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The City is Back

So, you blinked, and London moved East. That’s right, Boom! Just like that, our capital shifted on its axis and, having shuffled about a bit, shunted itself east of Tottenham Court Road. A little nudge, and it seemed like it recalibrated for good. And not only has the City become more of a leisure centre than it’s ever been before, but there is a new type of customer here, too, a new type of occupier, those of media and technology who would normally have been sitting in Soho or Mayfair.

Dylan Jones

The City is also increasingly diverse in its offer, and in its patronage, and there is an increasing diversity of venues here, from restaurants and bars to hotels and coffee shops, from private members clubs to dive bars, and from 24-leisure gyms to spectacular new shops. Not only is the City changing, but it is a more interesting postcode than it’s ever been before. Recently the area has welcomed Amazon, Rathbone, Fortnum and Mason and the Chinese Embassy.

True story.

The City has always had a refined business infrastructure, that is stable, proven and transparent, and now it has rapidly emerging tech credentials as it attracts those from Silicon Roundabout and beyond. I’ve lost count of the number of Cambridge graduates who have deserted their rural idyll for the attractions of the City. While they might still live there (after all, it’s only forty minutes away from King’s Cross), but it’s in the City where they want to work.

London is the most dynamic city in the world today. Sure, it has always been an international hub, always been at the centre of things, but it has never sizzled like it sizzles today. Sure, we are in the middle of a Brexit cycle, but then so is everyone else. In the 21st Century London has become the most powerful, the most dynamic, the most culturally focused city-state on earth. No other city comes close. Not New York. Not Paris. Not Shanghai. Not Hong Kong. Our grand city is the heart, soul, muscle and brain of Britain, the principal reason for its greatness.

London life is nowadays a lifestyle, a kaleidoscopic polyphonic theme park across 33 boroughs and nine travel zones that houses grand hotels, dive cocktail bars, world renowned design galleries, bohemian indie clubs, family-owned bistros, esoteric independent retailers, theatres, gentrified trophy parks, state-funded public art and reclaimed open spaces, a cavalcade of consumerism and participatory art. Everything is here: unlike Italy there is no equivalent to Milan, meaning London is the UK’s fashion and media hub; unlike the US there is no equivalent to Washington, meaning London is our political capital; unlike the US again there is no equivalent to Los Angeles, meaning we are the entertainment hub; and unlike Germany there is no equivalent to Frankfurt, meaning London is our centre of finance. Ken Livingstone always used to say that the reason London overtook Frankfurt as the financial capital of the world is simple: have you ever been stuck in Frankfurt on a Friday night?

It is all about London. Still. And one of the things driving this success is the extraordinary activity taking place in the City. As every other part of London has been colonised and gentrified, I suppose it was only a matter of time before the City warranted the same kind of attention. The City has the greatest established financial infrastructure in Europe, and not only is it world-renowned as a place for grown-up business, it’s now diversifying in order to attract a broader business base. On top of this, the financial institutions have never been more on the front foot.

There has been an enormous change in the demography of the City, and the streets are rich with diversity, not just in terms of colour and creed, but also in terms of communities, careers and lifestyle definitions. The City is one of the most invigorating regions in London, and is almost unrecognizable from how it appeared ten years ago.

Slowly, with stealth, style and a gargantuan amount of investment, the City is reinventing itself and attracting a greater diversity of businesses, from digital start-ups, co-working spaces and online service providers to global retail brands, gaming developers, media and data companies and international publishers. New retailers are opening in the area – independents, new concept stores and international brands, whilst the arrival of fashionable new bars, restaurants, hotels, gyms and members’ clubs appear to be attracting a more diverse community and a lively evening economy. As well as places like The Ned you’ve got Soho-based restaurants like Bob Bob Ricard and Blacklock moving in, properties such as Neil Rankin’s Temper, and Devonshire Club while The Ivy recently opened on Old Broad Street. The new private members’ club Ten Trinity Square has had considerable success, while in nearby Shoreditch you have the Curtain Club and the new Nobu Hotel. One Bishopsgate Plaza will be the first high-rise residential and hospitality development built in the City of London for years. Plus we have St. Helen’s Place, Tower 42 Estate, Devonshire Square, Spitalfields, Leadenhall Market, Broadgate, Bloomberg, a wealth of new and exceptional bars and restaurants and so much more.

However the City isn’t just becoming a haven of post-modern wine bars and boutiques, as it is experiencing something of a cultural recalibration, too. The cool credentials of nearby Shoreditch are shoring up the City’s cultural assets, and the soon-come Crossrail is going to have a huge effect on the area’s artistic diversity. It is a given that Crossrail is going to create far greater connectivity to London’s principal business districts (particularly the tech-savvy employment pool in the East), it’s also acting as a conductor for art. But The Crossrail Art Foundation has a mission to promote art for the benefit of the public, by establishing and maintaining a public art programme that will enhance the journeys of the millions of people who will use the Elizabeth line. In aid of this, seven London-based galleries have been selected to support what has become known as the Culture Line, including the Lisson Gallery, White Cube, Gagosian, and Sadie Coles HQ for Farringdon station, Victoria Miro for Liverpool Street station, the Whitechapel Gallery for Whitechapel station, and PACE for Canary Wharf station. You can see the changing demographic just by walking around the streets of the City right now, and the excitement is rather intoxicating.

At the heart of all this new activity in the City is 22 Bishopsgate, an inspiring, healthy and energising workplace designed with people at its heart. 22 Bishopsgate is a diverse 12,000-strong community of businesses large and small from a variety of sectors, in a gigantic smart building that supports the varying need of businesses today – flexibility for occupiers’ requirements now and in the future. There is also more than 100,000 sq ft of amenity spaces for residents and employees, including a food market, gym, wellness floor, a public-facing viewing gallery and a programme of in-house events and art interventions throughout the building, which will open in 2019. The building is also the first major office scheme in London to achieve a Delos Well certification, placing health and wellness at the very centre of its design. 22 Bishopsgate has helped rejuvenate the area to such an extent that it is a now a genuine luxury business and retail hub.

Elsewhere, established City occupiers that are doing interesting things with their real estate. Bloomberg, which is the poster child of a big tech company creating a very bespoke environment for their staff, have designed a new “street” that will cut right through the middle of their new HQ offering great independent F&B. Across the road, the James Sterling-designed One Poultry is being positioned as unashamedly tech. Other City firms are using office relocations of a way of creating new working environments; even law firms, some of the most conservative of all, are coming out of their offices into open plan systems.

The bottom line is that the City, with its huge global appeal, continues to reinvent itself, not just to remain at the centre of business, but to establish itself as a genuine cultural, environmental and residential hub.

London is already the greatest city of the 21st century, the one true global cultural megalopolis, the one true cocksure city-state, and we need to shout about it from the top of every tall building in town. The closer the social historian, cultural bellwether or hack gets to their own times, the more difficult it is for them to be sure that they have grasped what is essential about their period. This is largely a matter of vantage point, as some features of the pattern may not yet even be visible. But trust me, having lived in the city for 40 years, I know what I say to be true. Indisputably so.

Nowadays London might not be the biggest in the world (Tokyo and Yokohama can claim that crown), yet this powerful and distinctive city is as full of architectural riches as it’s ever been. The decor and architecture of important London buildings once seemed to represent a conscious desire to be part of an imaginary immemorial London, whereas these days every new building wants to look like the future, encouraging a nostalgia for an age yet to come. As the city gets bigger, so it seems to be raising the bar. As Anthony Sampson said in The Anatomy of Britain, back in pre-Swinging 1962, “Bigness has strengthened the lure of London.”

And, like I say, the momentum is not just moving East, it’s colonized the entire area.