Captain Moonlight's Notebook: Lobbies worth loitering in

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The Independent Online
I WENT on a tour of London's foyers last week, to try to understand why Jacques Attali approved pounds 750,000 to be spent on new marble walls for the entrance and public areas of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development - one among many items of the bank's expenditure which has caused dismay and outrage. My tour showed that a passion for grandiloquence is not confined to French intellectuals who want to make 'statements' about the purpose of the institutions they head.

Foyers certainly tell you things. Go to Canary Wharf in London's Docklands and you find a symbol of corporate might, even though the corporate might itself has gone missing. Glistening marble and granite reach three storeys high in a massive space that overwhelms the visitor. Head back to Holborn in central London and enter the Mirror Group building - considered a skyscraper when it was opened in 1961 - and you step into a mean, dark hole of polished black marble and tinted glass that is so oppressive you want to leave as quickly as possible (as many of its inmates recently have).

Architectural historian Mark Girouard, my guide, said that 30 years ago, when 'functionalism' was the fashion, the entrance to a building didn't matter. Later, in the 1980s when showing off was in style, the entrance was meant to tell you what the building's inhabitants were like. This still holds good, just as it did during the Edwardian era and into the 1920s and 1930s. For example, there is the extravagant confidence of the old Daily Express building in Fleet Street with its burnished gold stalactites and metal frescoes (the Empire on one wall, Britain on another), the trompe-l'oeil grandeur of the Dorchester Hotel and the art deco geometrics of the Unilever building beside Blackfriars Bridge.

Mr Girouard said in Victorian times and earlier, buildings never needed foyers for the simple reason that most were no more than two storeys high. The great banking and shipping halls of London, Liverpool and Edinburgh then emerged.

A question remains. Why was Mr Attali so keen to replace the bank's original travertine marble for the more expensive Carrara? Just swank? Mr Attali's spokesman said Carrara - polished and unpolished - better symbolised the state of Eastern Europe's economies. I disagree. Travertine is pitted, often with small holes, and smoothed over with cement. When exposed to the elements, it breaks down quite quickly. A perfect symbol for the bank's troubled customers in Eastern Europe.

(Photographs omitted)