Built between 1932 and 1937 Senate House dominates the streets of western Bloomsbury. In contract to Charles Holden’s London Underground stations of the same period it is classical in tone and massive in scale, and 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), however it was soon commandeered as the Ministry of Information at the outbreak of war. As a Government Ministry its imposing scale and army of harried civil servants inspired the fictional Ministry of Truth (George Orwell) and Ministry of Fear (Graham Greene).

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 architecture he was against any attempt to replicate the mediaeval colleges of Oxbridge, as had been done at Yale for example, instead wanting 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 as 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