26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 28

Endangered monsters

I WAS never quite sure why Shell needed two London head offices, one on each side of the Thames, and Shell does not seem to know either. Its art deco extravagance on the north bank — A.P. Herbert labelled its riverside clock 'Big Benzine' — is up for sale, and as for its south bank fortress, you can now buy flats in it. When it was built, Ian Nairn borrowed Blake's words to describe it: 'The work of giants hired by Satan to depress art'. When I look at what has gone up since, I rather warm to it, but such swaggering monsters with departments for everything are creatures of an earlier age. Arnold Weinstock taught a new gener- ation of managers that a head office ought to be small, remote, feared, and tightly con- nected to the purse-strings. So ICI hangs on in part of one wing of its Millbank palazzo, and has run out of room in its truncated corridors to hang the chairmen's portraits. British Petroleum fits snugly into its Lutyens town house and has abandoned its polychromatic City tower, now reduced to a monochrome skeleton. Only in the public sector does the vast head office still survive and prosper. The Financial Services Authority has ordered itself a 2,000-seater in Docklands, and looks forward to paying for it out of the proceeds of fines.