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Senate House: Stalinist or Art Deco?

The University of London's 1937 landmark by Charles Holden: views differ.

Senate House in Bloomsbury is the administrative centre of the University of London. It also houses the university library, several research institutes and distance learning departments.

Senate House Library

It inspired George Orwell's description of the Ministry of Truth in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Senate House from the west
 

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It is said that more people know the buildings of Charles Holden (1875-1960) than of any other architect in history. In addition to his work in London, he designed buildings in Bristol, for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and, in Paris, the tomb of Oscar Wilde (together with sculptor Jacob Epstein), amongst others.

 

For the University of London, Holden designed Senate House (1937) and the Warburg Institute's building in Woburn Square (1957).

Bust of Charles Holden in Senate House
Bust of Charles Holden in Senate House

His work elsewhere in London includes Zimbabwe House on the Strand (1908, originally designed for the British Medical Association), Belgrave Hospital for Children in Kennington (built in stages from 1899 and 1926) and the north-east extension of the Law Society building on Chancery Lane (1902-04).

 

Holden was most prolific in his work for London Underground. He was involved in the design of around 50 tube stations, from the 1920s to the 1940s.

Gants Hill station by Holden, lower concourse inspired by the Moscow Metro

He also designed the Underground's headquarters at 55 Broadway (1929). It included sculptures by a host of renowned 20th century sculptors: Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill, Samuel Rabinovitch, Allan G Wyon, Alfred Gerrard, Eric Aumonier and, in his first public commission, Henry Moore.


Transport for London occupied 55 Broadway, which stands above St James's Park tube station, until 2020, when it was sold to be redeveloped as a luxury hotel.

Charles Holden's drawing of 55 Broadway

At Senate House, Holden took some of the ideas he used for 55 Broadway, 182 ft (56 m) tall, and developed them on an even larger scale. Senate House's 210 ft (64 m) made it London's tallest building after St Paul's Cathedral.

 

William Beveridge, vice-chancellor of the University of London (UL) in 1926-28 and Director of the London School of Economics from 1919 to 1937, was an important figure in Senate House's early story.


First, he persuaded the Rockefeller Foundation to donate £400,000 so that the university could buy the Bloomsbury site from the Duke of Bedford in 1927.

 

Moreover, Beveridge had a vision for the growing university. He was a graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, but he wanted UL to be different from the old universities. He saw it serving the nation and the world, "drawing from overseas as many students as Oxford and Cambridge and all the other English universities together".


He did not want UL's central symbol to imitate the older universities, or to be a replica from the Middle Ages. He envisaged "a great architectural feature" and "something that could not have been built by any earlier generation than this, and can only be at home in London".


UL, which has a number of constituent colleges, was founded in 1836 but had not had a permanent headquarters building before Senate House.

 

Beveridge and UL Principal, Edwin Deller, appointed Holden in 1931 after touring the country to look at buildings and interviewing a shortlist of four architects over dinner at the Athenaeum Hotel. Holden made it to the shortlist after taking Deller on a tour of 55 Broadway, then London's tallest office building.

 

With Holden's design, William Beveridge succeeded in providing UL with a building very distinct from anything at the older universities.


However, Just as UL's most modern architectural feature was reaching completion in 1937, the lure of the old universities became too strong, for Beveridge promptly left to become Master of University College, Oxford.

 

Tragically, Edwin Deller's life was ended by the project to build Senate House after he was struck by a builder's truck while showing visitors around the site in 1936.

The William Beveridge Hall, inside Senate House

Originally, Holden planned to develop UL's Bloomsbury campus on a much larger scale than was eventually completed.

Charles Holden's preliminary design for the Bloomsbury campus

Senate House was to have been only one section of a vast structure 1,200 ft (370 m) long, from Montague Place to Torrington Street, with 17 courtyards and two towers. The spinal structure of the design was likened by George V to a battleship.


However, budgetary constraints forced a reduced scale and Senate House is more or less the only survivor from the original concept.

Senate House: model of the design as built

Although Holden created a modern building, the brief required it to harmonise with the nearby buildings, which include the neoclassical British Museum.

Bloomsbury from the Post Building. Senate House (centre) rises above the British Museum's green roof and St George's church tower

He did this by covering Senate House's brick core with a cladding of Portland stone and through the "classical bias" achieved by the "very orderly disposition of the parts and the strong horizontal character of the whole".


Holden felt that, "together with the rhythmical disposition of the window and door openings and other essential features", the design "may be relied upon to present a neighbourly front" to the British Museum and surrounding buildings.

Senate House as seen from the British Museum. Source: Google Maps
The British Museum as seen from Senate House

Nevertheless, Holden acknowledged that his architecture meant he was "not quite in the fashion and not quite out of it; not enough of a traditionalist to please the traditionalists and not enough of a modernist to please the modernists."

Senate House matches its architectural model well

Senate House divided opinion among critics.


Danish architect and writer Steen Eiler Rasmussen remarked on how it had swallowed more and more of the old houses in Bloomsbury, while novelist Evelyn Waugh referred to its "vast bulk... insulting the autumnal sky".

 

Another novelist, George Orwell, based his description of the fictional Ministry of Truth on Senate House in his dystopian, anti-totalitarian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1948. The Ministry is described as "an enormous pyramidical structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air".

It's not a pyramid, but you can see what Orwell was thinking

In addition to its appearance, Orwell's inspiration came from Senate House's use in World War II to house the real life Ministry of Information, which was responsible for wartime propaganda (coming up with the famous 'Keep Calm and Carry On' slogan, amongst other things). His wife Eileen worked there for the Minister of Information, Bernard Bracken, whose initials may have also inspired the character Big Brother, abbreviated to BB (see also my post on Bracken House).

 

Due to its size and tiered tower, Senate House certainly lends itself to being described as Stalinist or totalitarian (type 'Stalinist architecture' or 'Seven Sisters Moscow' into Google and you will see what I mean). Its robustness also allowed it to survive a number of bomb impacts during World War II.

 

Architectural critic and historian Nikolaus Pevsner called it "strangely traditional, undecided modernism" and compared it unfavourably to Holden's smaller tube stations.

 

More approving comments came from architect Eric Mendelsohn, who said that there was "no finer building in London", and architectural historian Arnold Whittick, who said it was "obviously designed to last for a thousand years".


Whittick praised its "atmosphere of dignity, serenity and repose", although he felt that the inside was "more pleasing than the exterior".

 

Judging from the areas I saw when visiting a first floor exhibition on Holden's designs for the building and a display of Shakespeare-related publications in the library, the interior certainly has more adornment in the design features.

The main foyer

My own view is that its exterior is imposing, yet sleek in its simplicity, while inside it brims with stylish Art Deco detail. Either way, Senate House is one of London's most memorable landmarks.

 

Walks available for booking

For a schedule of forthcoming London On The Ground guided walks, please click here.


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3 comentários


Convidado:
16 de mar.

Thanks. I think I’ll go Maupassant on the Eiffel Tower on this. He used to eat there - so he couldn’t see it.

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London On The Ground
London On The Ground
17 de mar.
Respondendo a

That's also a popular view on the Walkie Talkie in the City of London!

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annemarie.fearnley
16 de mar.

Fantastic! So he designed a lot more than his iconic tube stations. Wonderful to see your photos of the inside of this imposing building.

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