UBS: Steely on the outside, cashless on the inside

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UBS moved into its new home at 5 Broadgate last month, the biggest building ever let in central London.


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The sheer size of its new home is hard to exaggerate: the football pitch-sized footprint is four times the size of 4 and 6 Broadgate, two buildings that were demolished to make way for it. It is just 83 metres high, a limitation that was surreally imposed on it by a view of St Paul’s Cathedral through a hedge in Richmond Park.

At a press event to mark the move, Andrew Owen, managing director at UBS, declared that the building was a statement of the Swiss bank’s commitment to London post-Brexit, although by the time the referendum result was known in June it would have been rather late for UBS to change its mind. Perhaps cognizant that its staffing needs might fall in a post-Brexit London UBS has instigated hot-desking, or ‘agile working’, for 3,000 of the 5,600 employees that will be based there.

The solid, stainless steel ‘groundscraper’ has provoked controversy, with Stuart Lipton, the co-founder of Broadgate developer Stanhope Lipton, describing it as the “worst large building in the City of the past 20 years”. That is perhaps not surprising given that his buildings were the ones demolished to make way for it. 

The new building was also shortlisted for the Carbuncle Cup, which celebrates the worst of British architecture. Christopher Costelloe, the director of the Victorian Society, claims that it “arrogantly ignores the existing urban context” and is a “steel-clad fortress, mute to the outside… a flak tower for finance”. 

Brush aside

The building’s architects, Make, brush such observations aside, explaining that such a high profile building for a large bank in the City of London was bound to be an easy target. Ken Shuttleworth, founder of Make, describes the building as a game changer for central London, challenging the tyranny of the surrounding skyscrapers. 

Being 65% clad in stainless steel makes it very energy efficient but extremely imposing. Shuttleworth explains that the inspiration for the design was an engine block bought on eBay – to which it does bear an uncanny resemblance.

“We did it in a way that reflects the values of UBS. That reflects its Swissness,” he explains. “We tried to reflect that in the cladding of the building – luxury without being too flash. It leaps into the 21st century, and the 1980s buildings around it look very dated in comparison.”

Hot-desking 3,000 people is a challenge, and the floors have guides at their entrances to indicate where there are free desks, which all feels rather reminiscent of the car park at a shopping mall. It is a cashless building – the cafes, gyms and wellness centres only accept payment by smartcard – and there are no phones either. 

If 5 Broadgate is the future of banking, it is a slightly unnerving one – a career that offers you no permanent desk or phone inside a building where there is no money.