Leadenhall modern


Last Friday I was having a stroll around The City and entered one of the taverns at Leadenhall market. Across the bustling noise I noticed a platter of Vietnamese fried rolls from which a group of suited-up colleagues snacked. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the connection between the Leadenhall market with Vietnam run deeper than a grassy snack, perhaps into the 19th century across the Suez Canal.

The market’s official history  tells us that this same location has been kept since  Roman Londinium, when it was founded as a market. Although we lose track of the building during the Anglo-Saxon period, it reappears in London´s records in the 14th century as a location for meats and poultry. By the 18th century the market had underwent several expansions and, given the burgeoning wealth of the city in late 19th century, the City Corporation gave in to merchants’ request to renovate the edifice. The new building was opened in 1881 with its casted steel structures that supported the gorgeous glass ceilings visible today.


Leadenhall Market

These demands for renovation were common in an era of rationalised public health and self-conscious imperial glory. [1] In fact many other buildings were demolished in the neighbourhood to redevelop what was to become the financial district of The City. Among them it was the East India Company House, which displayed a noteworthy facade in Leadenhall Street until its demolition in 1860. This building was the headquarters of the historical institution that ruled over South Asia for over a century and a half, home to international traders and offices of maritime adventures. However, its building expanded through a great portion of the block reaching the market in its inner courts. [2]

This demolition was the result of the change of colonial strategy and the concentration of power at Whitehall, the rising political core of London. The implementation of the direct rule in the subcontinent and the establishment of the British Raj would crown Queen Victoria as Empress of India only two decades later. Hence, the levelling of headquarters of the biggest privately-owned colonial enterprise and the proclamation of Empire (!) was a powerful statement at the stage of Westminster and The City; a statement that resonated around the world. [3]


East India Company House circa 1840s

However, the location was not left void. After a couple of decades as a royal post office, the number 12 of Leadenhall Street was occupied by Lloyd’s of London, an insurance marketplace that begun its wealthy story with the maritime expansion of England in mid-17th century. Whether incidental or not, this transfer is rather symbolic. This exact location at Leadenhall Street remained hosting the gambles and investments of overseas colonialism witnessing the transformation of global trade and macroeconomic mechanisms. Today, Lloyd’s modern building is listed as a powerful expression of contemporary architecture and, despite their diversification, underwriting keeps on doing their major earnings. Thankfully, slavery is not an option any more.



Moving on. Although redecorated in mid-1990s, the structural refurbishment of the Leadenhall Market in steel and glass transports us directly to two main antecedents. First, the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 was the first of an international series of events that has been displaying the wonders of technological progress till today. An enormous crystal palace in Hyde Park hosted the ‘Indian Court’, the crown jewel of the exhibit which, despite the great crafts by ‘native’ artist, focused mainly in raw materials, metal and cloths particularly. [4] The event was not only a demonstration of colonial reach but also a commercial opportunity. Unfortunately, the glass pavilion was destroyed, but most of the pieces exhibited were catalogued and transferred to the South Kensington Museum, the predecessor of the Victoria & Albert Museum. [5]

The second antecedent to Leadenhall Market was Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle II in Milan, inaugurated in 1867 but only finished in 1877. This four-floored glass-covered plaza celebrated the Italian unification; but it also marked the defeat of the Austrian Empire and the consolidation a European project of liberal nation-states. After a couple of decades of aristocratic negotiations, wonderfully illustrated by Il Gattopardo, Garibaldi’s popular army took the initiative and commenced a forced unification in the South in 1860. His campaign was funded with lottery tickets and British donations, interested in Sicilian sulphur and a peaceful Mediterranean transit from Suez. Although it would take a decade for the Vatican to capitulate, the nationalist king Vittorio Emmanuelle II already re-embodied the private and public spheres under a top hat by the inauguration of the Galleria. As a mockery or a burlesque sanctification, the building was topped with an iron and glass roof in the shape of a cross.


The iron-glass roof of the Galleria

Interestingly, this commercial passage is located between the Cathedral and the Opera, thus, it acts not only as a celebration of the ‘nation’ but as a symbolic transference of power between both poles of public life. As the rest of theatres of its times, Teatro Alla Scala de Milano is built around the audience, not the stage, underscoring the importance of public life. This opera house was as well the heart of European fashion and, in 1872, Aida was presented to the European public. Composed by Giuseppe Verdi, whose surname coincidentally forms the acronym of ‘Vittorio Emmanuelle Re Di Italia’, this show was commissioned by the Egyptian Khedive’s Opera in Cairo to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal.1873056

The Galleria was initially planned to be financed with the sale of special lottery tickets marketed to the general public. Although this was a successful strategy for the promotion of the project, it had little financial results. So, paradoxically, the nationalist project, once more, was funded with foreign help. The “City of Milan Improvement Company Limited” was formed in London in 1864 by several members of the English nobility and, to complete the continental picture, the iron was wrought in France. [6] The Company went into bankruptcy after the first inauguration leaving the project halfway and the Commune di Milano reappropriated it by selling lottery tickets and other schemes. Seeing the difficult financial state of his masterpiece, the architect Giuseppe Mengoni  contributed with his wealth and, eventually, with his own life as he fell from the scaffolding while inspecting some details in the upper floors.

From the very first moment, this Milanese covered market hosted the finest establishments in the city and the heart of Italian style. Although, the Leadenhall market originated as a food market, its stalls slowly became retail establishments and the staple merchandised gave way to more banal commodities and other entertainments such as taverns or Christmas markets. Around the turn of the century, the marketplace had become the public space per excellence.



Meanwhile. In Paris the Eiffel Tower was under construction, to be inaugurated in 1889 for the first centenary of the French Revolution. Despite its problematic beginnings, it became the tallest man-made structure which, on top of everything, was accessible through automated escalators.

The celebrations were framed with the Exposition Universelle where the international audience could find amusements such a ‘Negro Village’ or  a sharpshooting show from the Wild West. However, the most popular attraction was the very lively reproduction of a Cairene street, with tea houses, belly dancers, and even ‘the authentic filth on the walls’. [7] These international fairs commenced with London’s Great Exhibition in 1851 and soon became a popular mechanism to display colonial rarities or industrial vigour of the Western World from Vienna (1873) to Philadelphia (1878). The proliferation of smaller and sectoral events was curtailed by the formation of the Bureau International des Expositions founded in 1928 in Paris to centralise the organisation of theses fairs.


Promotion poster of the railways to visit the Exposition Universelle

In contrast to these promiscuous curiosities, the Eiffel Tower rose over 300 metres transforming the skyline of the world as the proof of human development. Its naked wrought iron became an unadulterated symbol of industrialisation and technological progress. Millions of exact pieces fit together with an accuracy of a tenth of a centimetre. Each team of builders would start a fire in the heights to heat the iron rivets and hammer them one by one to seal the joints. Adding to the human feat, not a single worker died despite its rapid construction. This stands in stark contrast to the ‘native’ railroad workers in Indochina whose conditions bordered slavery. Obviously, the iron works in the colonies were used for expanding control over mining regions, not for decorative towers. [8] 

When the wealthy engineer Gustave Eiffel and his bureau proposed this unornamented yet ostentatious tower, he had already built numerous train stations, bridges and aqueducts around the world. He even had design the structure under Lady Liberty’s gown. Probably, his acquitances among the hautes sphères françaises contributed to his winning of the public contest and the continuation of the funding despite the early unforeseen circumstances that multiplied the original budget. However, given the astronomical costs, the Eiffel’s company granted the rest of the funds to keep its project and name afloat under the condition that he would also keep all income from its exploitation during the Exposition Universelle and in the following two decades.


Bonds issued to finance both the Suez Canal and the (failed) Panama Canal

After the exuberant nationalist success of the triangular iron, Gustav Eiffel embarked in the humongous project of the Panama Canal as the Compagnie Universelle´s head engineer. Probably the most prominent contributor to the institution was Ferdinand de Lesseps, an investor, a diplomat, and, incidentally, the French aristocrat who personified the country to present the Statue of Liberty to the United States. Among his major feats was the Khedive’s concession of the construction of the Suez Canal, and his participation was so crucial that he gave the first pick stroke at Port Said in 1858. However, the Panama project was a towering failure. The company ended in bankruptcy; and with it, its investors who were mostly extracted from the French popular classes reassured by the reputation of both Lesseps and Eiffel. Although, Gustave was found guilty of misappropriating funds, he was never jailed and continued his public life and research, this time, in aerodynamics.

The Eiffel Tower was to be disassembled 20 years after its inauguration in an immense effort for a temporary demonstration of power. With this pinnacle, the workers were not only building the most famous image of Paris, but a milestone in the assembly of an international community. This was still under construction around the turn of the century in the perfect context of World’s Fairs, where countries competed to exhibit what they could offer to human progress in the public market: from Indian cloths to Vietnamese iron.


London, again

What was my surprise when, after finishing my pint at the Leadenhall Market, I crossed the street and encountered the Leadenhall Building. Its triangular pillars of naked steel carried my thought back to Paris, 1889. Although the impeccable shine of chrome-and-glass today effaces the rough black iron of older centuries, the will to rise high is intact. In an attempt to humanise this colossal glassware, somebody called it the ‘Cheesegrater’; but its guts are not filled with cheddar. Instead, its offices are occupied by risk managers and underwriters; cargo brokers; financiers and investors; and other ‘indispensable’ actors of the modern marketplace.


Giving the increasing preasure of the estate market and the interest in building further high-risers, the Corporation of London is maintaining a debate with other shapers of public opinion on the amount and height of future constructions in the financial district of The City. However, everything points at an even higher intensification of the use of soil by growing storeys. RSHP, the architecture bureau who built both the Cheesegrater and Lloyd’s Building, is unsurprisingly among the supporters of more towers and wields the flag of environmental preservation of non-used lands.

It is fascinting that these two buildings, with such different yet related stories, lay opposite to each other at Leadenhall Street. The economic procedures taking place at Lloyds’ Building or the Cheesegrater are not far from those happening over two centuries ago at the East India Company House. A number of investors sell and purchase merchandise that crosses oceans. These are extracted from locations whose societies now depend on this exchange and are further forced to specialise in its production. Obviously, the financial mechanisms and legal attributes have developed throughout one and a half centures, but bonds keep on being issued to expand the capitals and insurances, as we all learnt in 2008, are still sold endlessly in packages to the highest better. 

London, in its buildings and streets, has been the stage of uncountable representations of power. A ravishing demolition or a noticeable building embody transformations larger that their corporeal spaces of steel, glass, and brick. This city has also been a theatre for the unfolding sense of international community whose relation with the marketplace has only been hinted in these passages on global modernity. However, let’s not forget, London is only one of the scenarios of this iron and glass modernisation. There would have been no Grand Exhibition without an ‘Indian Court’; no Eiffel Tower without railways in Indochina; no Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle II without a Suez Canal.

Meanwhile, the Leadenhall market remains impassive in the ground floor facing the challenges of a vertiginous skyline of contemporary London. While the  macroeconomic activity is now by large hosted in offices and digital platforms, the marketplace has been left as a picturesque scenery for Christmas trees and Friday after work drinks, where underwriters working at Leadenhall Building would order a platter of Vietnamese fried rolls. Interestingly, the workers of the Vietnamese railways under French colonial administration did not eat fried rolls, but rice. Furthermore, the rolls these colleagues ordered across the tavern probably did not come from Vietnam, but from China; and probably, through the Suez Canal.

Perhaps, the long modern century of rough iron and the delicate glass has completed a full circle. Perhaps, as everything had to change for everything to remain the same.



[1] Allen Michelle Elizabeth Cleansing the city: sanitary geographies in Victorian London, 2008

[2] Foster, W. The East India House: Its History and Associations, London: John Lane, 1924.

[3] Mark Crinson Empire building: Orientalism and Victorian Architecture, 1996

[4] The Occial Descriptive and Illustrates Catalogue of the Great Exhibition, London: Spicer Brothers, 1851.

[5] Barringer, T, “The South Kensington Museum and the colonial project” in Barringer and Flynn Colonialism and the Object: Empire, Material Culture and the Museum, London: Routledge, 1998.

[6] The National Archives of United Kingdom, BT 31/1039/1765C.

[7] Morton, P. Hybrid Modernities: Architecture and Representation at the 1931 Colonial Exposition, Paris, Massachusetts: MIT, 2000

[8]  Doling, T. The railways and tramways of Viet Nam, Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 2012.


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