Holland House: A pioneering office block in the City of London
Down a side street in the City of London lies an unusual piece of architecture. Located on Bury Street in the shadow of the Gherkin is Holland House. Today, most of the City’s architectural landmarks tend to be 17th century (St Paul’s and other churches) or late 20th century/early 21st century (Barbican, Lloyd’s Building, Heron Tower, Walkie Talkie). However, Holland House is notable for kicking off a new era of modern design in the Square Mile, decades before it was dominated by skyscrapers.
In the early 20th century, shipping was big business for both transportation of goods and people. A host of big companies had offices in London, including Cunard, the White Star Line and Wm. H. Müller & Co. The latter was a Dutch company which specialised in shipping and trading, particularly transporting ore mined in Spain and North Africa. Wm. H. Müller & Co, which was founded by German-born Wilhelm Müller in 1876, already had offices in The Hague and Rotterdam and were keen to set up a London base. In April 1913, the company’s co-owner Helene Kröller-Müller (1869-1939) bought a site on Bury Street in the City. Bury Street dates back to at least the 16th century and is believed to have been named after the Abbot of Bury, who owned nearby Bevis Marks. The firm purchased land facing the north-west and south-east sides of Bury Street (which bends around to the left), but could not buy the whole block as the owners of No.33-34 on the south-west corner refused to sell up. As a result, Holland House has two entrances on both sides of Bury Street.
The Müllers commissioned prominent Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1856-1934) to design an office block for their London base. Berlage is known as the ‘father of Modern architecture’ in his native Holland and is responsible for the Beurs van Berlage (Amsterdam Commodities Exchange) and the Swissôtel Amsterdam. By the time construction started in 1914, World War I had begun, however building wasn’t affected as the Netherlands were neutral. When designing Holland House, it is believed Berlage took inspiration from the works of pioneering American architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), following a trip to the US in 1911.
Following completion in 1916, Holland House was aesthetically very different to the buildings surrounding it. Said to be the first steel framed building in Europe, it features a black marble plinth base with green-grey glazed terracotta bricks rising up and projecting outwards. The bricks were made in Delft and shipped to London on Müller vessels. When Berlage designed Holland House, Bury Street was very narrow, with the old Baltic Exchange (partially destroyed in a fatal 1992 IRA bombing) standing a few metres across the road, instead of the current open courtyard at the base of the Gherkin. Due to the projecting tiled columns, you wouldn’t have been able to see the windows as you approached the building walking down Bury Street, giving an illusion of privacy. On the south-east corner of the building is a granite relief of a steaming ship by Dutch artist Joseph Mendes da Costa (1863–1939), who was a favourite of Helene Kröller-Müller. Ahead of its time, in the centre of the building was a large air well, rising up from the ground to the sixth floor. Former chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain, Peter Palumbo has claimed this may have been the first atrium in Britain.
While the exterior is all Berlage, he is not responsible for the striking interiors. Berlage and Kröller-Müller fell out in 1919 following a row over his designs for what would become the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo – a village just north of Arnhem. Kröller-Müller and her husband Anton Kröller had amassed a huge art collection, with her dream to showcase her pieces in a museum. Berlage’s drafts did not meet the approval of Kröller-Müller, so their working relationship was terminated. Instead, the Müllers brought in Belgian architect, artist and interior designer Henri van de Velde (1863-1957) and Dutch artist and designer Bart van der Leck (1876-1958) to complete the fit out at Holland House. They are responsible for the wood panelled rooms (which can be seen from the street), tiling, door frames, mosaics, metalwork and lighting. The mahogany panels were stripped from one of Wm. H. Muller’s ships. It’s worth noting that Kröller-Müller later commissioned van de Velde to design her art museum, which finally opened in 1938.
Surveying the building from the outside, it is difficult to find one architectural style it fits into, although it definitely has some subtle Art Deco features. In 1972, Holland House was Grade II listed by Historic England. Today, the building is still in Dutch hands, with property company Stena Realty owning the freehold. Office rental space company Landmark Plc occupies five floors and restored a majority of the building in 2007.
Meanwhile, Holland House isn’t the only building in the area with a nautical history. Around the corner at 88 Leadenhall Street is Cunard House, originally built for the cruise liner firm in the 1930s (here’s a photo of the original building). However, the existing Cunard House appears to be a rebuild from 1999 after developers were granted consent by the City of London to demolish and replace the original building in 1995. If you look closely, you can see life rings on the railings as a nod to its heritage.
- Holland House, 1-4 Bury Street, City of London, EC3A 5AT. Nearest station: Aldgate, Fenchurch Street or Liverpool Street.
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