If you’re looking for a powerful and imposing building in London, a building that looks like it belongs to a force far greater than our own, then look no further than Senate House, situated in Bloomsbury just north of the British Museum.
This extraordinary art deco masterpiece takes your breath away. Whereas some buildings in London have the ‘ahhh’ factor, Senate House most definitely has the ‘whoa’ factor and makes you wonder ‘what the hell goes on in there?’
But kind of disappointingly, nothing sinister actually goes on in there. It is in fact, the administrative centre of the University of London. But that was not always the case.
Built in 1937 as part of the expansion of the University of London by the great Art Deco Architect Charles Holden, the challenge was to build a University building in London to rival the great Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
They didn’t want it to look like any other university, they didn’t want a replica from the Middle Ages and it shouldn’t be something that could have been built by any earlier generation. The brief demanded a great architectural feature in an academic island in swirling tides of traffic and could only be at home in London. Well, they clearly succeeded on every level. (excuse the pun)
But the building has been used for some more unusual activity. During WW2 it was taken over by the then newly formed Ministry of Information, whose job it was for to carry out a propaganda campaign against the enemy, producing literature and leaflets including the ‘Keep Calm and Carry on’ poster.
Some of its actions however were more controversial, in that is it dealt with the both the issue and censorship of news, giving it unparalleled powers. Some in the country, especially the mainstream press of course, felt uneasy about the power wielded by the Ministry of Information, the Daily Mirror even going as far as accusing The Ministry of acting in a ‘true Gestapo manner’.
Maybe it was something about austere building that made the Ministry act in such an authoritarian way. Senate House had, rather creepily, caught the eye of the Nazi planners in Germany. They had earmarked it to be used as Gestapo Headquarters when they had overrun London. Like I said, creepy.
Senate House’s imposing structure has inspired eminent writers over the years such as Graham Greene in his novel ‘The Ministry of Fear’ and George Orwell in his masterpiece ‘1984’ where it was undoubtedly the inspiration for the ‘The Ministry of Truth.’
Senate House nowadays plays a much less controversial role, being used as a conference and events venue, hosting amongst others, the not so sinister London Fashion Week.
Though I’ve got to say, every time I gaze up at the building, I can’t help but let my imagination wander a little and wonder if there might be something a little fishy going on up there?