Chartered Accountants' Hall - Analysis - A building of distinction

Three architects, two faces, one building. Chartered Accountants' Hall encapsulates the past, present and future of the accountancy profession, says Liz Pile.

The Roman god Janus, patron of doorways, beginnings, and the month of January, has two faces, one looking back at what has passed, and one looking forwards at what is still to come. Chartered Accountants' Hall in London similarly has two faces. Its 19th-century face in Moorgate Place is a riot of late Victorian neo-Baroque. Its modern face towers over Copthall Avenue, a massive structure of rough concrete and plate glass. Those who are familiar with the building tend to love one half and loathe the other, while a casual viewer might not even realise that they are the same building.

So how did the Hall come to have such a divided personality? To answer this we need to trace a little of the history of the institute itself.

Chartered Accountants' Hall was built at a significant moment in the history of the accountancy profession. The earliest known accounting records are clay tablets from ancient Iraq made thousands of years ago, and from that time most organised societies used some form of monetary record-keeping (see Accountancy, February 2003, p57). Double-entry book-keeping, invented in the great banking houses of Italy in the Middle Ages, was known in England by the mid-16th century. But it was not until the early years of Queen Victoria's reign, with industrialisation and the rapid growth of large corporations such as the railway companies, that accountants began to acquire the respect and social position in Britain that the professions of medicine and the law had earned many centuries earlier.

By the mid-19th century there was a movement in some skilled occupations towards banding together to form a professional association to ensure adequate standards in both training and practice. Associations of accountants started as local societies in the major industrial cities of Britain.

The first were in Scotland - the Institute of Accountants in Edinburgh was formed in 1853 - but societies in London and other English cities soon followed (see Accountancy, June 2003, p58).

In 1870, 10 leading London accountants met at 3 Moorgate Street in London to consider forming a professional society. The first official council meeting of the new Institute of Accountants in London took place a few months later. Meanwhile another association, the Society of Accountants in England, was formed by non-London accountants. In 1872 the London Institute was opened to accountants from the provinces and the name was changed to Institute of Accountants.

In 1880, following a joint petition by five accountancy associations, a Royal Charter of Incorporation was granted, under the terms of which the signatories were to merge and form the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. It soon became clear that new premises would be needed, partly to accommodate the needs of its rapidly increasing membership, but also to help underline the importance of the new institute relative to other City institutions. A site was leased in Moorgate Place and in 1888 six of Britain's leading architects were invited to compete.

John Belcher's building: 1888-1893

The winning entry was by John Belcher, an established London architect who had already worked in partnership with his father on ambitious commercial buildings such as Mappin & Webb in Poultry, EC2. At this time the City of London was still a much more diverse community than now, including warehouses, shops and residential buildings as well as offices and financial institutions. Mappin & Webb dates from 1870 and is firmly in the fashionable Victorian Gothic style. But by 1890, architectural tastes were changing towards a more monumental style drawing on the exuberant but authoritative language of Baroque architecture. In the 1880s, Belcher had travelled widely in Germany, Austria and Italy studying Baroque architecture. Back in England he became one of the leading exponents of this mode. Chartered Accountants' Hall was his first building in the new style and was very influential on other architecture in the City and elsewhere at the turn of the century.

Belcher's three-storey building provides an imposing facade on Moorgate Place, continued at the side into Great Swan Alley. The design that he created accords with his beliefs that sculpture used on a building should be integral to the total architectural concept and not simply applied as decoration. Deep undercutting ('rustication') of the stone pillars or walls at ground level is a treatment often used by Renaissance and Baroque architects to express gravity and functionality, but in Belcher's hands it becomes part of an overall scheme of light and shade in which structure, function and decoration are interwoven. The facade is as much sculpture as architecture, and the sculptural elements, such as the caryatids (female supporting figures) and the frieze between the first and second floors, clearly express the structure of the building.

Inside, Belcher provided the institute with both private offices and grand public rooms. The offices were soon converted into a 'club'-style members' and guests' room, still in use today. Belcher's own favourite part of the building was the library, now the 'members' room' used for reading, writing and for private functions. Originally, this had bookcases lining the walls at floor level and on an upper gallery level. A Venetian-style bridge links the galleries, lit by ornate carriage lanterns.

The most important room in Belcher's building was the council chamber where the governing body of the institute met. Then it was furnished with carved wooden pew-style seats and a high chair for the president, in the style of the House of Commons and Victorian municipal seats of government.

When the building was extended in the 20th century the function of this room was changed to become the main reception room, and the seating was removed, but most of the other elements which made this the grandest room in the building remain.

The room is essentially square, extended by colonnaded apses at east and west, and lit by a very fine dome above. Stained glass windows contain the arms of the institute and of the cities whose local societies merged to form it, and heraldic emblems relating to the institute's ethical purpose - a lamp and book for education, scales for justice, an owl for wisdom, and a beehive for industry. The walls are covered with elegant allegorical murals by George Murray. On the north wall is 'Science bringing order with scales and rule to Commerce' while on the south wall is 'the Triumph of Law'. Above these large murals are smaller paintings, including Truth, Prudence, Wisdom and Justice, the ethical foundations of the accountancy profession.

Altogether, Belcher's part of the building cost over 40,000 and provided 19,500sq ft. In the year it was completed the institute had 1,876 members, and the total annual fee income of a large accountancy firm might be 10,000 to 30,000.

Joass's extension: 1930-31

Institute membership increased rapidly after the first world war, to around 9,000 by 1930. In 1926 the institute purchased Swan House next door in Great Swan Alley, and commissioned J J Joass, Belcher's partner from 1905-1913, to extend the building. The brief was to keep to the same architectural style, which Joass did. The extension, completed in 1931, cost about 35,000 and added 5,000sq ft. At that time a large accountancy practice might generate annual fee income of 30,000 to 60,000.

The frieze

The sculpted frieze around the Belcher/Joass part of the building, carved by Hamo Thorneycroft in 1889-1893 and extended by J A Stevenson in 1930, is one of the most notable elements of the exterior.

The Belcher/Thorneycroft section was intended as a grand symbolic depiction of all the areas of human activity which have benefited from the services of accountants. Groups of figures represent the arts, science, crafts, education, commerce, manufactures, agriculture, mining, railways, shipping, and India and the Colonies. The last section, 'Building', in Great Swan Alley, includes 17 figures representing the stages in the construction process, from surveyor to solicitor, and includes depictions of both Belcher and Thorneycroft. The later extension by Joass/Stevenson continues the theme of 'Building' with a further 31 figures, charting the history of building, from pre-history to Joass and Stevenson themselves.

Whitfield's addition: 1966-1970

In 1957 the institute merged with the Society of Incorporated Accountants, and membership increased by 50% overnight. William Whitfield was commissioned to find a solution to accommodate the needs of the much larger body. Further land was acquired in 1965, and the new building was opened in 1970. A key part of the commission was to create a new grand hall which could accommodate much larger numbers.

This was the era of very new and radical ideas in architecture. A new, modernist architectural approach in Britain sought to strip away the decorative, camouflaging, even to some eyes hypocritical, elements of buildings and expose the underlying structure to public view. Gone were marble facings, elegant Portland stone, and allegorical sculpture; instead a more 'honest' style was adopted, using tough raw materials such as concrete and steel to express the function of the building. The new style was called Brutalism and the new extension to the Institute of Chartered Accountants was acclaimed as an outstanding example of how to juxtapose old and new in a coherent manner.

First Whitfield extended the Great Swan Alley building by three further bays, including an extension of the frieze by David McFall, with figures representing the founding fathers of accountancy and the institute. Then on the corner with Copthall Avenue he introduced a Belcher-style entrance leading to a very modern internal foyer area. Then he moved abruptly into the main, modern part of the building, with a wide entrance hallway, massive towers of reeded concrete enclosing the stairs and lifts, restaurant facilities in the basement, a greatly enlarged library, and five floors of offices above a new Great Hall.

The Great Hall was a remarkable architectural achievement. In order to maximise the circulation space within the hall, no internal pillars were used. Instead, the offices above are suspended on massive beams, which are in turn supported by four pillars built on the outside of the Great Hall. To prevent the old building being destabilised by the new one, over 200 piles were driven into the foundations to underpin it.

The Whitfield extension cost almost 2.5m and added 65,000sq ft. In the year it opened the institute numbered nearly 50,000 members; the largest accountancy practices were fast becoming global organisations with many thousands of employees and fee income of 1m or more.

Today the institute has over 125,000 members and some accountancy firms count their fee income in billions of pounds worldwide. The institute is still based at the building created by Belcher, Joass and Whitfield, but now also operates from Milton Keynes and even has a small European office in Brussels. But still, as was always the intention, the members' rooms in Moorgate Place are available for daily use by any members of the institute, and many of the public rooms can be hired for meetings, receptions and other events. The library is now a major resource for accounting, tax and business information, and also has a valuable archive relating to the history of accountancy.

Many pressures will face the institute in the coming years, and today no one can tell whether in another 100 years' time it will still have its home in Moorgate Place. Nevertheless it is to be hoped that, with the care and participation of its members, the institute will continue to look both forward, to the challenges of the future, and back, to the values of truth, prudence, wisdom and justice that it has always upheld.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Lavishly illustrated with over 100 drawings and photographs from the institute's archives, Chartered Accountants' Hall: The First Hundred Years is a limited edition centenary history of the Hall by Peter Boys of the University of Kent. A few copies still remain, price 55 plus postage and packing - contact the institute library on 0207 920 8620.The library also has for sale a few copies of the rare 1937 pamphlet on the building by Sir John Squire.

Guided tours of the building can be arranged for members and their guests by contacting Carol Overton on 0207 920 8424 - please arrange these at least four weeks in advance.

HIRE OF ROOMS

Many of the rooms in Chartered Accountants' Hall are available for hire by members - contact Carol Overton on 0207 920 8424.

The members' and guests' room (providing coffee and newspapers) can be used by members at any time between 8am and 6pm Monday to Friday. The members' room is also available during the same hours except when booked for private functions.

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