Senate House, which houses the University of London library and administration offices, is an intriguing-looking, 19-storey art-deco colossus in the middle of Bloomsbury, between the British Museum and Russell Square. When it was unveiled in 1937, it was one of London’s earliest skyscrapers. At 210 feet (64m) high, when it was completed, it was the second tallest building in London (after St Paul’s Cathedral).
Until then, the tallest office building in London had been 55 Broadway, unveiled in 1929, by the same architect, Holden. Designed at the behest of the London Electronic Railways, a precursor to the London Underground, the Headquarters building on 55 Broadway impressed the University Planning Commission. For the London University, a new institution compared to Oxford and Cambridge, an entirely modern design was desired, rather than anything that would appear to imitate the appearance of the older colleges.
55 Broadway made the case beautifully, so much a work of architectural modernism that it roused the ire of many critics and patrons.
Holden was a supporter and enabler of avant-garde and controversial sculptors of his day, for example Jacob Epstein. At 55 Broadway, he incorporated reliefs by eight avant-garde sculptors of the day, as well as a matched pair of sculptures, Day and Night, by Jacob Epstein.
Predictably, a public outrage followed the unveiling of these naked, modernist beauties. But modernity was just what the University of London committee wanted. In 1921, with a donation from the Rockefeller Foundation, the government bought a plot of land in Bloomsbury from Herbrand Russell, 11th Duke of Bedford. On 26 June 1933, King George V laid the foundation stone for Senate House. Construction works stalled various times after funding cuts in the mid- to late 1930s, and at the outbreak of World War II, the building temporarily became home to the Ministry of Information.
The creation and existence of an Information Ministry and its history have been steeped in controversy ever since, not least because the only historical counterpart from which it might have been inspired, was Goebbels‘ Ministry of Propaganda. As a place of history, this ministry is curiously located somewhere between history and fiction. One of the reasons it is at all still remembered might be that George Orwell’s wife worked in it, in the Censorship Department, from 1939 to ’42. When George Orwell wrote about a “Ministry of Truth” in his novel 1984, it was all too apposite to think that this fictional state department was inspired from the Ministry of Information in Senate House.
Four buildings towered vast and white above the grimy landscape. They were startingly different from any other objects in sight. They were enormous pyramidical structures of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air. So completely did they dwarf the surrounding architecture that from the roof of Victory Mansions you could see all four of them simultaneously… The Ministry of Truth, Winston’s place of work, contained, it was said, three thousand rooms above ground level, and corresponding ramifications below.
Not as adventurously ornamented and avowedly modernist as 55 Broadway, the Senate House building style was described by its critics as totalitarian or even stalinist. With a sculptureless, semi-neoclassical and imposing modernist feel, it emanates an air of authoritarianism which has drawn many Hollywood and British Film producers to the site. In Batman Begins, the Gotham Court of Justice lobby is filmed on the Senate House premises, for grimly imposing effect. Others in turn believe that Senate House owes its design to the American skyscraper. Clearly the producers of James Bond : The World is Not Enough thought so.
As a library user, I regularly get the chance to enjoy the precious and elegant interior designs, which are far more refined and add, as I think, a whole second layer of thought into the design of this one-time giant, which has meanwhile been dwarfed by the City of London’s all-new fashion for 100-storey skyscrapers.