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Charles Holden – Senate House Architect

Charles Holden was responsible for the design of University of London’s administrative offices, library, a Great Hall, the Student’s Union and five institutes to be rehoused on the Malet Street site.

In 1927 the University of London Senate proposed selecting an architect for the building through a formal Royal Institute of British Architect’s competition. To replicate the process used by the London County Council’s architectural appointment for County Hall.

Vice-Chancellor Lord Beveridge wanted ‘not for a design, but for a man to work with them for years’ (Beveridge, Power and Influence, 206), resulting in a slightly less formal selection process. Beveridge described how he and University of London Principal Sir Edwin Deller ‘went up and down the length and breadth of England and Wales, seeing town halls and academic buildings. We enjoyed ourselves hugely.’ A short-list of four candidates was drawn up, and each were invited to their own dinner party at the Athenaeum, presided over by Court Chairman Lord Macmillan.

Charles Holden

Charles Holden was one of four shortlisted architects

Four shortlisted architects were:

  • Charles Holden, designer of 55 Broadway.
  • Arnold Dunbar Smith, designer Fitzwilliam Museum.
  • Percy Worthington, designer of the Liverpool’s Unitarian Chapel.
  • Giles Gilbert Scott, designer of the iconic red telephone box who worked on Liverpool Cathedral, Waterloo Bridge and Battersea Power Station.

Each were invited to their own dinner party at the Athenaeum Hotel, presided over by Court Chairman Lord Macmillan.

Holden earned his place on the shortlist after he gave Deller a tour of his design, 55 Broadway, allowing him to highlight the features that earned him the RIBA London Architecture Medal for it. Upon completion 55 Broadway was the tallest office block in the City, boasting a façade of Portland Stone with art-deco features.

Holden's distinctive art-deco style

Interior corridor with Art Deco features
Holden's distinctive art-deco style gives Senate House its unique character and design.

Holden designed many of the London Underground stations during the 1920s and 1930s

His first major commission was Morden Station which features white Portland Stone as with many of his designs. His early designs were influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, but after the First World War became simplified and modernist.

Having already designed the façade to the Grade II listed Belgrave Hospital for Children in Kennington, Holden won the architectural competition to design the Bristol Central Library in 1902, which is Grade I listed. In 1906 he won the competition to design Zimbabwe House, the Grade II* listed building that was the Headquarters for the British Medical Association.

In 1920, Holden was promoted to be the fourth principal architect at the Imperial War Graves Commission (now known as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission),where his work included memorials to the New Zealand missing dead at Messines Ridge British Cemetery, and the Buttes New British Cemetery at Zonnebeke. In 1922 Holden designed the War Memorial Gateway for Clifton College in Bristol. It was shortly after this that Holden began to work with London Transport.

Lord Beveridge presented his views on each architect to the selection group, and made his preference for Holden clear. He described the designs as:

admirable both outside and inside… My general impression is that on line and proportion he is an absolutely safe and inspiring guide. (UofL archives: ULL CF 1/31/168-2703 file 583.1)

The Court unanimously decided to appoint Charles Holden the architect of Senate House, or, as Holden described it:

In the year 1931 the University Court and Senate made their important decision committing me to a life sentence with hard labour.

(RIBA Journal, 9 May 1938).