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Ipswich Icons: Insurance giant Royal Exchange Assurance made a move to escape city costs

PUBLISHED: 16:30 23 March 2015 | UPDATED: 17:03 23 March 2015

The AXA building, one of the two office blocks built for Royal Exchange Assurance

The AXA building, one of the two office blocks built for Royal Exchange Assurance


There are two massive and therefore noticeable office blocks in Civic Drive, the southern one being occupied by AXA Insurance.

The Guardian Royal Exchange (GRE)The Guardian Royal Exchange (GRE)

They were both built for Royal Exchange Assurance (later to become Guardian Royal Exchange or GRE) and were designed by Ipswich architect Birkin Haward of Johns Slater and Haward.

The first, in 1968, marked the arrival in Ipswich of London-based insurance companies looking to relocate the majority of their everyday administration and accounts away from their expensive city offices.

Ipswich wasn’t the only rural location chosen by companies looking to move out of the city (and to build new prestigious offices in their chosen locations). Equitable Life went to Aylesbury, Eagle Star (Zurich) to Cheltenham and Marsh to Norwich (and later Willis Faber & Dumas to Ipswich).

The most northerly and first built of the Ipswich blocks (almost opposite the police station) is Suffolk House, a nine-storey building with a particularly tall lift motor and plant room on the very top of the building effectively adding a further three storeys.

The building was originally clad in ceramic wall tiles stuck onto structural concrete but 40 years of exposure to wind, rain and particularly frost caused the occasional tile to fall resulting in the whole building being overclad in a light grey rainscreen façade.

GRE were obviously impressed with Ipswich and in 1972 commissioned the same architect to design a much larger southern extension. The most noticeable difference with the second building is the balconies, which provide a bris-soleil, shading direct sunlight from the windows. This produces distinct horizontal lines, dark shadows which are not present on Suffolk House.

The client wanted a building visually different from the first, to allow for independent occupation of each if ever required and to reduce the apparent scale of the whole development. Here again the architect was able to oblige, designing a building that was significantly different but clearly one of a pair, unfortunately an asset that has been lost with the recent cladding of building one.

The site of the second building was very difficult to develop, the sweeping line of Civic Drive providing impetus to curve the front of the building and the original course of the River Gipping following much the same curve at the back (The Alderman Canal and Little Gipping Street indicating the line of the culvert which today hides the watercourse).

The presence of the River Gipping at the bottom of Ipswich’s glacial valley indicates some subteranean difficulties with the foundations. The site consisted of some 10ft of made ground overlying 35ft of sand and gravel, below which there is some very unstable chalk, all compounded by a very high water table. The building was founded on concrete piles, driven into the depths of the chalk with the ground floor elevated above any likely flooding.

To achieve the number of desk spaces required it was necessary to build tall and wide, the building being 70ft wide and 270ft long with large open plan floor areas.

A most useful feature of the building complex is the multi-storey car park at the rear of, and integral with Suffolk House. There are sufficient car parking spaces for a substantial number of the occupants and the internal layout makes the building a pleasant place to work.

The architect, Birkin Haward, was a prolific designer of Ipswich buildings in the 60s and 70s.

He was responsible for Harvest House in Princes Street, the tower block at Civic College, Colchester Road Fire Station, numerous schools and was fundamental in the design of the sports domes still in use across Ipswich. Birkin Haward truly was an architect who would live in a building of his own design. The Spinney in Westerfield Road has design similarities with the schools and colleges he designed and built in the middle of the 20th Century.

Guardian Assurance Company merged with Royal Exchange Assurance in 1968 to become Guardian Royal Exchange (GRE). GRE was taken over by AXA in 1999.

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