Nineteenth-century developers used to vie with each other to create the most striking, the most spacious, the most innovative, centrally located and ornate buildings in cities that were then exploding in scale. Now the business districts have moved on to new clusters of bigger, smoother, shinier buildings and leaving the grand, older ones dark and empty; shiny glass buildings like to be together.

For years, many downtown areas became neglected, at best serving as sandwich bar quarters for the remaining office workers. But finally those original, architecturally ambitious offices, in downtowns all across the world, are finding a new use.

The old buildings are now becoming grand hotels. Five Beekman, for instance, designed by Silliman & Farnsworth, was once one of New York’s most remarkable early office buildings – and one of Manhattan’s tallest when it was built in 1883. At 10 storeys, its twin turrets towered above downtown and its huge glazed atrium was one of the wonders of the city. Now it is being transformed into a 287-room hotel, the building costs helped along by a new condo tower next door. Across the Atlantic on the Liverpool waterfront, the former headquarters of White Star Line, the owner of the Titanic, has also been converted into a hotel – Albion House. Built in 1896, its architect Norman Shaw also designed Scotland Yard, which it resembles.

Similarly nautical is 10 Trinity Square, once the London Port Authority’s headquarters, a massive, imposing cliff of a block beside the Tower of London. Designed by Edwin Cooper before the first world war but only completed in 1922, it served as the venue for the first session of the United Nations in 1946. It too is being slowly and expensively rebuilt as a hotel.

the skylight of 5 Beekman Street in New York
Astonishing atrium: the skylight of 5 Beekman Street in New York, with the Woolworth Building in the distance. These former offices are soon to become hotel rooms © Darren Ketchum

Elsewhere, old government and municipal buildings are receiving the same treatment. The famous Fullerton Hotel in Singapore, a one-time General Post Office, was an early example. Another former post office, the imposing building at the centre of Washington DC that was one of the few towers in the US capital’s relatively low-rise cityscape, is being turned into a luxury hotel by Donald Trump. In London, the Chiltern Firehouse, converted from an old fire station by David Archer for hotelier André Balazs, has become the city’s hottest property, a perennially paparazzied hotel and restaurant for celebs and fame-seekers. Balazs has also bought a 1970s annexe of Camden Town Hall opposite St Pancras Station, with plans to create another hotel there. The wonderful Art Deco HQ of London Transport, on Broadway in St James’s, is also up for sale and, although originally envisaged as a hotel, it now looks likely to be turned into super-luxury apartments.

The question you need to ask in light of these changes is: will the commercial properties we’re building today be of this kind of value in a century? Will they even still be standing? The answer is almost certainly no. The smooth-sided, glazed towers might prove little use for anything other than offices.

the Novartis campus in Basel, by Herzog & de Meuron
Industrial innovation: the Novartis campus in Basel, by Herzog & de Meuron, starchitects who are favoured by big pharma

The recent media and political storm over Pfizer’s attempted takeover of the UK’s AstraZeneca put big pharma into the headlines. The takeover’s failure, however, meant that the British company could proceed with its plans for a new campus in Cambridge built by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, designers of Tate Modern and Beijing’s Olympic Stadium. Pharmaceutical complexes have usually been rather quiet places, secretive and anonymous, often behind closed walls – the architectural equivalent of a white lab coat. This one is rather different, a plectrum-shaped glass doughnut designed to refer to the collegiate courtyard tradition (it has a hole at its centre); a building that engineers serendipitous chance encounters between researchers and scientists. This might be rather novel in Britain but is nothing new in Herzog & de Meuron’s home city of Basel. There, big pharma has become the architectural patron par excellence. Herzog & de Meuron are the in-house designers for Roche (it is difficult to imagine any UK or US firm with similarly radical pet architects) and they are currently building a controversial landmark tower for the company in this typically low-rise city. They are also, rather surprisingly, building for the competition – Novartis.

Novartis has become perhaps the most extraordinary corporate architecture patron in the world (its only competition is nearby furniture manufacturer Vitra, in Weil am Rhein). The Novartis campus in Basel is like a museum of contemporary architecture with buildings designed by Frank Gehry, SANAA, Tadao Ando, Rafael Moneo, Alvaro Siza and now also Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron. This architectural extravaganza may not make for the most consistent campus, but fosters a sense of place, a sense that those who work here are valued, and that a culture of design feeds into a culture of innovation. It can be difficult to believe that these are industrial buildings. It is more usually R&D that stays behind in city centres as production moves out, but these buildings in the heart of Basel are actually producing things, embarking upon real – not just financial – innovation. Contemporary industrial architecture seems almost an oxymoron, so far has building for production fallen away from anything to do with design.

An interior view of the lobby of The Fullerton Hotel
Courtyard cocktails: the Fullerton Hotel in Singapore was formerly the Post Office © Getty

Something similar is going on in academia as elite universities must increasingly compete with each other globally to attract students. And they are doing this with architecture. Buildings have become billboards, their architectural ambition a sign of the quality of the teaching and thinking that goes on inside. An architecture that was once reserved for cultural institutions is now spreading to big business and learning. But also, perhaps most noticeably in recent years, to the cash-rich tech industries. Norman Foster’s $5bn HQ for Apple in Cupertino, California has grabbed headlines as a “UFO”, a “frisbee” and a “doughnut”, while Frank Gehry is designing for Facebook. Tech has suddenly “got” architecture.

But the bug for interesting architecture has not spread to speculative commercial property. Instead, the same few corporate behemoths and local plodders dominate construction with cookie-cutter towers, cheap solutions and the occasional self-conscious starchitect’s icon. It might be worth looking at those beautiful, solid, urbane structures from a century ago now being turned into hotels, to learn something from their longevity. Somehow, despite the vicissitudes of the market, the changes in demand for the types of workspace and shifts in the fashionability and value of downtown areas, these are buildings that have held their cultural and, ultimately, their financial value.

Despite their mass, their complexity, despite changes in technology and working practices, they have survived as landmarks and as beloved urban institutions. There is no reason not to aim for the same standards in today’s construction. The future will thank us.

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