The Willis Building, Friars Street, Ipswich IP1 1TD.

The Willis Building: why was the iconic glass property built in Ipswich and how did renowned architect Norman Foster get the commission?

The Willis chairman who took the decision to establish a country office in Ipswich, and to commission the architect to design the building was John Roscoe (1913-1984), chairman (1967-1971). John Roscoe was the first chairman who didn’t come from the Marine division. Despite being reluctant to fly he had been in charge of Willis’ Aviation department. His professional visits to Europe were made by train and for meetings in New York he would cruise across the Atlantic.

To choose an architect John Waite, the company secretary, contacted the Royal Institute of British Architects for advice. The RIBA provided a list of twelve architects capable of designing an office block in Ipswich. Architect Norman Foster had just completed an amenity centre for Fred Olsen at Millwall Docks. This building was, in more ways than one, cutting edge. It was one of the first office buildings within the London Docklands, built even before the Development Corporation had come into existence.

Secondly, and importantly for what was to come in Ipswich, the Fred Olsen building featured an external wall which was simply a curtain of hanging glass, no frame, not fixed at each floor level but suspended from the roof slab; large panes were clipped together at the corners and fixed to a glass stiffening plate which was also hanging. Professionally applied silicon between adjacent panes stopped water penetrating the building.

This building was different, certainly different than those that John Roscoe and Julian Faber (Chairman: 1972-1977) had seen previously. It was a pioneering example of energy conscious design with large open plan floor plates. During the day the building was opaque, reflecting its surroundings, at night transparent, the internal lighting allowed passers by to see activity and life inside.

Perhaps it was the heat reflecting tinted glass - usually connected with the rich executive pastures of Manhattan and Chicago, perhaps the way colour had been used quite sensibility, grass green floor surfaces and warm brown facings to service cores, perhaps it was simply the shear quality of the building, but this was the model and Ipswich was getting a bigger version. Both John and Julian were sold and Norman Foster won the commission.

It is worth noting that two other significant architects worked on the Ipswich project, Michael Hopkins was project architect, later to go into practice with his wife Patty, and Birkin Haward (Junior) who went into practice with Joanna van Heyningen, both practices subsequently designing significant buildings in Suffolk.

Persuading former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to open the building on June 2, 1975 was somewhat easier than it might appear. He was the father-in-law of Julian Faber. Designed for 1,000 people (initially 450 moved from Southend and London) the Willis building in Ipswich now houses nearer 1,400 yet still feels remarkably spacious.

In 1991 the Willis Building was Listed Grade I becoming the youngest building to be given this status in Britain. At the time it was one of only two listed buildings under 30 years of age.

Following the move to Ipswich, Willis, Faber & Dumas Southend closed and, when the lease on Leadenhall Street expired, the London headquarters moved to 10 Trinity Square, just across Tower Hill from the Tower of London. Designed by Sir Edwin Cooper this prestigious building had been constructed for the Port of London Authority in 1922. Described as a ‘wedding cake’ it was purchased by Willis for the bargain price of £13.75 million, it was their European Headquarters for 30 years. Following Willis’ departure the building has become a Four Seasons hotel.

The Willis Group moved a short distance into what has become known as the Willis Building, on the opposite side of Lime Street to the Lloyds building. This 125 metre high skyscraper, designed by Norman Foster (Foster and Partners) was the fourth tallest structure in London when built  in 2008. In 2016 the Willis Group merged with the American firm Towers Watson to become Willis Towers Watson and the combined company now has 45,000 employees worldwide.

[Source: Everything you need to know about the Willis Building by John Norman, EADT April 16, 2019]

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