The Senate House, University of London

The building that inspired Orwell

Was there an appetite at the time for monumental buildings, equivalent to those in Moscow?

On Architecture

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

For most of my life, I have regarded the University of London’s Senate House as a strange and monstrous construction looming in a sinister way off the north side of Russell Square. But a small public exhibition on its first-floor landing organised by Bill Sherman, the enterprising director of the Warburg Institute, and Richard Temple, London University’s archivist, has encouraged me to think differently.

The secondary literature on the growth of London has traditionally emphasised the way in which it is the product of organic growth. In this narrative, Sir Christopher Wren’s plan to reconstruct London after the Great Fire on a grand new classical plan was thwarted by brave householders who wanted as far as possible to maintain the recollection of the City’s more random mediaeval streets.

John Nash’s plans to give London a more classical form with his great blocks of terraces flanking the new Regent’s Park, and his sequence of new classical spaces leading towards what was originally planned to be a heroic set of new public buildings in Trafalgar Square, may have been the product of a masterplan, but it was designed on picturesque principles. Even Carlton House Terrace feels more like a backdrop to St. James’ Park than a piece of monumental town planning.

What this narrative overlooks is the extent to which London was subject to a whole series of neoclassical plans for its development from the 1870s onwards.

Holden’s original design for the University of London, including the Senate House at its southern end

One of these was a plan, which has only resurfaced recently, for the total redevelopment of Bloomsbury drawn up in 1912 by C. Harrold Norton for Charles Fitzroy Doll, the surveyor of the Bedford estates.

It was, not surprisingly, vigorously and conventionally neoclassical, a grand beaux-arts design which matched the architectural language of the long Ionic façade of the King Edward VII Galleries of the British Museum, designed by John Burnet and opened in May 1914 on the eve of the First World War.

In 1919, William Beveridge, a reforming senior civil servant who had worked for the Ministry of Munitions and then the Board of Trade, was recruited by Sidney Webb, his mentor, as director of the London School of Economics.

When, in 1926, he became vice-chancellor of the University of London, he had a vision for the university which led him to persuade the Rockefeller Foundation to donate the funds to buy the land north of the British Museum on which to establish a centralised campus, including a library, the university’s research institutes including the Institute of Historical Research, and offices for its administration.

Disdaining the normal system of recruitment of an architect by public competition, he and the university’s administrative director, Sir Edwin Deller, toured the country examining suitable precedents and then interviewed four architectural practices over dinner at the Athenaeum.

They selected the intellectually austere Charles Holden, an active Quaker, much influenced in his youth by the writings of Walt Whitman. He had originally trained as an arts-and-crafts architect in the office of C.R. Ashbee, then part of the successful architectural practice Adams and Holden before the First World War, designing libraries and hospitals. Since the war he had been one of the architects for the Imperial War Graves Commission designing cemeteries on the battlefields of northern France, as well as underground stations for Frank Pick on the Northern and Piccadilly lines.

Holden won the competition partly because Beveridge and Deller had been on a private visit to 55, Broadway, the headquarters Holden had designed for the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (forerunner of London Transport), and partly because Holden, alone amongst the candidates and contrary to the Athenaeum’s rules, brought drawings to his interview.

Holden’s initial scheme was for a huge set of axial buildings and courtyards stretching all the way from the British Museum to Torrington Place, dominated by two towers, the largest of which was the University’s library and Senate House at its southern end.

This was the part of the scheme that was built. At the time, it was the highest new building in London, on a scale which is in many ways more reminiscent of American university buildings than British, although an obvious equivalent is Giles Gilbert Scott’s Cambridge University Library which opened more or less at the same time.

University of London

Lord Macmillan, the chairman of the university’s court, described how unusual it was that the building when it opened in 1937 had attracted no controversy, in spite of the fact that it was on such a vast scale.

Was it that everyone accepted a building on such a scale as the headquarters of an institution of higher learning? Or was there an appetite at the time for monumental buildings, equivalent to those in Moscow?

It was only during the Second World War, when it was used by the government as the headquarters of the Ministry of Information, that it began to attract negative comment, immortalised by George Orwell in 1984 as the Ministry of Truth (Room 101 is adjacent to the exhibition) and described by Graham Greene as a “high heartless building … where the windows were always open for fear of blast and the cold winds whistled in”.

Maybe tastes are now changing again. We might learn to admire the scale of ambition of the Senate House, the quality of its monumental internal spaces, and Holden’s ability to give architectural form to a public belief in learning.

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