Philips Building, School of Oriental and African Studies


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
Philips Building, School of Oriental and African Studies, THORNHAUGH STREET, CAMDEN, LONDON


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Statutory Address:
Philips Building, School of Oriental and African Studies, THORNHAUGH STREET, CAMDEN, LONDON

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Greater London Authority
Camden (London Borough)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


University Library for the School of Oriental and African Studies. It was commissioned in 1960, full planning approval was granted in 1968, the contract began in 1970 and the building was completed in May 1973. Denys Lasdun for London University.

Reasons for Designation

The Philips Building at SOAS, Thornhaugh Street, a university library completed in 1973 to designs by Denys Lasdun, is designated at Grade II* for the following principal reasons: * Architectural interest: while relatively little-known, this pavilion library is one of the most powerful library designs of the post-war period, also of interest for being a work of this major post-war architect * Interior quality: the main library space is remarkable. Through a complex structure of terraces, a skilful employment of natural light via a concrete diagrid ceiling and good-quality finishes throughout, Lasdun created a dramatic and memorable learning environment * Planning: a manifestation of the continuous teaching building which Lasdun successfully explored; it pre-dates his designated University of East Anglia; and also managed to make an architectural set piece out of what was a truncated scheme * Group value: the library groups well with the Grade II Holden building it was built to serve, the Grade II late-C18 terraces of Woburn square (glimpses of which are caught from the impressive windows of the library); and Lasdun's own Grade II* Institute of Education, the striking massing and materials of which it emulates


The Philips Building at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) has its origins in the London University spinal development plan of 1959, devised by the renowned LCC architects Sir Leslie Martin and Trevor Dannatt. It was Martin who recommended Denys Lasdun (1914-2002) as the architect for the new buildings at SOAS which were to form part of the development of the central area of the University's Bloomsbury site. The University had moved its principal headquarters (at Charles Holden's iconic Senate House, now designated Grade II*) and some of the smaller institutes, such as SOAS, to Bloomsbury in the 1930s although the war prevented implementation of the ambitious (and forbidding) masterplan that would have marched a linear spine of buildings north through Bloomsbury. SOAS was established in Finsbury Circus in order to train people working in Asia and Africa, and it received its London University Charter in 1913. Its original building was housed in the building of 1940, purpose-built also by Holden to hold what was by then a well-established school. This building was designated at Grade II just 29 years after it was built.

Lasdun accepted the commission for the SOAS library in 1960 and full planning approval was granted in 1968. The chosen site, to the north of the Holden building, infringed on the small but well-formed Woburn Square. This prompted a conservation fight of the type emerging in London at this time. It was long enough after the war for Londoners to have views on what should be preserved in the face of new building, and students, faculty and local residents protested the demolition of the increasingly-appreciated Georgian town houses. A London University Special Committee narrowly rejected the calls to preserve the square and demolition began in July 1969. The building contract officially began in January 1970 and was completed in May 1973.

Lasdun's design changed the concept that Martin and Dannatt had promoted in their master plan for the site. This resulted from his brief to create more pedestrian areas, as well as being a response to the truncated nature of the scheme when financial and conservation issues emerged. He implemented the envisioned dominant 'spine' in his impressive Institute of Education (to the east along Bedford Way, and designated Grade II*) and instead turned the library into a distinct 'pavilion' that formed part of a new pedestrianised square. The library was designed at about the same time as the library in his major scheme for the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Denys Lasdun is one of the most distinctive and creative of post-war architects. He is one of the few to have begun practicing before WWII, when he worked for Wells Coates, and after a distinguished military service he joined Lubetkin and Tecton, and Fry and Drew, before establishing his own practice in 1960 when his own style emerged. This was a synthesis of 1930's modernism with a strong horizontality derived from Frank Lloyd Wright (whose planning he came to admire in the 1950s) and an interest in expressing services that makes for comparison with another American architect, Louis Kahn. Perhaps of all British architects, Lasdun's work best demonstrates the cool, four-square and intellectually rigorous qualities of Kahn's work. Most of Lasdun's surviving buildings in England are now designated, many at high grades, such as the Royal College of Physicians at Grade I, and the nearby London University Institute of Education, the UEA Ziggurats, Keeling House and the National Theatre at Grade II*.


MATERIALS: A reinforced concrete frame of in situ concrete and interlocking structural pre-cast concrete panels with a white cement and Ballidon limestone aggregate mix, with a grit-basted finish. The windows are mostly horizontal sliding sashes with aluminium and bronze anodised finish, set back from the precast panels.

EXTERIOR: The Philips Building closes the southern end of Woburn Square, and the leafy trees and late-Georgian terraces were intended to be glimpsed from the building. It is essentially a library, built to house its collection of then half a million books (now grown to over a million), also with teaching rooms and offices. The eight-storey building does not have its own external ceremonial entrance, which was always through the listed Holden block. The roofs are flat, with a series of diagonally-arranged north-facing roof lights, hidden from the outside. The central library dominates and projects on three floors with a set-back range of academic offices and classrooms (totalling 220 separate rooms) above. Each of the facades of this square, pavilion-plan building has nine bays and there are set-back corners on the four lower storeys. The ground floor formerly had projecting balconies, or terraces, but these were glazed in on the north and east elevations around 2007 (also by John McAslan and Partners, and apparently with the blessing of Lasdun, before he died). A service moat around the building provides light to the basement levels and a delivery entrance on the west side.

INTERIOR: The set piece is the central, top-lit library. This features three levels of concrete-fronted balconies and natural light comes in through a diagonally-set grid of slender concrete ceiling beams. On the lower floors, rooms lead off to provide study and tutorial space within the library, and computer areas to which the centre of the lower level is now dedicated. Reading areas extend into the former terraces, which are now part of the library's interior, and include a mezzanine level divided by concrete fins. There are other concrete partitions within the stacks that frame openings while supporting the floors. Two original concrete book counters survive: the book issue counter on the lower level of the library, and the book return counter, now isolated in a room on the ground floor. The original model for the building is housed in a case in the basement. The main, full-height library stair has a concrete parapet with metal tubular hand rail (currently painted red, but original colour to be confirmed). The concrete here, and in the main stair outside the library, which is nestled into a concrete service core, has a fair-faced horizontal close boarded finish. A further stair from the ground floor down was added near the lifts by John McAslan and Partners around 2000. The upper corridors, which wrap around the central library, largely retain the simple grooved timber doors and architraves and some original cork floors. The original arrangement with a window at the end of each corridor largely remains, although some temporary rooms have been added to these spaces, blocking off the light and the view. The toilets were refurbished in 2009. There is a lecture hall with slatted wooden wall covering on the lower ground floor.

SOURCES: The Architects' Journal, (14 June 1967) 'New Buildings for London University, Bloomsbury', The Architectural Review, (March 1980) Cherry, B, Pevsner, N, Buildings of England, London 4, North (1999), 274-8.




This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

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