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Senate House architecture and design

Following his appointment as architect, Holden considered two major starting points – the requirements of the staff and the site itself.

While the buildings had been cleared from the site, Holden’s brief required Senate House to harmonize with the surrounding buildings including the British Museum. Holden noted the proximity of the British Museum, University College, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and recognised that ‘there was every promise of the neighbourhood becoming a real centre of learning – a University City – and the importance of the new university group in this setting acquired a new significance.’

With a view of their North Entrance, the South windows of Senate House look on the Greek Ionic engaged columns inspired by the Classicism of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. To the west of Senate House, the London school of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine realised a modern classicism through their use of high quality materials.

Holden’s initial designs included an open court facing the British Museum to the South, with a tower parallel to Montague Place. While this plan was approved in February 1932, the Court’s Bloomsbury Development Committee asked Holden to present a reasoned memorandum to address a number of issues. They recognised that after all the effort that had gone into developing the brief there were significant ‘points in which the design differs from the General Instructions’ which needed explanation, such as why the main entrances were placed on the Keppel Street axis instead of at the south end of the site facing the British Museum.

Building Senate House

The video shows the original location of University of London in Somerset House and then the building of Senate House in Bloomsbury.

Holden’s brief required Senate House to harmonize with the surrounding buildings including the British Museum

At this stage Portland Stone was also selected as the external material for the building, given it was:

a stone identified with London for centuries and known to withstand the smoke and acid-laden atmosphere. The peculiar silvery beauty of its weathered surface may be said to be essential to the full realisation of the design.

The original plan consisted of a single structure stretching from Montague Place to Torrington Street with a central corridor linked by a series of wings and courtyards – one for each member institution. The scheme was to be topped by two towers; the taller Senate House and a smaller one to the north. Approval of the first stages were agreed by the Court, and the ground-work contractor took possession of the site on 5 April 1933 to begin work on the foundations of Senate House.

However, due to a lack of funds and the onset of WWII, the full design was gradually cut back, and only the Senate House and Library were completed in 1937.

Charles Holden's first sketch for Senate House

Charles Holden's 1st sketch of Senate House
The first sketch of Senate House, RIBA Journal - 9 May 1938
The design for the buildings is mainly of our own time arising out of the natural expression of the plan. The very orderly disposition of the parts and the strong horizontal character of the whole would give to the mass a classical bias which together with the rhythmical disposition of the window and door openings and other essential features may be relied upon to present a neighbourly front to the British Museum and to the surrounding buildings and without the necessity of introducing a columnar treatment.
Charles Holden