Unilever House

Commercial buildings regularly change their names as tenants come and go. But what happens to the name when a tenant moves out of a building that has been specifically built for and named after it?

It’s difficult to imagine what Amex House on Edward Street would be called if American Express moved out. The building was created for Amex, and Amex still occupies it. In London, the change in name of the Natwest Tower to ‘Tower 42’ is a famous example of a situation where the original tenant has vacated. In the case of Unilever House on the Thames beside Blackfriars Bridge, now being presented as ‘100 Victoria Embankment’, the name has been changed for a slightly different reason.

Like the Natwest Tower, Unilever House is one of London’s most iconic structures; and a particular favourite of mine too. During a stroll to the Tate Modern a couple of years back, I was shocked to see that the entire rear of the building was missing. Unilever had decided to redevelop the Grade II Listed structure; sell it to an investor; and lease part of it back. Presumably the name was changed to increase marketability to prospective tenants of the remaining sections.

Art Deco buildings generally lend themselves well to sub-division due to their steel frames (not so many load-bearing walls) and the constant floor heights throughout (as opposed to Regency buildings with massive first but tiny top floors). In the case of Unilever House, which opened in 1932, everything but the façade went in the redevelopment. It was ‘deconstructed’ – carefully dismantled so that useful components could be reused. The steel that was removed weighed 6,000 tonnes alone! A large atrium replaced four separate light wells and the lifts were placed together in a central core. The best of the original Art Deco features remain though, which contributes in part to the project being a great success overall.

The closest that we have locally to Unilever House architecturally is the now derelict Co-Op building of 1931 on London Road. This building could easily be returned to a grand state. Demolition is not necessary.

When Natwest moved out of the Natwest Tower, it would have been difficult to retain the name officially. But in the case of Unilever House, I see little reason for change – Unilever is staying put; Unilever House is a great name; and everyone ignores the PR people anyway.