Built between 1932 and 1937, and designed by Charles Holden, Senate House dominates the streets of Bloomsbury with its vast bulk. In contract to Holden’s light and playful underground stations of the 1930’s it is classical in tone and massive in scope; more akin to his earlier work for the London Electric Railway at 55 Broadway (1929).

Senate House Gate detail

Senate House was designed to house the rapidly expanding administrative functions of the University of London (whose offices and library still occupy the building today); however it was soon commandeered as the Ministry of Information at the outbreak of WWII. As a Government Ministry its imposing scale and army of harried civil servants inspired both the ‘Ministry of Truth’ (George Orwell) and the ‘Ministry of Fear’ (Graham Greene); neither the most flattering of honours.

An Ivory Tower for the Modern World?

In 1927 the then Vice-Chancellor of the University, William Beveridge, obtained ¬£400,000 funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. Beveridge’s vision was to build a university “for the nation and the world, drawing from overseas as many students as Oxford and Cambridge and all the other English universities together.” In regard to the architecture he was against any attempt to replicate the mediaeval colleges of Oxbridge, as had been done at Yale for example, and wanted something modern and international in tone, “an academic island in swirling tides of traffic, a world of learning in a world of affairs.”

Holden’s first sketch of Senate House

Large though Senate House is it was originally intended to swallow up even more of Bloomsbury, and run as far as Torrington Place to the north, as can be seen in the contemporary model on display inside.

Senate House model showing full original proposal