As Londinium expanded in the second century AD, Roman soldiers and Free men built one of their World’s most robust Temple of Mithras. It was located on the banks of the Walbrook; a stream that ran across the City into the Thames, and close to Watling Street, the main Roman road from Londinium to the West. The secretive cult of Mithraism, rooted in rituals of darkness & light, thrived up to the late fourth century AD and then declined. Over the following centuries, sections of London were rebuilt, especially after the Great Fire of 1666, and the site was buried 6 metres below the evolving ground level.
The destruction of the area around St Paul’s Cathedral and Cannon Street at the time of the Blitz is well known. In the early 1950s, whilst Winston Churchill was championing the rebuilding of the City of London to encourage economic growth, Professor William F. Grimes, Director of The London Museum, led a series of major archaeological digs within the walls of the Roman city. Each site had a time restriction to enable redevelopment without undue delay. The area immediately North of Cannon Street Station adjacent to the Walbrook was one of those sites.
The excavation proceeded meticulously for two years with a comprehensive record kept through drawings and photographs. On the last day of this dig, Grimes discovered a marble bust of Mithras, the Pagan Sun God, clearly identifiable by his distinctive Phrygian hat. A photographer from ‘The Times’ captured the find and it was featured on the front page the following day. The image sparked the public imagination. Over 400,000 visitors queued around the clock to see this special root of London history. Churchill agreed to extend the dig by another fortnight to enable further viewing.
Thereafter, the remnants were relocated 100 metres away and to Grimes dismay, inappropriately rebuilt with scant regard for academic accuracy. The new office building, Bucklersbury House, subsumed the original site. Somewhat fortuitously, most such office buildings eventually pass their ‘sell by date’.
In 2007 at the height of architectural icon mania, planning consent was granted for a design by Norman Foster & Jean Nouvel, nicknamed ‘Darth Vader’s Helmet’. The crash came and the Spanish developer retreated. Philanthropist, Anglophile, ex New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg purchased the site to locate his new European Headquarters; fortunately before the notion of Brexit had entered our national vocabulary. Bloomberg’s new building is now complete and will house hundreds of well-provided-for employees.
It is huge, low built of stone and bronze, it sets the highest environmental performance standards even if the carbon footprint of the build did not. Some critics say it is not adventurous enough. Squinch likes it; time will tell. It has reinstated the line of Watling Street as a covered street linking two areas of generous public space. These have groundscape water sculptures by Christina Iglesias; their patinated bronze matted roots imply a lost landscape beneath the immaculate stone paving. Gentle streams of flowing water evoke an almost pre-raphaelite dream come to life; when the water is static, it reflects the temples of commerce around it.
Importantly, adjacent to its original site on Walbrook, a new gallery space has been created giving access to a basement sanctuary 6 metres below ground where the Mithraeum has been rejuvenated (restored?): this time, with painstaking research and conservation expertise hand-in-hand with inventive, sophisticated exhibition design. Descending a black stone-clad stair, the space opens into the restored foundations and low perimeter walls of the Temple. A walkway takes you around the outside. At timed intervals, the room darkens, an imperceptible mist of water fills the air and ingenious lines of light imply the whole volume and colonnade of the original temple structure and space. It is magically enthralling at the same time as being sensitive to its ancient memory. A triumph of conservation skills, creative design and substantial investment. Thank you Mr Bloomberg, Professor Grimes and the recent team that have brought this treasure back for public enjoyment.
A few yards away, Bloomberg has created a third public space that enhances the setting of Wren’s masterpiece, St Stephen Walbrook. Designed in 1672, when Wren was exploring ideas for St Paul’s Cathedral, St Stephen’s smaller, lighter timber framed dome allowed the architect greater freedom. Completed on 27th May 1679, it remains ‘The Pride of English Architecture’. Wren’s resolution of geometry, simplicity, space and light evokes stillness and contemplation. It is the most timeless inspiration of what architecture can be about.