The Economist bids farewell to a formative home
Goodbye 25 St James’s Street
In the technology editor’s office: two stickers depicting passenger jets, attached lopsidedly to the window by a previous inhabitant of the room about 20 years ago, perhaps while tipsy. In the business editor’s office: a heap of notebooks on the floor. In the corridors: modern art bought long ago, some of it good, all of it ignored. In your correspondent’s office: two out-of-date posters about African politics, blu-tacked to a seven-foot-tall cupboard that he has never opened.
You can work in a building for years without really seeing it. And journalists, who pride themselves on their acuity, can be especially oblivious to their surroundings. We are a cynical bunch, who refuse to be impressed by the grand offices of company bosses and politicians — so why should we pay attention to our own? Perhaps, too, Economist writers are particularly susceptible to the delusion that their business runs on pure brain power. In 1965 an architect and a psychologist came to admire our offices. They were breezily informed that most of the journalists could work just as well in a barn.
Yet we do notice some things about the building where we have worked for the past 52 years: 25 St James’s Street, just south of Piccadilly in the West End of London. Most obviously, we have a fine view. From the upper floors of the Economist tower, we are surrounded by buildings only half as high. Looking north, we can see the hills of Hampstead and Highgate. To the east are the City and the Shard. Those of us who look out to the south can use Big Ben as an office clock. Particularly spectacular sunsets trigger mass e-mails enjoining everyone to head for a west-facing window.
When The Economist hired them to design its building, Peter and Alison Smithson had built only a suburban house in Watford and a school in Norfolk
Walking to the entrance of our building, across a rather austere plaza, we sometimes pass groups of architecture students in drab, well-cut clothes and interesting glasses. More rarely, geologists appear to scrutinise the slabs of shell-pitted dirty-white stone in which the Economist tower and two smaller neighbouring buildings are clad. The stone’s strange texture tells of an ancient seabed — and also of a trade-off between a weekly newspaper that had improbably decided to become a property developer and two bold young people who were in the process of creating a soon-to-be notorious architectural style.
If we notice our surroundings rather more in the next few months, it is because they will soon change. This is our last Christmas in a tower that was created for us. Next summer we will move into the Adelphi building, a renovated 1930s hulk near the Strand. The change is exciting and disorienting. The modern, global version of The Economist was created in the tower, and has been shaped by it. This sublime slab of the 1960s is the only home it has ever known.
But for two German bombs, everything might have worked out differently. The first, which fell in 1941, destroyed The Economist’s offices in Bouverie Street, near Fleet Street — the old heart of British journalism. The newspaper fled to offices near Waterloo Bridge. In 1947 it moved to St James’s, into a building that was vacant because it, too, had been bombed. Number 22 Ryder Street was not London’s smartest address. It had been an upmarket brothel before the war; Nancy Balfour, the United States editor, shocked a taxi driver by asking to be taken there. It was, say the few who remember it, a pleasant jumble of offices and corridors. But by the late 1950s it had started to pinch, and The Economist decided to do something radical.
It was a propitious time for architectural ambition. In 1956 the London County Council relaxed its restrictions on the heights of buildings and began to grant permission for well-designed towers that were not too close to other towers. Eight years later the national government banned most office construction in central London, in an economically illiterate effort to spread wealth around. By the time that law was unpicked, Westminster was patrolled by conservationists. The Economist squeezed through the only gap available.
The council nonetheless imposed a severe restriction. The development was not to exceed a plot-area ratio of five to one; that is, for every square metre of land, it could build five square metres of offices and flats. So it was vital to grab as much ground as possible. That task fell to Peter Dallas-Smith, a former navy lieutenant with an injured leg who had (to his own surprise) charmed his way to the position of managing director of The Economist. He expertly schmoozed the paper’s neighbours, including Boodle’s gentlemen’s club, a bootmaker, a chemist and a bank. Some he bought out; to others he promised space in a new building. He ended up with a gently sloping site of 1,820 square metres with Ryder Street to the south and St James’s Street to the west.
The obvious way of dealing with a tight plot-area ratio is to maximise two valuable things: street-front property and views. The Economist could have erected a two- or three-storey building hard up against St James’s Street, a grand thoroughfare, and popped a tower out of the top. A template for this “podium-and-tower” approach existed: Lever House in New York, built in 1952 by the firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and already much copied. One architecture firm that Dallas-Smith invited to bid for the job proposed something like it.
Alison and Peter Smithson, a married couple who ran a small architecture practice from their home in Chelsea, had a drastically different idea. Instead of maximising street frontage, they proposed abolishing it. They would knock down a tall Victorian building on St James’s Street and replace it with stairs and a ramp, leading to a plaza. A car park, a restaurant and shops would be swept underneath it, visible only from the back streets. From the plaza three separate buildings would rise, like the pins in a British electrical plug. The Economist and the Economist Intelligence Unit, a research firm, would occupy the tallest one. A smaller tower would contain rooms for Boodle’s club and flats. The third building, shorter still, but broader and with grand windows, was intended for Martin’s Bank.
After only a limited competition, the paper plumped for the Smithsons’ plan. That decision was “an incredible act of bravery”, says their son Simon Smithson, an architect at Rogers, Stirk and Harbour. It was also a puzzle, including to the architects themselves. When The Economist hired them, Peter and Alison Smithson had built a suburban house in Watford and a school in Norfolk, but nothing to indicate that they could handle a complicated project in one of London’s most precious districts. And Peter Smithson rather doubted that their clients read the sort of Continental architecture journals that had reviewed their work.
It probably helped that an architecture critic at the Observer newspaper and a Cambridge University professor sang the Smithsons’ praises. And it was reassuring that the building contractors, Sir Robert McAlpine, had an experienced in-house architect named Maurice Bebb, who could steer the young couple. Perhaps, too, a weekly newspaper saw something in the Smithsons that it admired. Although the couple were never prolific builders, they were prolific writers. Words poured out of them — not always intelligible words, to those outside the charmed circle of modernist architecture, but plentiful, punchy words. One word in particular would have delighted an Economist headline-writer.
In 1953 Alison Smithson had got hold of a novel Swedish term, nybrutalism, and applied it to a house that she had designed in west London. “New brutalism” soon became simply “brutalism”. It was a clever word, evoking béton brut (raw concrete) and art brut, the untutored art of the mentally ill. To the Smithsons and their acolytes, it meant material frankness and clarity. In a brutalist building, steel looks like steel and concrete, of which there is often a lot, looks like concrete. A water tower looks just like a water tower.
In some ways, the Economist development is brutalist. Its buildings are massive and intelligible: the Economist tower is plainly an office block. But it does not belong to what Elain Harwood, an expert on post-war architecture, calls “high brutalism”. Canonical brutalist buildings like Preston’s bus depot and the National Theatre in London feature large blocks of exposed concrete. The Economist tower does not. When the Smithsons proposed raw concrete their clients had retorted that they preferred a building faced with Portland stone — the Establishment rock, which adorns buildings such as Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Treasury. In the end, architects and client reached a wonderful compromise.
The roach not passed over
Most Portland stone comes from deep in the limestone beds that form the Isle of Portland, in Dorset. It is creamy, smooth and excellent for carving. But towards the top of the beds lies a metre-thick layer of messy rock known as roach. In places, roach contains fragments of oyster shells; in others, the stone is pitted with screw-shaped holes, formed when other shells dissolved in situ. Roach had been used as a building material since the 18th century. But it was considered more appropriate for workaday structures such as breakwaters than for fine buildings.
The Smithsons thought it just the thing. And the contrast between the rough, shelly roach and the clear glass windows of the three modern buildings in the Economist plaza is stark and beautiful. The buildings relate cleverly to each other, too. Although they differ greatly in size and shape, with floors of varying heights, they appear as a harmonious group — siblings who politely downplay their differences. On a side wall of Boodle’s club, the fourth building on the site, the Smithsons added a bay window that almost seems to have been chipped off one of the towers. That pulled an older building into the modern family.
Although they adored Dallas-Smith, the Smithsons did not warm to The Economist’s staff. Alison Smithson later remembered the editors as “very pretentious, as though they were the intellectual cream” and described some as the kind of people who become hysterical when they have to wait for the lifts in department stores. Yet the architects listened to their clients. Tim Tinker, who worked in the Smithsons’ practice, went to see the paper’s journalists and Economist Intelligence Unit researchers in their existing offices and noted how they worked. He remembers being struck by two things: their desire for quietness and their habit of filling their working spaces with piles of paper and other “clobber”. Two-person offices were especially good, the workers told him, because if one person was out when his or her phone rang, the other could take a message. Two-person offices is what they got — and, decades later, what many of the journalists still have.
The tower opened in 1964. Geoffrey Crowther, The Economist’s chairman, who had championed the Smithsons, said generously that it would be the architects’ ornament. In the future, he predicted, few would remember that The Economist had commissioned the buildings, just as nobody remembers who asked Christopher Wren to build St Paul’s Cathedral. Architecture critics praised the towers — and the plaza between them even more. This was large and light, partly because of the buildings’ chamfered edges. The main tower and the smaller residential tower were given modest glass-walled lobbies, paved with the same stone as the plaza, that covered only a fraction of the buildings’ footprints; the plaza seemed to extend into them. Pillars for the upper stories rose straight and unencumbered from the stone below. Their stone cladding started just above the ground, revealing their concrete core — the brutalists getting the final word in.
At that heady time, it seemed possible to think that Britain’s capital might be refashioned in the style of the Economist buildings. The plaza was just a beginning, Peter Smithson had written in 1960: “The first part of a more general system of pedestrian ways at various levels which should be an essential part of London.” George Kasabov, an assistant in his office, created a photomontage in which he repeatedly superimposed the Economist development across Westminster. “Ego, I suspect,” he says now, by way of explanation.
Some things did not work. The car park leaked. The Economist Intelligence Unit, which was (and is) independent of the newspaper, did not move in after all, thinking the building too expensive. The company scrambled to find tenants for the lower floors. The plaza disappointed, too. The architects had imagined it thick with people, even claiming it would become a tourist attraction. But few Londoners used it to cut through St James’s — hardly surprising, as the district already has lots of pleasant streets. What the Smithsons had really created, wrote Reyner Banham, an architecture critic who nonetheless admired the achievement, was just “a stretch of inviolate pavement, free from the swinging doors of Bentleys and the insolence of commissionaires”.
Still, The Economist was happy in its new home, and protective of it. In the early years the journalists feared to make even small changes, lest the Smithsons disapprove. In 1972 an interior designer made some unannounced alterations to the tower, plastering some walls with blue leatherette. The staff fired off a mass letter to the chairman, declaring that they “liked it just the way it was”. The leatherette came down.
Saved by St John-Stevas
It was a former inhabitant of the tower who saw off a bold attempt to change it. In the late 1980s The Economist drew up plans with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to add two stories to the top of the building. Norman St John-Stevas, once a writer on the paper and then head of the Royal Fine Art Commission, dug in against the change, as did the Smithsons. The buildings were quickly awarded a grade II* listing — one of the first post-war British buildings to be so protected — and the company retreated. The Economist was, however, allowed to make some changes to the plaza and to clad its lobby in travertine. This was ill-advised. Although travertine is a pitted limestone, like Portland roach, combining the two is rather like putting patent leather shoes on a bricklayer. Yet the splash of luxury probably helped keep rents up.
The same desire to maximise returns from an increasingly valuable building lay behind an attempt to winkle the editorial offices out. Even as the journalists were enduring messy renovations to their offices, some members of the board argued that they should go somewhere cheaper. They knew it would be a tough sell. “Sentiment should not be allowed to cloud decisions”, pleaded one, fearing the “deep emotional attachment” that the staff had formed with the building. Emotion prevailed. Still, over time more of the newspaper’s non-journalistic functions were moved to offices elsewhere, and hedge funds happy to pay a hefty rent rose up the tower like a tide.
All the while, the building was working on its tenants. Just as the design of prisons can make rehabilitation easier or harder, and as school buildings influence how children learn, so offices mould the people who work in them. They make some kinds of interaction easy and others hard, which shapes the way of working. Over the years the building has shaped The Economist in several ways, some good, some less so.
Our height gives us greater confidence in handing down Olympian judgments
Those spectacular views from the upper floors are not just a pretty sight. Out of our windows we see a vibrant metropolis, full of cranes, which reassures us (as, in a nostalgic, populist era, we need reassuring) that the free flow of capital and people are wonderful, enriching things. Perhaps our height also gives us greater confidence in handing down Olympian judgments on world affairs. And whereas other buildings treat views as status symbols, in the tower everybody gets one, be she editor or assistant. This is deliberate; the Smithsons built as egalitarians. After finishing the Economist buildings they built a housing estate in the East End of London, Robin Hood Gardens, which was supposed to dignify working-class people. It was a disaster, and will be demolished. But they did achieve a kind of social levelling in St James’s.
The views are always accessible because the distance between the windows and the large service core is only a bit under 6 metres — room just for a corridor and a single row of offices. Such small strips of floor space make open-plan offices hard. So does the tower’s odd system for moving air. Most office buildings have false ceilings and a void above, through which air ducts run. The Economist tower has no false ceilings and no void: the company decided on an extra floor of offices instead. So air runs through light boxes that drop from the ceiling. These seem fine when they sit above the dividers between corridor and offices; remove the dividers, though, and they look very odd.
Everybody at The Economist can tell stories about the people they have shared offices with over the years — their kindness, their messiness, their noisy apple-eating. From office dialogues, stories emerge. A conversation between the energy editor and the economics editor, who share an office, turned into a cover story on the economics of cheap oil. The building makes it hard to hold larger conversations, which means less useful group thinking but also fewer unproductive mass meetings.
More troubling than the partitions between offices are the divisions between floors. We are spread over four. The 11th floor is for art, fact-checking, IT and production, the 12th is for business, finance and science reporting as well as data, online news and, now, social media, the 13th houses the editor and the British and foreign news reporters and the 14th is a hotch-potch of video production, 1843 magazine, meeting rooms and the books section. An architecture critic who visited the tower in the late 1960s noticed a worrying lack of traffic between floors, and that has persisted. The division most gossipped and kvetched about is the one between the business and finance reporters of the 12th floor and the foreign news reporters of the 13th — two tribes characterised by one long-departed editor as Roundheads and Cavaliers. But all are unfortunate.
Almost no protests were raised when we were told in 2015 that the building would be sold and that we would leave. The sale was linked to a share buy-back as Pearson, an education publisher that had lost interest in newspapers, sold the Financial Times, which had a 50% stake in The Economist. Moreover, the offices suit us less and less well. As The Economist has launched new multimedia products, numbers of staff have risen. New sorts of teamwork can make our two-person cells a bit more of a restraint than they used to be.
We do, however, want to bring something of the Economist tower to our new home in the Adelphi — a modernised Art Deco building that, by coincidence, is close to the offices our bombed-out forebears occupied. A questionnaire sent to the staff asking what they wanted in a new building turned up assorted requests for better bike sheds and yoga facilities. Above all, though, people said they wanted offices much like the ones many have occupied for the past 50 years.
“People always want what they have,” says Mr Kasabov. Yet that is to sell short his work, and the work of the other people who created the buildings. The architects and their clients succeeded in creating offices that seem intuitive. For five decades they have mostly just worked, without drawing attention to themselves. The buildings, too, fit into St James’s despite being far more rigorous and modern than their neighbours. Even their stone has spread. Portland roach now appears on a building on King Street, a block away, and at the entrance to Green Park, the local tube station. Recently it has been used on extensions to the British Museum and BBC Broadcasting House, suggesting it has itself become unimpeachably Establishment.
As The Economist moves on, so will our tower. The new owners, Tishman Speyer, want to bring more life to the plaza, fulfilling the Smithsons’ vision. If Westminster Council and others assent, a shop or a café could be tucked in to the ground floor of the tower. Despite their narrowness, our floors will probably become open-plan — few clients want cellular offices these days. And the buildings will get a badly needed scrub. As we without them, so they will thrive without us. At some point Crowther’s prediction will presumably come true, and they will stop being called the Economist buildings. But always, the tower and the newspaper will carry traces of each other.