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Which Building Was Rumoured to Have Survived the Blitz Because Hitler Coveted it for the Nazis' HQ?

Senate House
Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU Listed: 1969
Grade: II*
NHLE entry: Listing details for the Senate House

A view of Senate House from Keppel Street
A view of Senate House from Keppel Street. © Amy Smith 2014.

Senate House, the University of London's library and administrative centre, has generated much public debate since its completion in 1937. Its controversial position in popular culture has largely been shaped by its wartime function as the headquarters of the Ministry of Information. In Evelyn Waugh's Put Out More Flags, Senate House is described as a 'gross mass of masonry' protecting 'all the secrets of all the services'. In Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, it appears as the 'enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete' that houses the Ministry of Truth.

The notoriety of Senate House culminated in the rumour that it survived the severe bomb damage to Bloomsbury during the Second World War because Hitler had earmarked it for the Nazi party's headquarters, following a successful invasion of Britain. Yet, as Senate House was hit at least five times during the Blitz, its remarkable survival tells more of its solid construction than a secret Nazi strategy.

Functional yet beautiful

After the First World War the administrators of the University of London, which was expanding greatly, realised that they needed a new centre of operations. The election of William Beveridge - a progressive social reformer - to the post of vice-chancellor was key, as in 1927 he persuaded the Rockefeller Foundation to donate the £400,000 that facilitated the move to the Bloomsbury site. The architect chosen to create the distinctive building, Charles Holden, produced a practical response to the university's challenging brief. This demanded a dignified design that would express its status as a global centre of learning - a building that was permanent yet rooted to its time and locality, functional yet beautiful, imposing yet neighbourly.

The first-floor windows of Senate House, showing decorative panelling that reflects the plan of the site.
The first-floor windows of Senate House, showing decorative panelling that reflects the plan of the site. © Amy Smith 2014.

Permanence, quality and practicality

The plan and construction of Senate House was, as Holden remarked, 'based upon centuries of experience'. The design for a central tower flanked by courtyard ranges was inspired by the form of a pyramid: the 18-storey tower, supported by broad buttresses, gradually contracts as it reaches its peak. The load-bearing construction - brick faced with Portland stone and Cornish granite - is solid and stable, while allowing for flexibility in the arrangement of internal partitions. There are numerous reminders of Holden's meticulous attention to function, detail and quality. For instance, the stone above first-floor level features grooves to ensure that it self-cleans and weathers evenly. The design of the tower - 64 metres (215 feet) tall - was determined by its function as a store for over 500,000 books. The decorative panels on the first-floor windows evoke the building's plan, and most of the internal walls are elegantly lined in travertine, a type of limestone.

Seeing the shapes and not the arguments

On its completion in 1937 Senate House was London's tallest secular building, its height only exceeded by that of St Paul's Cathedral. Holden joked that Senate House was his 'life sentence', but it is clear that he had responded creatively to the challenge of designing a building that celebrated the University of London's status while fulfilling its practical requirements. In 1934, Frank Pick (with whom Holden worked at 55 Broadway) warned that "the man in the street sees the shapes and not the arguments"; perhaps Senate House has often been criticised because its appeal is more subtle and specific than initially meets the eye.

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