Virtual opportunities

Consider these unconnected building-related events, and spot the odd one out:

1 The Motorola factory outside Swindon by architect Sheppard Robson is to be the HQ of the baddie played by Robert Carlyle in the forthcoming Bond movie, The World is not Enough.

2 Egg, the immoderately successful telephone-banking arm of the Prudential, announces that it has ceased to be a telephone bank. Instead, it has become an Internet-only bank. This is to avoid having to build a new call centre to handle its explosive growth.

3 German electronics giant Siemens is to pay back the 18m grant it was given by the Government to build a new microchip factory in the UK which it closed soon after opening.

4 Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin is attracting crowds of visitors while still empty.

5 Former farmers in China, wealthy after selling land to developers, have established an English-language school in the form of a miniature Palace of Westminster.

The odd one out is Egg. All the other buildings have an existence beyond the merely functional call it symbolic, narrative, political, whatever. But the non-existent Egg building has a poignancy. It is the ghost of all the architecture bad, indifferent, or even good that will never happen because of changes in trading patterns.

Egg offers high interest with few restrictions you just have to phone them up to get at your wedge. And there’s the catch. Trying to get through to Egg is a nightmare. This is because if you believe the propaganda Egg has been caught out by its own success. It set itself a target of pulling in 5bn within five years, and it hit that figure after six months. Imagine the trouble it must have to get enough call centre staff trained up to answer the calls of those millions of new accounts.

But before too long Egg will have to drop its rates in order to start making a profit. Upon which, savers will pile out of Egg in their millions. And this is where architecture, or the lack of it, comes into the equation. If Egg built itself a new call centre to keep up with demand for telephone savings banking, it would not only have to employ lots more staff which would be expensive, it would also be left with a redundant building when the inevitable business shrinkage occurs. Rather like Siemens, in fact. But unlike Siemens, whose factory was a highly-charged political symbol of inward investment, Egg is a UK business. Buildings flung up by the UK banking sector do not register on anyone’s political seismograph.

By suddenly declaring itself to be an Internet bank rather than a telephone bank, Egg/Prudential has done nothing more than ensure it keeps its costs down, with zero controversy. E-commerce is cheap to administer, and the Pru is now very keen on this. It is also selling its Victorian headquarters in the City of London. A few years ago it was spending untold millions restoring and expanding the same building.

This change of tack should set alarm bells ringing everywhere. Call centres have been mushrooming all over the country in recent years. They have become a cure for unemployment in former industrial areas that also happened to have an acceptable local accent (great for Geordies, Tykes and Scots not so great for Brummies and the Cornish). High-street branches may have closed, but jobs were being made up elsewhere. Not, it seems, for much longer.

Telephone commerce, it is now blindingly apparent, was merely the intermediate stage in the shift from real shopping to virtual shopping. How we laughed at all those futurologists a decade ago who told us we would soon be buying everything via our home computers. For once, they were right. To what extent can virtual shopping co-exist with real shopping? We all see how successful the Net bookshops are: yet we also see the arrival of more and more mega-bookstores from the likes of Waterstone’s and Dillons. How can they possibly survive? And more to the point, how can a behemoth of a shopping centre like the new Bluewater survive?

Fewer commercial buildings mean fewer jobs not only for shop staff, but also for architects, designers and builders. So now is the time to take a cue from Libeskind and the Chinese farmers and pile into symbolic buildings instead; if all else fails, they can be used as film sets like Motorola. But one thing worries me. The mega-bookshops may die, but the unspeakable Bluewater will survive, against all logic. I know this because I have looked at the list of those who finance it. The Prudential, which knows all about architectural redundancy, is one of the largest single investors in the place. Depressing, no?

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