermore, Soane’s involvement with fragments extends to his working models that explore particular fragments of the Bank in order to resolve technical and spatial issues. Thus, informed by Soane’s methods and tools of exploration used to maintain the poetry of his spaces, I have undertaken a similar journey that aims to playfully weave and unpick the Bank of England’s series of figural elements negotiating for primacy within the space, all wrapped inside a mute external skin stretched like rubber in order to safely contain the secretive life inside.
Soane’s Bank of England is a result of a stratification. Experienced and decomposed into separate layers lost in time but equally also found in time - in the memory traces of its abandoned grandeur. This eternal ruin is nostalgically embodied in memory whilst holding its power, though only existing on paper. The Bank’s ghostly figure allows the opportunity to dissect its delicately positioned self sufficient clusters supported with corridors, passages, offices and vestibules all the while retaining the ability of its lost architecture to withstand the effects of time without changing its values. The act of defragmenting, deconstructing, reassembling and rearranging emphasises the autonomy of each space, the self-sufficiency of the numerous clusters and the new meaning of the dual life of its fragments. Soane’s playfulness and curiosity in knitting the new to the old with great ingenuity is echoed in this visual study while sealing the solids and voids, sequences and juxtapositions, congelations and dissolutions, augmentations and contractions in time.
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