City Livery Companies: Modern Classic

Architecture became a formally defined profession only in the early 19th century. For centuries before that it was an open, informal skill. Not so for the key building trades that from the Middle Ages protected their secrets and enrolled their apprentices through the medium of guilds or livery companies. These survive today, with other trades, as the City of London’s Companies.

The oldest go back several hundred years and most have mutated into clubs for the purpose of networking and charitable work. Since 1980, however, there has been a wave of new, skill-based company formations, to bring modern professions into the City’s orbit. The Architects Company, of which I am a warden, is number 98 of 103 livery companies. It was formed in 1984 and recognised as a livery company in 1988. It exists for those architects linked to the City by their work, and provides mutual support and society, as well as doing good work such as mentoring students, awarding prizes and supporting causes. The City may seem a tiny territory to the country at large, but it has always been a huge part of the economy and with a voracious appetite for architecture of the highest quality.

The older companies with substantial resources built themselves “livery halls” to meet and hold their ceremonies. The Architects Company has no hall of its own, though it identifies with Wren’s Temple Bar which is used as its logo. Temple Bar is finally about to return to the City as part of the Paternoster Square redevelopment. We and several other companies are planning to fit out its upper room for use.

For all practical purposes though, the Architects Company borrows the halls of others, enjoying their diversity and quality. This week we met at the new hall of the Haberdashers Company, designed by Sir Michael and Lady Hopkins. It is a modern classic, employing the traditional devices of the City: backland siting in Smithfield, quiet courtyard, dignified courtroom, lofty hall, but doing so in Hopkins’ modern way. Brick and timber design is exemplary, with low-energy use achieved through natural ventilation driven by the skilful use of volume and skyline features. The Architects Company gives a New City Architecture Award each year, and the 2003 award was presented to the Hopkins and the Haberdashers by the Lord Mayor at our meeting on April 29. We also regularly use the bijou Watermens Hall and the Lord Mayor’s grand Mansion House.

Livery halls are a very old form of accommodation, combining social and economic activity. They preceded the idea of the office building and they could outlast it too. As organisations change and technology separates us from the need to be “in the office” to operate, so club-like places, from BA executive lounges, through Starbucks to the livery halls, provide meeting areas, socialising and networking opportunities. The company is also a modern version of the old guilds, open to architects from any country who are working in the City. It reflects the global significance of this city-statelet. Everything old is new again.

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